In January this year, The Times published an article telling us that our Fitbits are set to become sentient beings, hell bent on taking down the NHS.
Now I know that AI scaremongering is clickbait, a sure-fire way to hook in readers and I certainly have reservations of my own when it comes to its usage and regulation in healthcare. However, what the report from the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges actually says is that regulation should not stifle innovation – especially if that innovation might help with one of the key challenges facing the NHS.
The gist of the Times article sensationally suggested that an increase in activity tracker usage could lead to not just an increase but an “overwhelming volume” of worried well knocking on the doors of the primary care system all as a result of an erroneous heart rate reading.
It is a possibility but let’s consider the other side of the story.
As a nation we are getting fatter. Back in 2015 when I wrote my first linkedin article on wearables, roughly a quarter of the UK population were classified as obese, an increase of 15% since 1993. It’s still 26%. The NHS is literally groaning under the strain that obesity-related admissions causes. In 2016/17, there were over 600,000 admissions where obesity was cited as a contributing factor.
Now in this context, the net result of greater engagement in fitness tracking inspired by the use of Fitbit and other health related wearables, is actually an improvement in personal health management and likely to be a real positive for the NHS and broader society.
I don’t doubt that there are, to cite directly the Times article in question, ‘garbage’ fitness trackers out there, I said as much in my original 2015 article. However, on reflection I firmly come down on the side of the fitness tracker industry who in spite of the inevitable questions on reliability are genuinely driving positive change.
Rather than inspiring fear of our Fitbits and the shallow end of health tech, we should be celebrating them as drivers of positive change, behaviour change that the NHS and primary care trusts across the country have spent millions trying to bring about with little success.
So rather than taking a cheap shot at activity trackers for the sake of column inches, let’s divert our energy and attention to the more important side of AI evolution: the few, very large and largely unregulated companies in the US, the so called GMAFIA (Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, IBM, Apple) not to mention Chinese giants Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu. These companies, according to prominent futurist Amy Webb, are really the ones advancing and controlling the use of AI globally and have the power to change our futures.