In 2018, Apple added Live Listen support for AirPods, making it possible to double your iOS device as a directional mic and have the audio relayed into the wireless earphones. While the accessibility feature was intended to help people with hearing loss and blur the lines between earphones and hearing aids, many infamously used it to spy on their partners.
Apart from Apple’s ambitions of boosting real-time conversations, a recent review by The Wall Street Journal reveals how the company is actively working on the next big health push with its AirPods—currently exploring new ways to turn them into a health tracking device. According to documents reviewed by the publication, the new AirPods would not only enhance a wearer’s hearing but would also monitor and correct their posture. A prototype would additionally check their core body temperature as an attempt to provide all-round health insights.
‘But how can a pair of AirPods track temperature and posture?’ I hear you ask. The answer lies with motion sensors and in-ear thermometers. The device will alert wearers of their poor posture the moment they start slouching. Hints and tips on correcting this posture would also be offered along the way. When it comes to measuring one’s core temperature, which refers to the temperature of the body’s internal organs, infrared technology or an ear thermometer are commonly used outside of medical settings.
In terms of its alleged enhanced hearing functions, Apple has recently taken a step in this direction with the launch of ‘Conversation Boost’ in iOS 15. The feature essentially focuses your AirPods Pro on the person talking in front of you, making it easier to hear in a face-to-face conversation. While the success of this feature is yet to be seen, the latest report fuels suspicion whether the tech giant plans on expanding this existing feature or introduce an entirely new one.
Irrespective of these claims, Apple would face numerous hurdles in the quest of marketing AirPods as health gadgets. For starters, the device can’t be termed as ‘hearing aids’ today, given federal regulations that date back decades to when many of the devices were unsafe or ineffective. These restrictions require them to be sold through licensed hearing specialists who tune the aids to the wearer. The Wall Street Journal, however, noted how a US Food and Drug Administration ruleset due in 2022 might help make this possible—by creating a new category of over-the-counter hearing aids that consumers can tune themselves. Even though the rules are expected to permit companies like Apple, Bose and Samsung to market cheaper hearing aids, it could still take months to approve the earbuds.
Then there is the entire debate surrounding the technical challenges Apple will face. At the moment, AirPods Pro won’t last longer than 4.5 hours for listening (with noise cancelling switched on) and 3.5 hours for calls. These statistics are far from practical considering how one might need to use the device all day. On these terms, the design of such AirPods would have to ensure user comfort while inclusively adapting to various types of hearing loss.
The proposed AirPods features aren’t expected to roll out anytime soon either—with people familiar with the company’s plans even cautioning that the prototype will never see the light of day. But Doctor Nicholas Reed, an audiologist at Johns Hopkins, said the very prospect of Apple offering future AirPods as an over-the-counter hearing aid would be a potential game changer. According to him, the company’s ubiquitous earbuds can break age-old stigmas associated with traditional hearing aids, which often prevents people from wearing them, not to mention that the cost would be significantly lower in comparison. Frequent temperature and posture checking are also imperative in this regard, given how the former can be a sign of a serious medical condition while the latter has been associated with poor health by putting extra stress on both muscles and joints.
With almost 28 million Americans suffering from mild hearing loss and only 5 per cent of them using an aid, Apple’s strong commitment to accessibility might catapult others into a new market for health-focused wearables beyond devices like the new Apple Watch Series 7. A previous report by The Wall Street Journal also noted how the company aims to leverage iPhones to help diagnose depression and cognitive decline.
Healthcare has also been a prime focus for Apple, with CEO Tim Cook even believing that it’s what the firm will be remembered for. “If you zoom out into the future, look back and ask the question, ‘What was Apple’s greatest contribution to mankind?’ it will be about health,” he said in a CNBC interview back in 2019. Now it’s all a matter of living up to this vision and promise.
