Amazon made waves last week when it announced that Alexa is now HIPAA compliant. It’s not only the biggest health tech news of early 2019; it also marks a tipping point for enterprise voice technology.
This announcement came exactly two years since we launched the Alexa Diabetes Challenge on behalf of Merck. At the time, health tech experts recognized the potential for conversational interfaces but also expressed concerns over privacy, security, and ethics — and there are still important (and unresolved) questions. Many dismissed voice as a passing fad, but HIPAA compliance is an important milestone that makes voice technology difficult to ignore.
The recent news prompts a larger question: how long does it take for an emerging technology to go from shiny object to creating enterprise value? In this case, Alexa’s innovation arc was about four years.
Timeline: Amazon Alexa’s path to HIPAA compliance
Amazon introduces the Echo in November. The connected speaker includes a voice assistant named Alexa and is available to Prime members by invitation only.
Amazon makes its Alexa Skills Kit available in July, and users can access the first third-party Alexa skills in August. Amazon starts selling the Echo in retail stores just in time for the holiday shopping season.
Boston Children’s Hospital releases its KidsMD Alexa skill in April and hosts a voice technology hackathon in May.
The Alexa Diabetes Challenge launches in April. Finalists develop their concepts into working prototypes during a virtual accelerator, then present their solutions at a public Demo Day in September.
Voice tech pilots are a major topic of conversation across industries. Voice tech conferences are launching left and right — from industry-specific events like Voice in Healthcare to cross-sector events with industry tracks like the VOICE Summit. Boston Children’s Hospital Innovation & Digital Health Accelerator organizes the first annual Voice.Health conference in October.
The path from experimentation to implementation is one that resonates beyond voice tech and beyond health. A few factors made this trajectory possible.
1. Evolving technology
Entertainment and novelty were part of Alexa’s initial offering; it was easy to see how a smart speaker would be useful for managing music playlists or requesting a hands-free weather update. But rapid consumer adoption has given voice tech’s AI underpinnings more data to fuel improvement; voice assistants like Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant are increasingly adept at understanding and responding to user queries. When the technology becomes more useful, more people buy smart speakers — by the end of 2018, 21% of Americans owned a smart speaker, up from only 7% in 2017.
Conversational interfaces still have a long way to go, but voice tech gets better when more people use it. That, in turn, accelerates adoption and makes voice tech a more appealing investment across industries.
2. Thoughtful testing
Early pilots and experiments can help build the competency. Amazon hand-selected early adopters for its first cohort of HIPAA-compliant healthcare skills. An early partnership with Amazon Echo and the initial hackathon in 2016 helped Boston Children’s develop expertise and see firsthand how hands-free utility and the ability to quickly access information could provide important efficiencies in a healthcare setting.
The first skill you build might not be good — but it’s important to experiment so you can get to the right solution. Alexa for Business Blueprints lets anyone develop a personalized, private skill for internal use in an organization; coding skills are not required.
3. Solving real problems for real people
When we designed and produced the Alexa Diabetes Challenge, we knew the finalist teams would need help closing the gap in two areas: understanding the patients and understanding the technology. The virtual accelerator, a two-month experience that included an in-person boot camp at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters, included opportunities to learn about both.
The boot camp featured a deep focus on the patient experience and behavioral economics, with sessions led by experts in diabetes education and health care innovation as well as Type 2 diabetes patients themselves. The finalists also worked directly with the AWS team to explore how they could harness Amazon services for transformative healthcare solutions.
If you’re not understanding and solving for a real human need, it doesn’t matter how good the technology is — you’ll always be chasing a shiny object.
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