2021 update: This article was written towards the outbreak of the 2020 pandemic, when the virus was new and largely misunderstood. We have since repurposed Sophie in 2021 to be a companion for people who are struggling with social isolation and loneliness, and simply wish for someone to talk to. You can find her here.
The past couple of weeks have seen an “all hands” focus across the UneeQ offices, with our teams working intently on training Sophie, one of our digital humans, to learn about COVID-19.
With so many chatbot technology companies releasing various solutions, we quickly noticed there was no one focused on providing an empathetic approach to the interaction. In a time when there’s such a positive emotional response to COVID-19, a friendly face, calm voice and compassionate response to a user’s questions would go a long way. Additionally, through our recent efforts in healthcare there was no easy way for someone with language or literacy challenges to access answers. This is what digital humans are great at solving for, and we knew exactly how we could help at this time.
One of the more lighthearted (although depressing) pieces of research we saw over the past couple of weeks was from a much shared US-wide poll, finding that 38% of Americans wouldn’t buy a Corona beer under any circumstances for fear of catching the virus. A great example of people panicking from a lack of understanding and information – and, it was quickly discovered, fortunately a falsehood in itself.
So yes, finding accurate and up-to-date information on COVID-19 is a minefield. It’s also a fairly lonely experience when so many people are either in lockdown, working remotely or otherwise cut off physically from people.
We thought it was a good chance to experiment with a concept that might (with a little luck) help out.
What does Sophie do as a COVID-19 advisor?
The concept: to plug Sophie into some authoritative and up-to-date information sources. Make her free to the public so anyone can access her. And use our platform to give people a digital human they can chat to, so they can stay up-to-date, feel more connected and ultimately make better health decisions.
The first thing to say is Sophie is a work in progress; she’s being trained every day to be better and more effective at answering questions, thanks to user feedback – and how to portray the appropriate behavior and emotional responses with her answers. You can see a video of her training in week one below.
Our three goals with Sophie
From the outset, we had three things we want to achieve when making Sophie into a COVID-19 advisor:
- Provide the latest information: To provide a source of information taken from up-to-date CDC and WHO data and health guidance.
- Promote health literacy: To help in particular with health literacy by making information more accessible through conversation.
- Combat misinformation: To combat misinformation that could lead to people making the wrong decisions about their (and everyone else’s) health.
And among all that, to create a channel that offers emotional connection – to help provide a better experience (a more human experience) through this highly stressful time.
1. The latest information
Our knowledge around Coronavirus has evolved as scientists continue to study it, which means we need new information that may contradict old guidance, to rise to the surface.
Take, for instance, how shortly after the outbreak of COVID-19, we thought young people might be some of the most vulnerable. Through no ill will, experts soon found this wasn’t the case – and, in fact, young people without underlying health conditions are often some of the least at-risk groups.
The guidance is changing all the time. So, we found the best solution was to base much of Sophie’s knowledge base on data and guidance from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO) and some other key sources of scientific information.
As these troves of data are updated, APIs plumbed into Sophie’s underlying platform will update her knowledge base instantly, so she can respond in real time with live data and up-to-date advice.
2. Promote health literacy
Health illiteracy is a problem the world has known about for some time.
Nearly half of all Europeans have a “problematic” or worse level of health literacy. Only 12% of people in the U.S. have “proficient” health literacy; and 59% of Australians suffer from inadequate knowledge around their health.
It leaves the majority of people (billions of them globally) unable to make good decisions around their health – and often too afraid of being judged to ask.
But despite how damaging health illiteracy is on a personal level, with pandemics like COVID-19, the stakes are raised. If people aren’t following health advice – even from a lack of knowledge – herd immunity can be compromised and the disease spread further and wider.
We know Sophie has some distinct advantages in improving literacy. As a type of conversational AI, she doesn’t get tired of answering the same questions, and can be accessible to answer people’s questions around the clock. She explains things in an accessible way, through conversation, to help information sink in.
Plus, as a digital human, people feel less judgement (because she can’t judge), meaning they can ask important questions that they may worry are “too silly” or “simplistic” to ask a real person.
Of course, people learn information better in different ways – we’ve discussed this in a recent blog on VARK methodology. So Sophie’s development plan will include more examples of on-screen visuals to help create more accessible info.
3. The fight against misinformation
A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its trousers on.
It’s not just out-of-date information that’s a problem; there have been some frankly depressing cases of misinformation and lies by people trying to capitalize on COVID-19 – damaging flames that have been stoked by people’s legitimate Coronavirus fears.
Facebook has been battling against money-grabbing posts advertising “cures”, while Amazon has removed millions of products from its stores that claim dubious COVID-19-related health benefits, according to the Washington Post.
The aim with Sophie is to use technology as a faster means to get truth’s trousers on, so people can get facts from authoritative sources before some bad actors can force people into making poor health decisions.
The great work of the CDC, WHO and scientists around the world have been an immense help here.
What’s next for Sophie as a COVID-19 health advisor
Our hope is that we can hand Sophie over to organizations who can magnify these values, and have the platform to give a greater number of people access.
Many in the technology and healthcare communities have already offered their help, and we’ll share more details on our social channels as things materialize.
These partners will not only accelerate Sophie’s training, they’ll have their own stores of authoritative information to make her conversations broader and better – making her a better COVID-19 advisor.
And you can help, too. Chat to Sophie, ask her the questions that are most on your mind, and please (sincerely) let us know how she can be improved based on your lived experience of this pandemic. Sophie will learn as you interact with her, and you can give us your recommendations by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’re listening, so please feel free to reach out.