Sci-fi movies have long predicted immortality through the integration of humans and technology. As the internet of things continues to grow into every aspect of our lives, an emerging trend that we’re seeing is the application for health. Currently we have smartphones with pedometers and heart rate monitors that can let you know when you’re stressed, apps that can take pictures of food and tell you the health content of your meal, as well as various other exercise/health tracking type applications.
Most of these devices and applications require a user to consciously use them to find benefit. In a world where we often stop to get fast food because we don’t have the time or patience to make food, actively using these apps are likely going to be limited to those who actively work on their health; i.e. the health enthusiast and gymnazis. (Yes, I just coined that word. Can you tell I’m fat?)
The invention of wearable health tracking devices has changed all of that. The FitBit was first to the market offering up the ability to effortlessly track your activity levels and sleep activity; two crucial activities for human health. With the emerging trend in smartwatches, the likelihood of the average consumer wearing a device that can track your ongoing health is going to increase drastically. The implications go far beyond just tracking activity level and sleeping patterns.
I foresee in the near future that these devices will be tracking our pulse on an ongoing basis, taking our blood pressure multiple times a day, checking our temperature, and even potentially our blood sugar. This is becoming an ever increasing possibility as skin implanted devices are being developed. As was recently reported by the New York Times, devices are in development that adhere like a band-aid or temporary tattoo that have all the sensors necessary to monitor many of our vital signals. With computation technology that will store ongoing data in the cloud, the opportunity for understanding disease and life threatening illness and events is huge.
John A. Rogers/The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Imagine just being able to see the trends amongst human pulse of millions of individuals about to have a heart attack. Couple that with trends in blood pressure being captured and calculated in real time, this technology has huge implications to save lives and help identify imminent health threats and address them prior to being fatal.
The biggest challenge to this technology having an impact is security. With the recent scandal of leaked celebrity pictures, and the ongoing news articles about retailers being hacked, the general public’s opinion of information security is relatively low. The question that we as the human race need to ask ourselves is: is the risk of our health information getting into the wrong hands too high to justify the incredible benefits on ongoing health tracking and life saving opportunities.
While some of our personal health lives could be exposed, do we want our pride to be the thing that stops us from health advancements? Additionally, there are a number of ways in which this risk could be mitigated. These devices don’t have to be tied to us personally. The cloud can capture the data anonymously, while allowing our doctors to manually download ongoing data in each of our checkups. This would enable the benefits of big data while mitigating the risk of personal health information from leaking from the cloud.
The real risk of this technology harming the human race is when these connected devices start to have the power to intervene with our health. By having mini injection kits that could inject specific drugs triggered by certain medical indications, the opportunity to save lives is even greater. This comes, however, with greater risks. Hackers could potentially gain access to one of these devices and trigger an unwarranted overdose on fatal drugs. A cloud connected pacemaker could be converted into an online connected taser.
This becomes especially disconcerting with the security research firm Europol predicting that the first online murder will occur by the end of 2014. Serious advancements in information security and public opinion will have to occur before these devices will be accepted by the general public.
In conclusion, there are incredible opportunities to improve human health with the introduction of technology. Big data has the opportunity to drastically improve our understanding of disease and life threatening events. Devices with the ability to intervene are incredibly promising, but ultimately come with greater risks and issues to sort out prior to mainstream acceptance. One thing is certain, the marriage of health and technology is extremely promising yet terrifying in its own way.