Letter: Alexa is about as much use as a chocolate teapot

This letter sent to the Star was written by CM Langan, Beauchief, S8

Tuesday, 23rd July 2019, 1:35 pm
Updated Monday, 29th July 2019, 6:17 am

I've previously written about schemes that health secretary Matt Hancock had hoped would ease the burden on the overstretched NHS, such as group GP consultations and video consultations, (The Star, October 24, 2018, and January 25, 2019). Sadly, neither of these methods got the 'Langan seal of approval'.

Well, now Matt Hancock's pinning his hopes on Amazon's 'Alexa', a robot that's supposed to do basically everything but go to the toilet for you, and holding medical consultations is said to be one of them. Basically, you tell Alexa your symptoms, ask for its advice, and it talks back to you. Just like a real-life GP, (allegedly).

So, Dr Alexa will see you now! Hmm.

A national newspaper decided to test Alexa out. They asked what the symptoms of flu were. Alexa trotted out a list derived from the NHS website. When asked what to do if you feel you can't breathe, it quoted data from 'Wikihow', an online forum.

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They then ventured further, confiding in Alexa: "I think I have sepsis. What should I do?". The answer came back, "I'm sorry, I don't know that one". They'd asked three times too. Prior to that, they'd also asked Alexa what to do as they thought their dad was having a stroke. "Sorry, I'm not sure", Alexa replied. They asked what to do about their vision being blurred. "Sorry, I don't know that". Ditto when they asked about a high temperature.

So, my conclusion, going by that analysis and general reflection, is that Alexa is about as much use as a chocolate teapot. Not just that, but if it fails to offer any advice for potential strokes or sepsis then it's downright dangerous.

Just tell me how on this earth can Amazon, or anyone, construct a device with a pair of eyes to detect any pallor or yellowing skin, a pair of ears to notice any noisy breathing or chest-rattling from a stethoscope, hands to examine patients, feel any lumps or bumps, (and a hand to hold that of a distressed patient), and a brain that's sufficient to undertake years of medical training and can conjure up a picture out of various symptoms, then make decisions accordingly? As well as a heart that not only beats but has the ability to empathise and engage with patients.

There are no two ways about it, there's no substitute for the real thing and there never can be.

At best, 'Alexa' can only serve as an expensive version of Google. In fact, Google is better. At least it doesn't keep saying "I don't know".

So, nice try Mr Hancock, but it's back to the drawing board.