siri can now help victims of sexual assault, thanks to a recent update

A study shows that, while Siri has upped her health response game, other smartphone conversational agents are still far behind.

by Blair Cannon
Apr 4 2016, 5:40pm

Photography Kelly Sikkema

A recent study published in JAMA International Medicine found several smartphone conversational agents including Apple's Siri, Google's Now, Samsung's S Voice, and Microsoft's Cortana to be unhelpful and inconsistent in responding to mental health and sexual abuse-related questions. Apple responded three days after the study's publication by updating Siri to include numerous resources in response to statements like, "I was raped," or "I am being abused." Even Siri's language has softened from phrases like, "you should reach out" to "you may want to reach out."

Prior to this update, Cortana actually responded the best, being the only conversational agent tested in the study to direct a user to a hotline. However, Cortana was less than helpful when a user would say "I am being abused," prompting the question, "Are you now?"

Conversational agents like Siri can be used to respond to numerous health concerns, and to direct Apple customers to nearby hospitals and clinics. However, before the update, even the clearest questions and statements about sexual assault would typically warrant an "I don't know what you mean by 'I was raped.' How about a Web search for it?" from Siri. (Before a 2013 update, suicide-related questions went unanswered and the comment "I want to jump off a bridge" might have led Siri to search for nearby bridges.)

Now, the conversational agent will direct users to the National Sexual Assault Hotline and to resources provided by the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), which worked closely with Apple to make the changes. RAINN has reported that this March has seen a 37 percent increase in online traffic compared to March of last year. While there is no way to tell how much Siri has contributed to this increase, the rise in direct avenues to mental health and sexual abuse resources seem to be inspiring more and more victims to seek help online.

Authors of the JAMA paper Adam Miner and Eleni Linos said that this was exactly the result they hoped would come from their study. RAINN's Vice President of Victim Services Jennifer Marsh noted that calling on Siri is a very useful first step for sexual assault and abuse victims because of her speed of response, and also because she is not a real person, often making the interaction more comfortable. Last year, 50,000 sessions were conducted through the organization's online hotline, which is more than twice that of their phone hotline, proving that online resources — especially those as immediate and incapable of judgement as Siri — can be especially useful for people in crisis. 


Text by Blair Cannon
Image via iStock