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Friday, October 22, 2021

Your next iPhone could detect if you’re depressed


Analysis of device usage could detect depression, anxiety and cognitive decline.

A recent report by WSJ has highlighted the next big thing to potentially come to Apple’s devices: the tech giant is working on two research projects that can detect and diagnose mental health conditions.

The first, codenamed “Seabreeze”, is a partnership with UCLA focusing on tackling depression and anxiety. Its other partnership, codenamed “Pi”, is with health company Biogen. Pi focuses on cognitive decline issues.

The two projects are part of Apple’s efforts to rebrand itself as a health and wellness company, and come amid reports of rising mental health issues worldwide, particularly following the pandemic.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 41% of adults experienced anxiety or depression symptoms in January. This is marginally higher than the 11% figure reported two years. Mental Health America also said that anxiety screenings have increased by 93% in comparison to last year.

Read more: Could the pandemic lead to a wave of neuro and mental health issues?

Such data emphasises the need for widespread solutions to both detect and diagnose mental health problems, and the report suggests that Apple is working on a solution.

How can an iPhone detect depression?

The tech giant has frequently used its Apple Watch as its primary source for collecting health data such as heart rate, sleep and blood oxygen levels. The new studies, though, aim to utilise everyday interactions people have on their iPhones.

This works by utilising various inputs throughout the day. According to WSJ, this includes “analysis of participants’ facial expressions, how they speak as well as the pace and frequency of their walks”. It also monitors how participants are typing, including “the speed of their typing, frequency of their typos and content of what they type”.

The UCLA and Biogen studies are part of 1-2 year studies involving 3,000 and 20,000 participants.

The researchers compare the various inputs from a participant’s iPhone and Apple Watch with existing mental health measures, such as cognitive assessments, then measuring the amount of the stress hormone cortisol in follicles of participants’ hair. The goal is to identify a similar correlation between the device’s data and real-world tests to identify how an iPhone can be used to detect mental health conditions.

This research follows a 2019 study that found adults with cognitive impairment used their devices differently from other adults. The aim is to identify an accurate way of differentiating between the two.

Is Apple the right company for this?

This isn’t Apple’s first health project [Apple]
​​Mental health detection tools are by no means Apple’s first health and wellbeing projects.

A study into irregular heart rhythms led to Apple developing an electrocardiogram in its Apple Watch Series 4. Another project led to Walking Steadiness in iOS 15, which predicts the likelihood of falling down in the next 12 months.

As Apple markets its products, notably the Apple Watch, as health devices, the company invests in research to further its health capabilities.

Read more: Wearable technology could be the next big thing for diabetes

As Time Cook once said: “I really believe that if you zoom out to the future and then look back and ask, ‘what has Apple’s greatest contribution been? ‘ it will be in the health and wellness area.”

Do people trust Apple with such sensitive data?

The research involves participants sharing plenty of data with Apple, UCLA and Biogen, including facial expressions, typing data, and more. It also helps identify depression and mental health issues which many consider as a sensitive and private issue. So do people trust sharing such data with tech companies?

Apple is certainly aware of the privacy implications of such tools. The company’s proactive emphasis on privacy may give it an advantage over other competitors in the space.

Additionally, as with other tools developed by Apple, the analysis will reportedly run on-device with no identifying data sent to the company.

Apple markets itself as a privacy-conscious company [Apple]
Despite this, people should approach such revealing analysis with scepticism, particularly when it involves medical data. Apple’s efforts to maintain its privacy-conscious brand has come under fire after recent efforts to scan users’ photo libraries for child abuse content. Such backlash could weaken the company’s trust with consumers.

As such features are still in the research phase, it’s important to note that they may never even see the light of day. Early signs suggest that there is potential, though a release of such features is not guaranteed.

Read more: Protection or privacy: Should Apple scan your iPhone for child abuse content?

Experts also note that while companies such as Apple may use such technology to detect depression, diagnosing it is another challenge. Currently, smartwatches are good at identifying fitness levels and heart problems, but they do little more than inform the user.

Apple’s focus on health and wellbeing suggests that the company is invested in the field, and such research further reaffirms its commitment. Only time will tell whether or not we see such features land on an iPhone one day.

In the meantime, all we can do is ask, would you want your iPhone to detect mental health issues?

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