In an article published today in the Christmas issue of the British Medical Journal, New Zealand researchers found that Google laptop searches performed better at finding online sexual health advice than the digital assistants on smartphones. Of these assistants, Google Assistant clearly out-performed Siri.
The team of researchers led by the University of Otago, Wellington’s Professor Nick Wilson investigated how well the internet and digital assistants answered 50 questions on sexual health.
The background to this work included a 2017 UK survey of 3221 people aged 16 years or older which found that 41 per cent of internet users go online for health related question, with half of these (22 per cent of the total) having done so in the previous week.
This led the NZ researchers to investigate the quality of various online sexual health advice and to consider the role of digital assistants in smartphones.
“To find out whether smartphones and their digital assistants offer quality sexual health advice, we jumped into bed (albeit independently), pulled out our smartphones, and asked Siri and Google Assistant. We then compared their answers with a laptop based Google search,” says Professor Wilson.
The researchers who have a variety of accents (Kiwi, Kiwi/Scottish and Kiwi/Ulster English), selected 50 questions, mainly from expert sources, to test the software.
They were surprised that expert sources were identified around half the time (for the best responses), and some of these were expert local NZ services, for example, the NZ Family Planning Association and a NZ university site. But they reported that all the online approaches could do better at finding expert information.
“We also got some odd responses, such as a question about menopause which came up with the Wikipedia site for the show ‘Menopause the Musical’ and another interpreted STI (sexually transmitted infections) as a stock market code,” says Professor Wilson.
“Our research findings show the importance of improving digital literacy in the general population.”
“The research also shows that more needs to done to encourage internet users to treat information in online lifestyle magazines with caution as compared to expert sources,” he says.