COVID-19 Response: Conversational Technologies

I remember during the onset of the pandemic. Many broadcast messages were flying all over the Internet on how to beat coronavirus, especially on messaging apps. Some were funny, like drinking lots of orange juice. Some were absurd, like totally avoiding milk. And some were straight-up crazy, like drinking bleach. I swear, I’m not making these up. Well, here we are nine months later, with over 300 thousand deaths and people drinking whatever they like. The initial stir seems to have fizzled out. I mean, many have taken the ‘if I get it, I get it’ mentality.

However, it is far too soon and far too dangerous to start thinking that way. We need to know that we are not at the end of the journey. Not even close. I know vaccines are coming up and all, but lots of work still needs to be done. Forgive me; I’m digressing a little from the topic subject. Actually, not a little, but still forgive me!

Back on track, then. One of the most important aspects of fighting any infectious disease is the response to the disease. I’m not talking about medical response now, but the perception of the public of the disease. The same applies to the coronavirus. Remember the story of the various broadcast messages I saw? Yes, that’s the kind of response I mean. Those messages were obviously baseless and false, but it’d still be nice to have a kind of platform where people can get the right information about the pandemic. And I mean only the right information. 

In light of this, many organizations have employed different conversational technologies to develop interactive platforms where people can get in touch with conversational agents. 101 organizations employed IBM Watson Assistant. They created a system where members of the public could interact with professionals and health officials about the pandemic, using their chatbots. As you’d expect, it turned out to be massively successful in the early stages of the pandemic when people knew very little about the virus.

Between March and August, people usually asked very simple questions, like ‘what is the coronavirus,’ ‘symptoms of coronavirus,’ ‘hospitals to go for coronavirus.’ The conversations were also very short ones. However, with time, people started having lengthier conversations with the chatbots. They also wanted information on a wider variety of topics. 

I must credit the organizations that took the initiative to develop these platforms. The physical toll of the coronavirus has made many of us neglect its impact on people’s mental health. Many entered into depression and anxiety and needed a calming presence. Having an agent you can converse with to reassure you during a pandemic will do far more than you think. This makes even more sense when you consider that many health workers are usually occupied during these periods. It may not be easy to get in touch with a doctor or other health workers in hospitals. Having a conversational agent solves this problem to a certain degree.

As I said earlier, we are not at the end of this pandemic. As a matter of fact, cases are starting to pile again. I remember when 500 people were dying daily. I was livid. Now, around 3000 people die every day from the virus. Sorry for the digression, again. I can’t help myself! 

With vaccines set to roll out in the US soon, it makes sense that these chatbots be ready for business. More organizations need to be involved in scaling up these chatbots to increase public access.

One thing we have confirmed is that these conversational agents work. They work very well, in fact. And it only makes sense to invest more in them for the rest of the pandemic. People are also going to need reassurances about the vaccines before taking them. Proper education of the general public will spell good news for the medical response. Think of it, what good is the vaccine if people don’t want to take them?

The benefits of these technologies even supersede the scope of the pandemic. Having a health assistant at one’s fingertips will do a lot of good to the country’s general health and reduce the load on hospitals and doctors. Research is also going on how these technologies can target other races, particularly the African American population.

Aside from Watson, ITS from U-M also have their own conversational agents. I hope many more companies will come up with such platforms to help combat the virus. 

This seems like a good point to end this article. But, please, don’t neglect coronavirus guidelines, especially now that we are entering the festive periods. Wear a mask. Practice social distancing. 

Stay safe.



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