What are the implications surrounding wearables and machine learning?

fitness-tracker-image
A cartoon image of a fitness tracker. Image used courtesy of SBMag. Copyright © 2016.

Wearables – what are they?

Over the years, the usage of wearables has increased dramatically and is continuing to grow. Currently, with a market value of 2.9 billion dollars, experts predict it will rise to 5.8 billion dollars by 2018. This savvy technology includes smart watches, glasses, fitness and health trackers. Their primary goal is to collect user data using smart sensors and convert it into meaningful data to help the user meet certain goals, such as staying fit, active, losing weight or being more organised.

Machine learning and wearables

Despite being extremely intelligent pieces of technology, wearables do have a limit in the amount of big data they can interpret. This is where machine learning comes to play, it focuses on the ability of AI to learn, that is teaching computers to make predictions based on for example, training data. To do this, wearables connect to a computer through internet or bluetooth connection and exchange data. Using specialised algorithms, the computer classifies the data and analyses it, this in turn provides predictions based on current data. So machine learning could determine over time, whether how much you’ve eaten affects your pace when running.

Implications of wearables and machine learning

Positives

Wearables have been associated with improving the health and fitness of its users. However, data has revealed that these trackers may be doing more harm than good. New data has emerged from the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that wearable monitor devices do not help people lose weight. Rather the opposite: People who wore trackers for 18 months of attempted weight loss actually lost less weight than people who went untracked – shocking, right? Psychology has provided an explanation for these results referring to a phenomenon called the health halo. By wearing fitness trackers, users feel a sense of gratification after prolonged exercise, simply by wearing one and feel the need for a reward, which can usually take the form of an unhealthy snack. This can lead to an unhealthy motivation for exercise and ultimately means they will not lose much weight. Although, several self-tracking data technologies include ‘gamification’ strategies which use built-in reward systems so that points or even real money can be collected or paid if certain goals are either met or unmet, providing motivation and encouragement for good practices and punishment and guilt for failed commitments. This can be a better incentive to lose weight for some people. However, ultimately, the most successful users are those who are genuinely motivated to become more healthy or fit for the sole reason of improving their health and nothing more.

While self-tracking, in its very name and focus on the ‘self’ may appear to be an individualistic practice, many self-trackers view themselves as part of a community of trackers. Using wearables has become a social activity, users will meet up and discuss their own results with others. They use social media and platforms designed for comparing and sharing personal data such as the Quantified Self to engage with and learn from other users. Self-tracking is moving from purely personal use to becoming a social activity. This is a great way for people to interact and make fitness friends.

Negatives

The cost of wearable technology can be an issue for many potential consumers with the average fitness tracker technology costing around £73 while the high-end smart watches can cost between £160 to £200 on average. Studies suggest that the technology is mostly targeted towards upper middle-class people, these digital lovers typically have more disposable income with 29 percent earning over £80,000 a year. Undoubtedly, price is a major barrier for tech companies and despite the majority of 16 to 24 year olds find the idea wearable technology appealing, purchase intent was cut in half from 24 percent to a mere 12 percent after learning about the price of such technology. It is clear that tech companies need to consider using more affordable designs in order to appeal to a wider consumer base.

While these technologies can be great for learning about ones health and fitness, there are issues with privacy surrounding them. As more and more data is collected from users, concerns over the exploitation of user data is also on the rise. There are concerns over who will have access to private user data and just how confidential tech companies are as there is always the potential for spying and exploitation. People fear their insurance companies from accessing their fitness data and risk being charged. As more and more consumers purchase wearable technology, this will provide hackers plenty of opportunities to steal and exploit sensitive data for financial gain. The majority of smart watches are very vulnerable to data theft and despite some smart watches such as Apple Watch being equipped with advanced security features, the risk of data being exploited is not completely eliminated.

A short comic video titled Pizza Surveillance created for the American Civil Liberties Union envisions our future privacy and questions the true nature of privacy in an increasingly digital age. Are we moving to a new era where civil liberty has no meaning? Should we be scared of the ever-growing digital technologies? It is estimated that over 6.4 billion devices will be connected to the internet by the end of 2016 and will reach 20.8 billion by 2020. How can privacy survive in the era of the internet of things? While wearable technology is great and informative, surveillance is an important issue and one that we must address for the safety and security of all people.

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