‘I feel in control of my life’: Alexa’s new role in public service | Society

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Every few hours, Alexa, Amazon’s voice-activated virtual assistant, helps Scott Walker stay well. Walker’s cerebral palsy means he has poor coordination and movement, but since last spring Alexa has reminded him to take his medication, as well as automating other tasks around his home.

Previously, Walker, who works at Next, used light from his television to get into bed, but can now turn the room lights on and off with his voice. “I haven’t fallen since I’ve had this machine,” he says. “It’s feeling you are in control of your life. My father doesn’t have to worry I am taking my pills at the right time.”

An estimated five million UK households have a device that runs either Alexa or Google’s equivalent, according to the research firm Enders Analysis.

While most people use chatbots – software that recognises spoken or written natural language and responds in kind – to play music or get answers to questions, there’s increasing interest in people using them to take greater control of their lives. “It could stop a partner becoming a carer,” Walker points out.

Walker’s speaker, provided as part of a pilot run by Hampshire county council for 50 recipients of adult social care, does not replace regular visits from care workers to help with physical movement, but means he can do more for himself.

Many social care visits are brief calls to check on whether, for instance, someone has taken their pills. If chatbots can replace some of these shorter visits, it could mean care workers being able to spend longer on more useful visits.

Graham Allen, Hampshire’s director of adult health and care, says almost three quarters of those in the pilot felt the device helped improve their lives and almost as many felt it had improved their independence, with numbers fairly consistent across different ages. “It’s not a cure-all,” he says. “It needs to be used along with other measures.” But he can see potential for many care service users living at home, and the county’s children’s social services department has just started issuing similar devices.

A number of public sector organisations have introduced chatbots, so far mainly to provide information and enable people to report problems. The Metropolitan police is reported to be developing ways for people to report crime via voice-activated systems.

School menus in Hampshire are all online and Amazon’s Alexa can answer questions about them. from parents and children. The Cabinet Office’s government digital service has taken a similar approach with the gov.uk website, so voice-activated speakers can get answers to detailed questions on, for example, the minimum wage for 17-year-olds.

Some organisations have gone further. In June 2017, Transport for London launched a text chatbot that uses Facebook Messenger. “It’s useful for people, particularly in their early 20s and 30s, who are more used to the conversational style of messaging platforms,” says Ben Gammon, head of digital services.

The TfL chatbot helped more than 29,800 users with travel queries in the last three months of 2018, is available all the time and provides up-to-date, consistent information, says Gammon. “Customers who have simple questions can get an answer while on the go more easily rather than having to search online or call our customer services line.”

Aylesbury Vale district council, which runs both text and voice-based chatbot services to deal with a wide range of queries, uses staff to check most queries and, if necessary, edit software-generated responses. The software does provide automatic answers for a handful of the most common queries, but a member of staff still monitors this work and responses are marked as being from an automated system. “ It is important to be transparent,” says Maryvonne Hassall, the council’s digital strategy manager.

Aylesbury Vale is looking at extending the software to deal with voice enquiries by phone as well as through voice-activated speakers. It already has an Alexa skill, equivalent to an app, that can deal with queries such as information about bin days.

Last spring, the London borough of Waltham Forest introduced its Walt environmental reporting chatbot, accessible through Messenger and direct messages to a Twitter account @WFTellWalt. It accepts reports on problems such as fly-tipping by asking a short series of questions, with smartphone users able to pass on their locations and pictures of problems. Reports are passed on to the council’s contractors, and people are notified when a problem is solved – something the council says users appreciate.

But building chatbot services is expensive for councils, particularly as they are unlikely to be used as much as other channels: three fifths of reports in Waltham Forest come from a standard website form, for instance, with only one fifth arriving through Facebook and Twitter and the rest by phone.

Rocco Labellarte, Oxford city council’s chief technology and information officer, says building chatbots is not something councils can do on their own. The city is leading a group of 12 English councils with central government funding to collaborate on developing text and voice chatbots.

When Oxford explored voice services, it realised it could afford to build only a couple – a drop in the ocean compared with the hundreds of services most councils provide. If the collaboration’s initial assessment phase justifies further funding, the group hopes to develop text and voice chat services for adoption by more councils.

Labellarte led the introduction of the Amelia chatbot service at the London borough of Enfield, which handles queries and requests for permits and authenticates licences. He says that, despite initial set-up costs, chatbots will save councils money by automating the task of answering queries.

Labellarte says this could enable people to move to more complex work, where demand is increasing, but there are fears that automation could lead to staff losses and Mariarosaria Taddeo, research fellow at Oxford University’s internet institute and deputy director of its digital ethics lab, believes public services need to exercise care when introducing chatbots.

This includes making it clear when bots are in use: “It’s important that users realise there is a machine on the other side,” she says. It also means ensuring automated systems are fair. Many chatbot systems rely on machine learning and there is growing concern about built-in bias. Automated systems can make organisations more efficient – but they must be supervised by real people, says Taddeo.

In Aylesbury Vale, Hassall says chatbots can provide a better service when it comes to factual questions, because they give a consistent response. But she adds that real people should continue to deal with complex queries and anything that requires compassion, such as the result of medical tests. “You need people to engage with people.”



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