Wearables: personalisation or surveillance?

Sunday 29 October, 12:0013:00, Frobisher Auditorium 1Tech futures

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By 2020, Gartner predicts there will be around 20 billion connected ‘things’ across the globe. While many devices such as wall sensors, smart meters and thermostats may seem mundane, the advent of ‘wearables’ promises to forge a seamless relationship between our digital and our personal and working lives. With a smart watch or a fitness tracker, we can now access online services or monitor our health, all from the comfort of our own wrists. And medtech companies are going beyond mainstream wearable applications and exploring use-cases such as checking patients’ vital signs during hospital stays, notifying patients when they are about to have a seizure, either via embedded devices or even ‘smart pills’.

Fitbits and other tracking devices can provide us with knowledge of the self in the form of calories, steps, sleeping patterns and other vitals. Does this knowledge equate to more power over the self? Can it even advance all of our interests through the aggregation of this data for a variety of purposes, from healthcare and medical research to human resources decision-making? Or does the wearable trend speak more to a human tendency to self-monitor, which may lead to anxiety and even prove counter-productive, encouraging ideas like “I’ve walked 10,000 steps today, therefore I’ll treat myself to a reward by getting some fried chicken”? Doctors have long complained about self-diagnosis and misinformation from the dissemination of healthcare information online. Could data from wearables encourage such bad habits?

Wearables pose opportunities and challenges beyond our personal lives however, if they are incorporated into the wider economy. Personalisation in insurance, for example, is leading to interesting ethical debates in the industry. As insurers are becoming more tech savvy, they are able to access and analyse greater levels of data to accurately define and price risk. Some envisage a future where individuals are rewarded with a lower health insurance premium if they can provide evidence of healthy living, in the same way that telematics has done so in car insurance. Whether we pool or individualise risk in insurance leads to questions around both fairness and freedom: is it fair that the healthy are burdened by the ill? Can we take our own risks, free from the ‘nudging’ of a wearable device?

Although it’s often a cliché to cite science-fiction type criticisms around the development of tech, the advent of wearables also warrants discussions around privacy and security. The creation of ‘yottabytes’ of personal data could in future lead to a Panopticon, where those with access could see not just how many steps you have taken or the quality of your sleep over the last week but whom you have spent time with, at what place and what time.

In short, are wearables an invaluable aid to health and to improving productivity and the experience of work? Or will they create a new breed of ‘worried well’ and provide a means to make us work harder while undermining privacy and fairness?