Alexa’s Emerging Role in Emergency Situations

Smart speakers should excel in emergency situations. Hands aren’t free, can’t find your phone, or don’t have time to find your phone? No problem, you just need your voice. When time is against you and you have to act quick, an emergency responder could be just a shout away in any room of the house, in your Internet-connected car, or on your smartphone.

This is the predicament that Gael Salcedo found himself in after his car hit an ice patch and slid into a freezing river. His phone was nowhere to be found, his car was beginning to sink into the water, and he needed to think quickly.

That’s when he opened his mouth and said, “Hey Siri, call 911.” Although he couldn’t see his phone, it was near enough in the car that Siri could hear his request and connect him with an emergency responder. They sent help and his life was saved by Siri.

Fires, personal health concerns, natural disasters, domestic disputes, car crashes, getting trapped under a boulder… We all pray that we avoid these dire situations in our lives, but they’re bound to happen to us all at some point. And when they do happen, the nearer we are to help the higher the likelihood we make it out safely.

Could voice assistants provide that connection to immediate help we need?

Siri Saved My Life

Voice Assistants are merging into products all around us, which means that help could be around us at all times.

Amazon revealed today that Alexa is now supported by 100,000 smart home products offered by 9,500 different brands.

Bret Kinsella,

In just another 5 years, we’ll be surrounded by devices that are powered by a voice assistant. Whether or not we allow emergency responder services into them, though, is the question.

Can you call 911 from Voice Assistants right now?

It’s a complicated answer for a variety of reasons:

  • Out-of-the-Box Alexa does not. But if it’s connected to your landline via Echo Connect it can.
  • Google Assistant and Siri can (when done through a phone, not a smart speaker) but only if you word it as “Hey Google/Siri, call 911”. It won’t “call an ambulance” or “call the police”. 

The relationship between Voice Assistants and Emergency Services has been a much-debated topic because it’s such a big responsibility to undertake:

  • What does Alexa do when it hears screams for “Help!”?
  • How does Alexa distinguish normal domestic disputes from those that need police intervention?
  • What does Alexa do when it detects an invader or the sound of rummaging and breaking things?
  • Do we get to control what our “wake words” are for emergencies? Or are they predetermined? Do we even know what they would be?

For these reasons, instead of relying on humans to call for help, perhaps a better future is one where the smart speaker / device automatically knows when danger occurs.

Alexa Knew I Fell

There are many indicators of a person’s health outside of them flat out saying that something is wrong. Smart speakers can monitor these indicators and know when something is going wrong with a person or their health – in some cases before the person even knows.

Researchers at MIT (among other places) have developed a gait analysis system that can detect abnormalities in people’s strides at home. Doctors have referred to gait as the “sixth vital sign” because it gives a glimpse into problems involving the spine, heart, and brain. One such device, called the WiGait, could easily be merged with a conversational assistant for emergency situations – such as detecting falls or other complications before they arise.

Prior to a heart attack, people often go into a period of agonal breathing – short, gasping sounds for air. Researchers at the University of Washington have created a tool for smart speakers that can detect this agonal breathing and call for help. Their machine learning system was trained to detect nearly 7,000 variations of these breathing “signatures” and can correctly identify agonal breathing 97% of the time.

They’re partnering with Sound Life Sciences to build out their voice application. Sound Life Sciences is working on another application that uses a smartphone’s microphone and speaker to detect opioid overdoses.

Additionally, Beyond Verbal has developed a technology that extracts various acoustic features from a speaker’s voice, in real time, giving insights on personal health, wellbeing, and emotional understanding:

Lastly, Google Nest is rolling out features where their home security cameras can watch for house fires.

All in All

Today smart speakers can notify you of incoming severe weather, phone a friend for help, give you basic medical advice, help you alert someone when you’ve fallen, and scare off intruders. That is the extent of their abilities in emergency services.

I’ve outlined what I think they’re capable of in the future – with the stipulation that there are many FCC and cultural hurdles to overcome first.

The last thing I’ll leave you with is that it’s wrong to think about Voice Assistants and Emergency Services solely from the consumer’s point of view. There’s opportunity for voice assistants to help emergency responders too.

Corti is a digital assistant that leverages deep learning to help medical personnel make critical decisions in the heat of the moment. You must watch the video for a full understanding of their innovative approach to emergency response: