Have Health Questions? Ask S.A.R.A.H., an AI Health Assistant

April 10, 2024 – Got health questions about eating right, dealing with stress, or ways to stop smoking? You can ask S.A.R.A.H., and she’ll answer back.

S.A.R.A.H. is a new interactive artificial intelligence resource from the World Health Organization. S.A.R.A.H. can also provide information on mental health, cancer, heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes. 

I asked, “What is a healthy weight for man who is 5 feet 10 inches tall?”

“The ideal weight for a man who is 5 feet 10 varies, depending on factors such as age, muscle mass, and overall health,” S.A.R.A.H. said. “It’s important to focus on maintaining a healthy lifestyle rather than a specific number on a scale.” She then offered resources for weight management.

S.A.R.A.H., which stands for Smart AI Resource Assistant for Health, replaces an earlier version. Florence was designed to answer COVID-19 questions and dispel myths about vaccination. Florence was trained on a limited health database, but S.A.R.A.H. uses Open AI’s GPT (generative pretrained transformer) large language model to answer a wider range of health questions.

The health assistant speaks many languages and is designed to be as culturally sensitive and free of bias as possible. “Addressing cultural and health literacy differences globally is crucial for S.A.R.A.H.’s long-term success,” said Katerina Botsiou, a communications consultant at WHO Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

S.A.R.A.H. can speak eight languages and is “thus more accessible to diverse populations.” The technology is trained on data from the World Health Organization and trusted partners “to ensure culturally sensitive outputs,” Botsiou said. 

Giving AI a persona that can show emotion is a big advance, compared to a text-only chatbot, said Brian Anderson, MD, CEO of the Coalition for Health AI (CHAI). The coalition is a group of AI stakeholders who work to help others develop safe and effective uses of AI in health care.

“Aesthetically, [S.A.R.A.H.] is engaging. The ability to display a human face and the mannerisms … is really compelling,” he said. The technology provides both visual and non-visual cues that emulate human conversation, he said. It also helps that S.A.R.A.H. meets people where they are in terms language, culture, and education level.

S.A.R.A.H. appears as a woman in her late 20s with brown eyes, brown hair pulled back, and wearing a blue T-shirt. Her facial expressions change as you “talk” with her, her skin shows wrinkles, and her eyes blink. She also appears to sway, as if shifting her weight from one foot to the other. 

 “So long as the way that the AI is used to is to help an individual navigate a complex health question, that’s a wonderful thing,” said Anderson, who was not involved in developing S.A.R.A.H.

S.A.R.A.H. is available 24/7. So when she offers advice on getting a good night’s sleep, it’s more “Do as I say” than “Do as I do.” 

There were some challenges in developing the technology, Botsiou said. They adjusted AI algorithms to make her more accurate, ensure her data was solid, and to maintain robust data privacy and security measures.

Impressive as the technology is, some facial expressions and pauses in the conversation serve as a reminder that S.A.R.A.H. is a work in progress. There is an important disclosure on the S.A.R.A.H. website that the information may not always be accurate. It remains to be seen whether the answers she gives will be reliable and can be reproduced, Anderson said. 

The technology is based on generative AI, so it will learn and evolve over time. 

WHO did not go it alone. It partnered with a tech company called Soul Machines Limited and a creative company called Rooftop to develop S.A.R.A.H. and provide “authentic, human-like responses.” WHO plans to keep a close eye on S.A.R.A.H., issuing regular updates to keep the technology transparent, accountable, and ethical. 

Visit the World Health Organization Meet S.A.R.A.H. website and turn on your device’s microphone and speaker to give S.A.R.A.H. a try. 

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