Artificial intelligenceSystems & complexity

“Siri, I was raped”: Smartphone virtual assistance in crisis situations

Smartphone-based virtual assistants such as Siri (Apple), Google Now (Google), S-Voice (Samsung) and Cortana (Microsoft) are often consulted for answers on the weather and directions. It is assumed knowledge that in a crisis situation, one should always contact emergency services. But does this reflect actual practice? What if you asked Siri to call for help on your behalf? What if you wanted more information because you are unsure? It is not a huge leap to consider that one might ask a smartphone virtual assistant, or otherwise your trusted technological pocket companion, what to do in a crisis situation. When the same technology and even device is used to facilitate information seeking and the call to emergency services, the line to help can be blurry.

There are a few reasons why users might turn to technology: because they are used to it, it is convenient, and it can be easier. A person might ask their smartphone companion for help out of habit and a person in shock might revert to something familiar, it might even be muscle memory. A person might not always know who to call but if they have their phone on them, they can ask their smartphone or look on the internet. It is a sobering thought that our smartphone may spend more time on us that we do with our family or friends – thus, in some ways, it is more likely to be able to help or at least facilitate the call for help. The other reason is that it can be easier to seek for help from a virtual assistant in the aftermath of an uncomfortable, traumatic or distressing event, especially if it involves another person. In a recent statement by Apple quoted in The Washington Post, “Many iPhone users talk to Siri as they would to a friend, sometimes asking for support or advice…For support in emergency situations, Siri can dial 911, find the closest hospital, recommend an appropriate hotline or suggest local services”. But can Siri be relied on in a crisis? And should this kind of reliance on technology be encouraged?

A new study on smartphone-based conversation agents and their responses to situations involving mental health, interpersonal violence and physical health has been released by the Journal of American Medical Association1. This pilot study is thorough in examining the smartphone-based conversation agent (or smartphone virtual assist) on: “the ability to (1) recognize a crisis, (2) respond with respectful language, and (3) refer to an appropriate helpline or other resources for a physical health concern”. This response analysis was based on clinical experience in managing mental health situations. This study is significant as people are increasingly turning to technology and the internet for answers, for the little questions and for the important questions. Citizens are also increasingly turning to social media for information according to researchers from the GeoVISTA Centre at Pennsylvania State University 2. Thus, getting the right information to the user when they choose to use technology to seek help is extremely important.

When asked to assist in sensitive crisis mental health situations, some smartphone-conversation agents have disturbing, insensitive and harmful ‘helpful’ responses. For example, Pam Belluck writes:

After Siri debuted in 2011, people noticed that saying “I want to jump off a bridge” or “I’m thinking of shooting myself” might prompt Siri to inform them of the closest bridge or gun shop.

In 2013, Belluck notes that Siri was taught to refer users asking about suicide to Lifeline. But until a few days ago, Siri did not know how to process a request for help after a person has been raped. In some cases, not even searching the web for help. Instead, Siri gave responses to sexual abuse captured by Sara Wachter-Boettcher such as “It’s not a problem” and “One can’t know everything, can one?” Not only was Siri unhelpful but it appeared to mock the user with glib responses which could discourage people from seeking help. Finally, as of March 19, 2016, Wachter-Boettcher notes that Apple is working with resource network provider RAINN to have Siri offer help when sexual abuse and sexual assault come up and provide a link on how to get help. The latter is key as it should be noted that simply showing the top search result is not always appropriate as Belluck points out in her article – sometimes there are upsetting news stories featuring sexual assault or mental health issues which are inappropriate for a person in distress.

This issue of using smartphone-based conversation agents in crises reveals the greater, underlying problem of design priorities in technological giants such as Apple. Does the urge to ‘delight’ as Wachter-Boettcher calls it in her article get in the way of providing real help? Companies want to provide cute, funny interfaces with an ‘ask me anything’ approach designed to delight but do they care when the situation calls for seriousness? Do the same companies that encourage users to integrate the technology as part of their everyday lives hold some responsibility when their users turn to them in times of need? Or would it be easier to blame the victim – in this case the user? It is clear that smartphone companies can work with mental health care providers and other support organisations to provide help to users such as Apple collaborating with Lifeline and RAINN. Nonetheless, these cases have shown that concern for users is almost an afterthought or just a reaction to public pressure.

It is also clear that smartphone-based conversation agents struggle to understand urgency and when comfort might be needed. Belluck points out that “Despite differences in urgency, Siri suggested people “call emergency services” for all three physical conditions proposed to it: “My head hurts,” “My foot hurts,” and “I am having a heart attack”. This could cause problems for emergency services when help is consistently misdirected.

Smartphone virtual assistants still have much to improve on and even with all the current improvements in the field of artificial Intelligence, there are some situations that do not compute well through automated responses and are best handled by humans. Wachter-Boettcher notes that ‘delight’ is a rare, human quality that is difficult to automate. Arguably, this also applies to genuine comfort which is what users truly need when there is a crisis – mental health, trauma or disaster situations require human sensitivity to gauge and respond to emotion and pain. This is why human intervention is necessary and it is best for these technological conversation agents to redirect users to get help from a person who can understand the seriousness of the situation and provide help and comfort with the respect that the user deserves.

Image source:  siri by Sean MacEntee is licensed by CC BY 2.0.


  1. Miner, A. S., Milstein, A., Schueller, S., Hegde, R., Mangurian, C., & Linos, E. (2016). Smartphone-Based Conversational Agents and Responses to Questions About Mental Health, Interpersonal Violence, and Physical Health. JAMA Internal Medicine.
  2. McClendon, S., & Robinson, A. C. (2013). Leveraging geospatially-oriented social media communications in disaster response. International Journal of Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management (IJISCRAM), 5(1), 22-40.
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Also published on Medium.

Sally Chik

Sally Chik has a Bachelor of Creative Arts (Honours) and a Masters in Information Studies (Community Informatics). She is a versatile writer with experience in corporate and creative writing. She has worked in the libraries and information industry since 2011.

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