From our correspondent in Swindon:
Worried about a lump? Got a nasty cough that won’t budge? Many people Google queries about such symptoms daily – but now they can get NHS advice instantly by asking Amazon’s Alexa.
The voice-activated assistant is now automatically searching NHS web pagesto find answers to medical questions.
And the government hopes it will reduce the demand on human doctors.
Sounds awesome. Especially if you’ve spoken to people involved with technology for the blind who say that the Alexa isn’t just massively cheaper than dedicated devices, but better. The alternative to this is a blind person using a keyboard to visit a website and use a screenreader.
But the move has split opinion among artificial intelligence (AI) experts and data ethicists.
“The sensitive data holdings of a national healthcare provider like the NHS are a form of ‘critical social infrastructure’,” said Berlin-based tech expert Mathana Stender.
“Yet they’ve been handed to a foreign company that’s both a defence contractor and targeted advertiser,”
This is inaccurate.
The NHS have a website with all sorts of advice for simple ailments. A very good idea, compared to people going to their GP. And what Amazon have done is scraped the content of that and turned it into a skill. You speak your request, Amazon record it, analyse it against the content and give you an answer. There’s no “NHS holdings”. Amazon built all of the data management. And this has cost the NHS nothing.
NHS GP David Wrigley asked, among other things, whether the questions asked via Alexa would be encrypted and who would store any data relating to patient queries.
I’m guessing it’s well protected, but the important thing here is that this is a relationship between Amazon and their customers, OK? This has nothing to do with you GPs.
Whether this makes much difference in terms of reducing people going to their GP, we will see, but the great thing about this project is that the whole thing has zero dependency on the NHS bureaucracy, other than the website questions (and how often is that going to change)? Amazon are running everything else, and because they’re doing it for free, there’s no involvement in the procurement bureaucracy, either.
Amazon are probably running the whole thing with less than a handful of people. If you don’t have the Stalinism and you have motivated, skilled people, that’s how small IT is. Amazon can probably chalk it up to a bit of R&D and maybe some good PR.
There was another issue at stake, however. Some pointed out that Amazon is known to have major ambitions in the healthcare industry.
And this would be bad, how? Amazon seem to be pretty damn good at what they do. Not only delivering goods, but Kindles, Alexas, video streaming, cloud hosting. OK, Bezos might not know about how to do a hip replacement, but nor do the sort of Oxbridge PPE graduates running things now. And at least Bezos seems to be good at organisation.