Alexa Enters Healthcare

Amazon was recently issued a new patent that will push its Alexa personal assistant into the healthcare realm. The patent, filed October 9, describes a relatively straightforward idea: Program Alexa’s speech recognition to identify coughs and sniffles, then use that information to upsell cold medicine and chicken soup. The idea is simple, and its execution should be easy to deploy and scale. Amazon already has an army of devices quietly listening in our homes and, soon, cars. According to the new patent, the next Alexa update could bring statements such as, “I hear you have a sore throat. Are you interested in buying cough medicine?”

Amazon’s AI Business Case

Amazon being Amazon, the patent is dense with examples of how it will monetize its personal assistant’s newfound concern for your health: targeted ads. Amazon will use health information to help merchandisers target their ads. Halls will be able to target cough-drop ads to consumers with an active cough. Amazon’s ambition is far-reaching on this front. The hope is to create AI capable of identifying not only physical symptoms, such as a cough or a sore throat, but also emotional states, interpreting crying, tone of voice, and background noise to identify boredom, sleepiness, stress, and even sadness. The patent describes a scenario in which musicians could target ads for their new albums to bored fans.

Why It Matters

Setting aside the ethical issues one might have with their personal health being used to target ads, the patent is an underwhelming one for a company such as Amazon. Who would have guessed that Amazon’s first move at the intersection of AI and healthcare would be an effort to sell more cough drops? Still, this patent offers a peak behind the curtain into Amazon’s healthcare ambitions, and there are important insights to be gleaned:

  • Amazon’s conservative, revenue-focused approach. IBM’s ambition for Watson Health was enormous, but it has yet to turn a profit. Amazon is not trying to cure cancer with AI. For now, Amazon is only trying to create healthcare revenue with AI. This conservative approach will help ensure that the company is making calculated, sustainable market-entry decisions.
  • Technology could improve the consumer experience. With time, Amazon could transform statements such as “I hear you have a sore throat. Are you interested in buying cough medicine?” into more promising services: “I hear that you’re wheezing. Would you like me to refill your inhaler prescription with a 1-hour delivery?”
  • Healthcare organizations are vulnerable to disruption. As Alexa’s AI increases in sophistication, the smart device could easily grow into a full-fledged healthcare access point. This technology could connect consumers with virtual Amazon healthcare professionals through statements such as “You’ve had this cough for several days. Would you like to speak to a doctor?” or “I hear that you’re distressed. Would you like to speak with a certified online counselor?”

Amazon’s market entry is the hype of healthcare these days. While it’s ill-advised to disrupt current business operations over speculation, healthcare providers should certainly be thinking about their own consumers and how they can improve the consumer experience they are providing. For the time being, we will continue to wait for Amazon’s healthcare future to come to light and pacify our impatience knowing that statements such as “I hear you’re bored. Would you like me to play you the new Bieber jam?” may be just around the corner.