There has been a recent significant spike in electronic cigarette (e-cigarette) use among adolescents. According to the National Youth Tobacco Survey, utilization among high school students across the United States increased from 11.7% to 20.8%, signifying a 78.0% increase. Despite the widespread use of e-cigarettes, many young users are unaware of its nicotine presence and the risk of addiction. Researchers recently suggested that virtual characters and avatars may be useful components in intervention strategies, noting that 95% of U.S. teens have smartphone access, and 45% feel they are “almost constantly” online. For the study, the researchers used an artificial intelligence (AI)-based mobile application to increase e-cigarette awareness and promote smoking cessation among adolescents. The results were published online as part of the ATS 2020 International Conference.
In the application, a three-dimensional (3D) virtual character interacts with the adolescents and gives pertinent information “in an attractive format.” The application was created in three steps. First, the researchers collected relevant information that adolescents often overlook (e.g., potential harms, nicotine content, and addictive potential) and prepared it in a way that could be understood. Second, the data were used to train IBM Watson Assistant (IBMWA)—an AI virtual assistant that can learn and answer questions intuitively. Lastly, the 3D virtual character was developed using Unity 3D gaming software and associated with IBMWA using coding. The application was created for Windows and iOS devices and features a virtual 3D, young, voice-controlled character that uses evidence-based information to answer questions.
The study authors concluded that such AI avatars may be beneficial for giving adolescents increased access to pertinent information, although this remains “unexplored territory” and warrants formal evaluations.