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Got the sniffles? Alexa may notice someday -- and offer cough drops

A patent filing from Amazon considers Alexa gaining awareness of your emotional and physical state.

The doctor is in.
Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

Some day, if you cough or sniffle while chatting with Alexa, the voice assistant may respond back with an offer to sell you cough drops.

Amazon was granted a US patent Tuesday that describes ways for making Alexa more aware of your physical or emotional state, such as if you're excited, bored or even a little sick. While Amazon is constantly working to make Alexa more human-like and knowledgeable, it's unclear whether the ideas from this patent will ever be added into the voice assistant.

Amazon declined to comment for this story.

The concept of making a digital assistant more emotionally intelligent has been discussed for years, but AI hasn't yet caught up to the complexities of human feelings. Creating AI that can notice these human cues could make Alexa more useful for people and help Amazon sell more relevant products to its customers.

But, Alexa and its fellow voice assistants still misunderstand a lot of basic requests, so it may be a while before they can tackle these harder tasks. Plus, especially when it comes to people's health, customers may find a new Alexa feature that notices emotional or physical changes invasive and creepy, even if meant to be helpful.

An illustration from Amazon's new Alexa patent.


In an example in the patent filing, a user tells Alexa, "I'm hungry," while coughing and sniffling. Determining the user may have a sore throat, Alexa asks the user if she would like a recipe for chicken soup. She declines. Alexa follows up by asking "Would you like to order cough drops with one-hour delivery?" The woman responds: "That would be awesome!"

In another example, a user asks Alexa, "What's going on today?" Alexa determines the user is likely bored and responds, "Are you in the mood for a movie?"

Providing these responses could help Amazon sell Alexa owners more stuff via voice shopping and even serve targeted advertisements from nearby restaurants and other retailers. Also, being able to determine potential health needs could help Amazon build up its health care business, especially after it agreed to buy the online pharmacy PillPack earlier this year.

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