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2018-09-25

How technology is radically shaping the future of wellness


TextSarah Raphael

From therapy chatbots to apps offering guided meditations, we examine the effects of Artificial Intelligence and data tracking on the wellness industry

At 7.18am in George Orwell’s 1984, citizens partake in Physical Jerks, a mandatory exercise programme projected in each citizen’s cell on a two-way screen. If a citizen can’t bend low enough or complete the exercise to the leader’s standard, Big Brother singles the citizen out and tells them to do better. Orwell wrote 1984 in 1949 and it’s not a million miles from what workout culture has become: YouTube tutorials, $4000 Peloton treadmills with live-stream capabilities, and the general societal pressure that if you’re not at the peak of your physical and mental fitness, you are a poor citizen – in danger of becoming an ‘unperson’.

If Silicon Valley continues to gather our body’s data and beat our neurological pathways to the punch with push notifications on how we should be breathing, sleeping, eating, drinking, thinking and moving, what will the future hold? Will Big Brother start watching us? China is just three years away from implementing a compulsory social credit system which will judge citizens on their respectability and affect their chances of getting good jobs, with fast broadband using technology platforms to track their behaviour. Health insurance companies in the US and the UK already hand out Fitbit watches to their customers to track diet, fitness and sleep quality. It's not inconceivable that they might start using this data against us.

Aside from scary Chinese Big Brother and the Black Mirror data cloud, for the time being, wellness tech is quite pleasant. All mums enjoy updating their adult children on how many steps they’ve done, and running while practicing mindfulness (see the Nike x Headspace collab) is much nicer than just running. While some scientists and doctors are sceptical of wellness tech, saying there’s little evidence to prove that this stuff works, others drink the Kool-Aid, actively recommending meditation apps to patients who are suffering from stress, anxiety and depression. My own doctor recommended Calm and Headspace to help with my anxiety. It did work... a bit... I think.

According to 'Traffic Statistics & Market Intelligence' service Similar Web, the top five wellness apps are fitness-focused: MyFitnessPal, Fitbit and Sweatcoin. Mindfulness and meditation app Calm is at number six, closely followed by its biggest rival Headspace at number eight. Calm co-founder Michael Acton Smith recently told me that he wants Calm to become “the Nike of the mind.” The app currently offers guided meditations for stress, anxiety, inner peace and resilience, and bedtime stories read by Stephen Fry about lavender fields in Provence, but Acton Smith has lofty ambitions for its future, with talk of buying an island – Calm Islands. You can see it now: touching down in a lavender field with Stephen Fry saying ‘Welcome to Calm Island’ over the tannoy. There’d be silent walks, personal reflection sessions in blue lagoons, guided naps and mindful meal eating. Island staff would speak in an ASMR whisper enunciating all their s’s, and stroke your face with a makeup brush. You’d write down your worries on a piece of paper, fold them into origami birds, hang them on the branches of a tree and then watch them blow away in the breeze...

Elsewhere on the top fifty list, after the physical fitness and mental fitness apps, are hormonal/ period tracking apps such as Flo (at number nine) and Clue (at number 12). Clue asks you to enter your data from the day; have you had any bleeding? Was it light, medium or heavy? Have you taken a contraceptive pill? Did you have unprotected sex and were you particularly horny? Is your skin oily or dry? Are you feeling withdrawn? The app then tells you which day you’ll likely get your period, which days you might experience PMS and how severe it might be, and helps you navigate bleeding, ovulation and emotions.

Wired magazine wrote that the most obvious future for health tech is femtech since we are now in full flow of a feminist revolution, yet “women’s health technology hasn’t updated for years”. Amy Thomson, founder of Moody Month, an app which launches this September identified a gap in the market for intelligent femtech long before Wired. “What I felt was missing was women’s health as lifestyle, not textbook science”, she tells me. “Women’s health and our understanding of our bodies and moods have felt like information only academics and doctors have access to, so the mission for Moody Month is to build a digital space that allows every woman to better understand her body.” Amy’s intention is for women to learn and share through Moody Month, and if the sky was the limit, her dream would be to “build a fully democratic women’s health research facility – not funded by pharmaceutical companies or governments but driven by data donated by the community.”

Amy thinks wellness tech should start addressing “the root issues, not just put a plaster on the immediate problems.” She predicts there will be “a shift from tracking to finding long-lasting habitual patterns and better relationships with ourselves in the real world.” So far, most apps just track data. MyFitnessPal, for instance, encourages you to track your calories and exercise, but doesn’t show you trends in your behaviour, offer long-term solutions, or dare mention that tracking your calories won’t make you happy.

Lily Silverton, a body positive yoga teacher and Head of Wellbeing at Raw Press agrees that the short-termist nature of some (not all) wellness apps conflicts with the thing they say they’re trying to achieve. “I don’t see the merit in calorie tracking apps, as I don’t think people should be tracking their calories in that way. Instead we should be encouraging people to foster overall healthy relationships with food”, she tells me. “Ultimately, any piece of tech takes us away from ourselves and others and I think true wellness comes from better connecting with yourself and those around you. You can calculate numbers about yourself using technology, but in way you’re just creating an external view – looking at yourself from the outside in – rather than actually getting to know yourself (the good and the bad) and then using that knowledge to live a better life.”

Lily is concerned that wellness tech is too individualistic. “Right now the wellbeing industry is very inward focused (take a yoga class, drink a green juice, meditate, feel good about that) but I’d love to see it extend out into more care and concern for the wellbeing of society in general, with more genuine, large scale community and social projects. I’d hate the opposite to happen, and for wellbeing to become (as it is so often portrayed on Instagram) the idea of striving for individual perfection.”

In the award-winning HBO series Silicon Valley, one of the running jokes is how all the entrepreneurs running the most successful tech firms talk about saving the world with their apps. One says: ‘Ok, you know, we’re making a lot of money. And yes, we’re disrupting digital media. But most importantly, we’re making the world a better place.” Another says: “Hooli isn’t just about software. Hooli is about people. Hooli is about innovative technology that makes a difference, transforming the world as we know it, making the world a better place.”

Wellness tech may indeed save the world. In a speech earlier this year, Theresa May talked about artificial intelligence transforming our healthcare system by helping catch symptoms of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and dementia early. “The development of smart technologies to analyse great quantities of data quickly and with a higher degree of accuracy than is possible by human beings opens up a whole new field of medical research and gives us a new weapon in our armoury in the fight against disease”, she said.

And then there's mental health, another area that could benefit hugely from tech with therapy chatbots. The first therapy chatbot – Eliza – was created in the 1960s at the artificial intelligence lab in MIT. Eliza ‘interacted’ by reading scripts written by psychologists, and while her inventor Joseph Weizenbaum insisted that she was not capable of actually understanding problems since she just read a script, the people who trialled Eliza disagreed, believing she was capable of understanding. The latest therapy chat bot, Tess, made in Silicon Valley by artificial intelligence app founder Michiel Rauws is capable of reacting to new information and therefore ‘understanding.’ Trained by support workers, nurses and therapists, Tess can make educated guesses based on her previous conversations with people. “One of the things that makes Tess different from many other chatbots is that she doesn’t use pre-selected responses”, the Guardian reported.

There are over 160,000 wellness apps on the App Store, and all those founders and CEOs have ambitions. Data tracking could change everything, Artificial Intelligence could change everything, for the better and for the worse. We could be living in Blade Runner or in 1984 in 50 years’ time. But we could also be living on a Calm island, chatting to Tess, and designing our own VR happy places to hang out in for 10 minutes during a stressful day at work.

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