When you think about how intertwined the smartphone has become with our daily lives, it’s easy to forget that just over a decade or so, the technology didn’t even exist. Now, my iPhone is basically an extension of my body; it’s my social life, my wallet and now my COVID-19 pass. Smartphones are already being used for medical-related purposes: screening for conditions from autism to pancreatic cancer, managing ultrasound wands and even cardiac monitors… The list goes on. And believe it or not, but soon enough, that sleek, thin device in your pocket, powered by a small silicone chip, could even be used to monitor your own state of mind.
A recent report by The Wall Street Journal has broken the news that Apple is allegedly working on ways to help detect and diagnose conditions such as depression, anxiety and cognitive decline using iPhones. Researchers working on the project hope that collecting and analysing data, such as mobility and sleeping patterns, will help stop certain behaviours associated with mental health conditions.
It’s been reported that other measures could also be used to collect data including facial expression analysis, as well as heart and respiration rates. Although this may seem invasive on the surface, Apple has reassured users that no data will be sent to their servers—with all processing taking place on a localised level, strictly on the device only. My advice? Take this with a pinch of salt.
While the idea of using emerging technologies to benefit mental well-being is not a new phenomenon, it’s actually been in the academic pipeline for some time now. The University of California is currently studying stress, anxiety and depression using data from Apple Watches and iPhones. Currently, 3,000 volunteers are being used in the study which is scheduled to start this year after a successful pilot phase began in 2020, recording data from 150 volunteers. The research will be used to guide Apple in its quest to build technologies that will supposedly make us happier.
Along with detecting mental health conditions, Apple is also honing its sites to better combat cognitive decline through assisted technology. One of the most influential studies in this challenge is being led by the pharmaceutical firm Biogen. The multinational’s research will analyse how monitoring data, gathered by 20,000 iPhones and Apple Watches, could help identify links between physical activity levels, smartphone use and cognitive function. The goal: to use those particular data points to track brain function over time, hoping to catch mild signs of cognitive impairment—which could advance to more sinister disorders, like Alzheimer’s disease—as early as possible.
The study will follow an early-stage investigation conducted by Apple with Eli Lilly (another American pharmaceutical company) to uncover connections between tech use and cognitive function. In 2019, researchers found that individuals already diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment or dementia typed slower, sent fewer text messages and used devices more erratically than those with healthy cognitive function.
So the scientific, objective data is somewhat unanimous—at least in suggesting that emerging technologies could be beneficial in helping us detect both mental health conditions and forms of cognitive impairments. But the question of whether we should is far more complex. At first glance, it seems like a no-brainer—it could help detect (and protect) people from often debilitating conditions and ultimately benefit the lives of millions. Secondly, in 2021, with the vast majority of the population owning a smartphone, it would be an easy and convenient way to monitor our health. Heck, we use it for tracking our steps, our sleep schedule, or favourite take-away pizza—why not give away another piece of that precious data?
But that’s where it gets tricky… To what point do we trust leading tech companies with arguably the most sensitive, private and personal data we possess, our own mental state? Moreover, although there is scientific backing behind this project suggesting it could be implemented with little to no misdiagnosis, there is always the chance a device could make a mistake.
The repercussions of being misdiagnosed with a mental health condition purely from a data fault could be incredibly detrimental. Taking the placebo effect into the equation, it could lead to someone believing they do in fact have the condition, so much so they actually develop the condition. And don’t even get me started on the issues of data breaches. Although, admittedly, the risk of this is minimal due to the fact that Apple has so far promised us all data will remain solely on the localised devices.
It all seems a little ironic, especially given how smartphone addiction and social media has been shown to have adverse effects on our mental wellbeing. Ultimately, however, I do believe it was only a matter of time before big tech companies latched onto the emerging psycho-technology market. And putting the ethical issue of privacy aside, it does seem like Apple’s new venture could help countless people across the planet. The pandemic has, unfortunately, put mental health at the forefront of our minds and technology like this may be one of the key solutions to the problem. Only time will tell whether Apple has finally put the well-being of people as its number one priority. For now though, I wouldn’t put my money (or data) on it.