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File picture: Pexels

France launches AI voice assistant to help coronavirus patients

By Michel Rose Time of article published Apr 28, 2020

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Paris - French researchers on Monday launched a voice assistant that can help callers suffering from potential coronavirus symptoms and direct them towards emergency services or their doctors using artificial intelligence.

Anybody in France can now ring the "AlloCovid" service developed by French research institute Inserm, the University of Paris and French railway company SNCF, the group said.

On the line, a female voice greets callers with "Bonjour, I'm your virtual AlloCovid assistant ... Are you ready to start the questionnaire?"

Callers are asked for their postcode but not their name. Depending on their symptoms and pre-existing conditions, they are directed to the right professionals.

Developers hope the voice assistant, which is more easily accessible to old people who prefer telephones than mobile apps or filling forms, will help authorities detect new infection clusters after France exits lockdown on May 11.

The system can handle 1,000 calls at a time. Callers' information is sent anonymously to health authorities and kept for seven days before being destroyed.

"To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time artificial intelligence is being used to serve public health," professor Xavier Jouven, who leads the project, told Le Monde newspaper.

The "AlloCovid" number is separate from the "StopCovid" mobile contact-tracing app the government wants to launch. 

Lawmakers from France's ruling party accused their own government on Monday of withdrawing a vote on a planned coronavirus tracing app, saying they had been robbed of a chance to raise privacy concerns.

The government last week bowed to pressure from MPs and promised a parliamentary debate and vote on the "StopCovid" smartphone software, which is designed to warn users if they come into contact with infected people.

But over the weekend, prime minister Edouard Philippe wrote to the lower house speaker, saying he wanted to broaden the debate scheduled for April 28-29 to cover the government's entire strategy on ending coronavirus lockdowns.

A government source defended the decision on Monday, telling Reuters the government needed to move on quickly with its plans. Commentators said the move would also avoid a public display of division in the ruling La République en Marche group over the app.

Some lawmakers across France's political divide have said the software raises serious issues about state surveillance and privacy. Civil liberties groups have raised similar questions about apps being considered and used across the world to try and contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.


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