• John Ennis

Eye on AI - July 30th, 2021

Welcome to Aigora's "Eye on AI" series, where we round up exciting news at the intersection of consumer science and artificial intelligence!

This week, we’ll be looking at the current downsides of wearable devices: their claimed benefits, the lack of research supporting many of those claims, and the complex (and often invasive) data collection processes they use.


New Study Questions Benefits of Wearable Devices

Wearables are everywhere. There’s the smartwatch, smart earbuds, smart underwear. Even that smartphone in your pocket qualifies as a quasi-wearable device, capable of tracking everything from your basic health functions to your daily exercise intake. It’s a booming market, one that’s expected to exceed $48.2B in revenue by 2023. Yet a new Technology in the Arts article, titled “Wearable devices: Useful medical insights or just more data? – Science & research news,” calls into question the benefits of many wearable suppliers.

“Despite the fact that we live in an era of ‘big data,’ we know surprisingly little about the suitability or effectiveness of these devices,” says lead author Dr Jonathan Peake of the School of Biomedical Sciences and Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia. “Only 5 percent of these devices have been formally validated.”

The article focuses on a recent Frontiers in Physiology review that looks at information on wearable devices used by both everyday people looking to keep track of physical and psychological health and athletes training to achieve higher performance levels, then addresses whether their supposed benefits were actually verifiable.

Devices were divided into a number of categories, ranging from hydration and breathing tracking to cognitive feedback and training, then assessed based on what the technology claims to do vs. whether the technology had been independently validated against some recognized standards, among other standards. One finding that stood out was that those technologies developed specifically for research purposes (as opposed to commercial) were much more likely to be verifiably beneficial.

“What is critical to understand here is that while most of these technologies are not labeled as ‘medical devices’ per se, their very existence, let alone the accompanying marketing, conveys a sensibility that they can be used to measure a standard of health,” says Peake. “There are ethical issues with this assumption that need to be addressed.”

Think of mental health apps, for example. Many provide things like meditation methodologies, breathing techniques, sleep support, etc., linking the technology’s benefits with those already attributed to the mindfulness practices they provide. The problem is that most mindfulness practices are traditionally done without a wearable or phone device, meaning their benefits could be linked to things like disconnecting or in-person communal engagement. Companies that supply these technologies often hire in-house research teams, which perform studies to validate their technology’s effectiveness, most of which are done in-house by researchers on the company payroll, but lacking studies by independent researchers –– you may recall tobacco companies did the same thing when touting the “benefits” of cigarettes. Even the idea of tracking mindfulness on a phone, like a game where you accrue higher and higher mindfulness ‘levels,’ seems counterintuitive to a mindfulness practice, which raises ethical concerns over unvalidated beneficial claims.

“The ever-expanding public interest in health technologies raises several ethical issues,” writes Van den Bulck, J., authors of a study on sleep apps the Frontiers in Physiology researchers reviewed. “First, self-diagnosis based on self-gathered data could be inconsistent with clinical diagnoses provided by medical professionals. Second, although self-monitoring may reveal undiagnosed health problems, such monitoring on a large population level is likely to result in many false positives. Last, the use of technologies may create an unhealthy (or even harmful) obsession with personal health for individuals or their family members who use such technologies.”

One issue at hand is that of data collection. Data, as you may have heard, is the new black gold. Getting users to share trackable information, then storing that information in a data bank, is the easiest way for companies to mine it. The more data a company collects, the higher its evaluation. It’s not just wearables that are doing this, either. Smart speakers and smart appliances are guilty of it. Amazon is even selling Alexa to third party brands, allowing them to build a personalized version of Alexa into their own products. Soon it may be possible to talk to every household device, from doors that close automatically to furniture that rearranges itself on command. Some of these applications will be wonderfully beneficial. Many of them are changing the world for the better. Others will be specifically data mining devices cloaked as the health trackers. That’s not to say that all wearable devices or other data collection technologies without verifiable benefits are bad. It’s just that we shouldn’t so freely put our trust in them. When in doubt, look for independently verifiable sources.

“Is wearing a device that continuously tracks your body’s actions, your brain activity, and your metabolic function — then wirelessly transmits that data to either a cloud-based data bank or some other storage — safe, for users? Will it help us improve our health?” asked Peake. “We need to ask these questions and research the answers.”

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