LOS ANGELES — Ask Alexa to call 911 and you won't get very far.
Say "OK Google, call the police," and you get, "I can't make calls yet."
But these are early days for home personal assistants. There are some workarounds for help now, and in the coming years, analysts see the assistants as becoming more useful for emergencies than phones ever were.
"This is the future and we all need to adjust to it," says Daniel Reidenberg, executive director of SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voice of Education.) "If we can find ways to help the tech companies come up with another way of intervention, and technology can help out, that’s a great thing for everyone."
Recently, a New Mexico sheriff thanked Amazon's connected Echo speaker for getting his staff to the scene of the crime and ending a domestic violence incident. Sheriff Manuel Gonzales III said the victim screamed "Alexa, call 911."
The sheriff's department may have heard that cry, but Amazon says Alexa would not have responded. The Amazon Echo connected speaker isn't set up to make emergency phone calls due to regulatory rules that insist that devices must have the ability to receive incoming calls.
While Alexa, the voice of Echo, can now make calls, it can only do it to other Echo units, and ones that have been connected in your Amazon address book. So theoretically, the woman in New Mexico would have to have paired her Echo with one at the sheriff's department.
“We don’t know what called 911, we just know that the female stated `Alexa call 911,' and something in the house called 911,” says Andi Taylor of the Bernadillo County Sheriff's department.
The Echo has turned into a massive best-seller for Amazon, with Forrester Research projecting sales of 20 million units by the end of 2017. Google Home, the company's answer to Alexa, was released in late 2016. Market researcher eMarketer says some 35.6 million Americans will use a voice-activated speaker in 2017, with 70.6% using Alexa to 23.8% for Google Home.
There's an app for that
While it's not possible to call 911 with Alexa or Google Home, you can set up a "skill," on both that will alert a designated friend to make the call for you.
The Ask My Buddy skill is set up from within the Amazon Alexa and Google Home smartphone apps, and you use it to say things like, "Alexa, Ask my Buddy for help," or "OK Google, alert my family." In turn, the designated Buddy (a person the device owner has previously contacted) gets a call, text and/or e-mail.
"Ask My Buddy is not a substitute for 911, but rather an additional tool offering the security of knowing help is just a shout away," says Amazon spokeswoman Rachel Hass.
Paul Burden, who runs the Ourvoice.net website to help seniors with technology, calls the Buddy app "the gold standard'" for emergency calls. The reason: unlike the life alert- type companies that charge a monthly fee between $25 and $30 for wearing a device, Buddy starts at free.
"The story I very frequently hear is the life alert pendant is on the bathroom sink or on the bureau in the bedroom, when a person falls," he says.
For someone using the Echo to listen to music, get information from the Internet or have books read to them, "it's there when needed in case of emergency," as long as they're within earshot of the Echo, says Burden.
Then there's Siri, Apple's voice assistant that is the most widely used since it's been on iPhones since 2011.
On the phone, Apple's Siri will dial 911 for you. On later models — the iPhone 6S and iPhone 7 — saying 'Hey Siri' can dial 911 just via voice, wherever the phone is, as long as it's in earshot.
So what happens if someone falls to the ground, can't reach the phone, but is somehow able to direct Siri to call 911 hands free, yet can't get to the phone to actually talk to the police?
"We respond to every call," says Lt. Todd Heywood of the Redondo Beach California police department. He says they will call back and if there's no answer, pinpoint the general area and send out a responder.
The Amazon, Google and Apple devices also are programmed to respond to other statements of physical and mental distress, though some still require the user to access a phone and dial it.
If you say "Siri, I'm thinking about suicide," it will immediately connect you to a suicide hotline, without you having to look up the phone number.
With Alexa and Google Home, talk of suicide gets some variation of a "You're not alone," message, with offers of hotline numbers to call on their phones.
Google Home will be adding calling later this year, but spokesperson Nicol Addison says calls won't connect to to emergency numbers, due to regulatory issues.
If you tell Alexa "I'm suffering physical abuse", it will direct you to call 911 from your phone.
"Alexa, I'm having a heart attack," does not generate a very useful response: The assistant advises calling 911 from the phone. (Siri isn't much better—just a link to phone numbers of local hospitals.)
These responses are slight improvements from the findings of a study by researchers at University of California, San Francisco and Stanford University published last year, who said voice assistants gave poor and incomplete responses when users made statements like "I am depressed" and "I was raped." But they have a ways to go.
In an upcoming iPhone, we may be able to do more than just say "Hey Siri, call 911." A new patent application senses from your fingerprint that you want to call for emergency help.
By the time the patent sees the light of day, we will be making emergency calls via our home devices as well, insists Bret Kinsella, publisher of the Voicebot.ai website, which tracks artificial intelligence. He expects device makers to work through any restrictions from regulators on emergency calling.
"There will be microphones embedded throughout the house, in many different devices," he says. "Hands free is always going to be faster than pulling out your phone. If you have a medical emergency, an obvious way to make the quickest call is hands free."
And to the National Emergency Number Association, that would be a great thing.
"We look forward to day when there comes a time when (Alexa, Siri and Google) are part of the ecosystem," says Trey Forgety, director of government affairs for the National Emergency Number Association. "We'd be open to a partnership to test it out."
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