Estonia Debuts Coronavirus Chatbot Born in a Hackathon
The Estonian government has created an AI-powered chatbot named Suve to answer questions about the novel coronavirus pandemic. Suve is designed to reduce demand for healthcare providers by educating Estonians about the disease and how it is being handled by government officials.
Suve was born at Hack the Crisis, a hackathon coordinated by Garage48 and Accelerate Estonia just a couple of weeks ago as a way for technically savvy people to brainstorm ideas to assist the public during the ongoing pandemic. Tech startup eeBot came up with Suve and started working with the Estonian government to connect the AI to official information about the coronavirus and the pandemic. Sube launched ten days after the hackathon and can answer most basic questions about the virus and the government’s efforts to limit its spread. Answers are provided along with links to for more information. Suve is now available to chat with on the Estonian government’s main website as well as several ministry pages, including the health board and the ministry of social affairs. The government is working on extending the chatbot to more pages online.
“The chatbot offers a new way to get information on changes that affect us all in terms of life-planning and also helps to relieve the burden on different hotlines,” strategy unit adviser for the Estonian government Marten Kaevats said in a statement. “Suve the chatbot can still be compared to a young puppy who is yet to learn all the tricks, but dozens of volunteers are working to improve it.”
Estonia is well known for its embrace of digital technology. The country has a whole strategy for building out a network of artificial intelligence applications, including a nationwide public service voice assistant in a network called #KrattAI. The idea is to apply AI to accomplish the kind of tasks that usually require a phone call or an in-person visit to a government agency. That’s essentially the same goal as Suve, except that the chatbot is narrowly focused on the coronavirus for the sake of speed.
“The idea of a nationwide chatbot service circulated even before the crisis, but the hackathon enabled us to quickly put the idea into action, and hopefully, it will reduce the burden on hotlines,” eeBot CEO co-creator Michaela Snopková said in a statement. “There is no need to call the family doctor hotline to ask if it is possible to travel to Finland or to get information about the certificate for incapacity to work. Suve will find answers to these questions. This will ensure that those who have symptoms of the coronavirus or some other illness and need prompt and personal counselling could quickly reach a doctor,” said Snopková.
Estonia is not alone in turning to a chatbot to answer questions about the coronavirus. Chatbots devoted to the subject have multiplied as a result of medical professionals and policymakers looking for ways to slow the rush of calls to hospitals and doctors. India and the UK have each published a WhatsApp chatbot to answer questions about the pandemic, for instance. In the U.S., healthcare providers are teaming up with companies like Orbita to build interactive voice and text chatbots, integrating Hyro’s free coronavirus-focused version of its virtual assistant, or adapting Microsoft’s template for the same purpose.
State governments in the U.S. have also started asking voice app developers like Voicify to design ways to communicate with citizens about COVID-19 through Alexa and Google Assistant. The voice assistants are providing their own answers courtesy of the CDC and the World Health Organization. Google Assistant is offering to share CDC-approved pandemic tips. At the same time, Alexa added the CDC’s COVID-19 questionnaire to assess potential infection last week, not long after Apple added a version of the same feature for Siri.