Aishwarya Ramesh

Alexa, Apple and Google to help users combat the Coronavirus pandemic

The three tech giants - Amazon’s Alexa, Google and Apple - put their heads together in a bid to help the world fight COVID-19, and curb its spread.

Users can ask Alexa to set an alarm, tell a joke and, now, help them with updates on the Coronavirus pandemic. Yes, Alexa, Amazon’s voice assistant, is now equipped to answer questions related to COVID-19. The answers will be from official sources, such as the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MOHFW). All a user has to do is to ask Alexa questions like, 'What are the latest Coronavirus updates?' and 'What are the Coronavirus statistics in India?'. Alexa can also help users with information on basic essentials – such as services that are available during lockdown.

Users can also ask questions like, 'Alexa, how many Coronavirus cases have been reported in Maharashtra?' and 'Alexa, what essential services are available during lockdown?'.

Information from MOHFW and ICMR will be used when people ask questions about COVID-19 symptoms. You can ask the assistant about what you should do if you think you’re showing symptoms of the disease. Users can also pose questions in regional languages, 'How do I know if I have Coronavirus?', or 'Kya mujhe Coronavirus hai?' and this will lead the voice assistant to ask a few related questions, before informing them what measures should be taken in case of a potential infection. Amazon has also added an 'Alexa skill' in association with the Bengaluru City Police. This skill can help users find answers to questions about social distancing and handwashing. It will also provide them with helpline numbers that they can turn to in these times of crisis.

This isn’t the only case of a tech giant stepping forward to help users battle the pandemic. Apple and Google have put their infamous tech rivalry aside to create contact tracing technology that can be added to smartphones. The technology will alert users if they have come in contact with someone who has contracted the virus, and tell them if they should take measures, such as self-isolation, to curb the spread. Bloomberg reports that people have to opt in to become a part of the system and that it has the potential to monitor about one-third of the world’s population.

According to the report, the Silicon Valley rivals announced that they are building the technology in their iOS and Android operating systems in two steps. By the middle of May, the companies will integrate the technology into iPhones and Android devices to enable the wireless exchange of anonymous information with public health authorities. The companies also announced that they will be releasing frameworks to help public health apps handle the contact tracing functionality.

To put it simply, if a user tests positive for the Coronavirus, they can add that data to their public health app. Other users, who have come in close proximity of the infected individual (over the past 14 days or so), will be notified of the contact and advised to self-quarantine or isolate, to curb the spread of the virus. Politicians across world have raised concerns over the privacy of citizens – considering that sharing health data is sensitive and the technology tracks movements via GPS. But, the tech giants hastened to assure users that their data is safe.

Their partnership might be novel, but this isn’t their only Coronavirus-related effort. In India, Google launched a special functionality of its search feature, designed with migrant workers and homeless individuals in mind. This facility allowed users to search for temporary public food and night shelters on Google Maps. According to Google, this feature is currently available in over 30 cities across the country. Google, additionally, is working closely with government authorities to help migrant workers and affected people in different cities to avail food and shelter facilities.

Bloomberg reports that Apple has donated over 20 million masks to healthcare workers and has also designed face shields. Apple has even created its own microsite which aims to act as a source of information on the Coronavirus. This includes information on symptoms, testing facilities, and self-care and mental health support. Apple’s microsite has been developed in partnership with America’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. Apple makes it amply clear that it is not meant as an endorsement of any of the company’s products or services.

A screengrab from Apple's coronavirus microsite
A screengrab from Apple's coronavirus microsite
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