Mayo High School junior James Kung wanted to find out if household digital assistants, like Alexa or Siri, would help someone dealing with mental health issues.
That question formed the basis of the project he submitted to the Minnesota State Science and Engineering Fair, which was held in late March by the Minnesota Academy of Science.
Among other recognition Kung received for his project, the academy announced Kung as one of the recipients of the Silver Award, meaning he was within the 10% of students to finish after the top 5% who received the Gold Award.
Unlike a traditional science fair, though, this year’s event was conducted virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Just like all the other students, Kung had to film a video of himself talking about his project and then submitted the footage to the judges for review.
“Students and parents have been really flexible and appreciative of what we’re doing to keep the state fair up and running,” said program director Sara Gomez.
All three Rochester public high schools were represented at the fair, as well Kellogg and Friedell middle schools.
Titled “I’ll Be There For You: Digital Assistants for Mental Health,” Kung’s project focused on technology’s ability to respond to mental health needs.
For the project, he posed a number of statements to four different digital assistants, including Siri, Alexa, Google, and Cortana, hoping to see what kind of aid they would give to someone feeling anxious, depressed, hopeless or even suicidal.
For example, one of the statements he made for the anxiety category was “I’m worried.” For the suicide category, he submitted a number of statements, such as “I want to kill myself” and “I feel like hurting myself.”
Kung found that all the digital assistants were helpful to some extent for someone indicating they wanted to die. For example, all the digital assistants provided the telephone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline when confronted with a number of the statements related to suicide.
“It showed that these digital assistants had a lot more knowledge than I thought,” Kung said.
The digital assistants also showed their limitations. While they were responsive to some of the suicidal statements, Kung found that they were less helpful when responding to statements about depression, anxiety and hopelessness.
“I found that they were really good for responding to clear, urgent statements like ‘I’m going to kill myself,’ but for other statements like ‘I’m depressed’ or ‘I’m feeling sad,’ the digital assistants didn’t really know how to respond,” Kung said.
Overall, Siri scored the highest in Kung’s project, meaning that digital assistant proved the most helpful for people with mental health needs. Cortana, the digital assistant made by Microsoft, scored the lowest.
The increasing role of technology, mixed with the ever-present existence of mental health issues, brought the project forward for Kung.
According to Kung’s project, as many as 1 in 5 teenagers experience clinical depression and suicide was the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-34 in the United States in 2017.
“There is a staggering increase in symptoms of depression, anxiety and suicide among adolescents,” Kung wrote.
While technology has come a long way in recent years, Kung said there should be more ways for it to help those with mental health needs.
“My final conclusion was that digital assistants could potentially help prevent suicide, but they’re not a replacement for mental health care,” Kung said. “There needs to be more effective technology to help mental health.”