At Health 2.0, Dolby Labs' Dr. Poppy Crum painted a future of ubiquitous sensors and data-driven health interventions.

By embracing biomarkers, 'empathetic technology' can address health issues unbeknownst to its users

By Dave Muoio
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“To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom” is an apt mantra for the countless digital health companies and device makers seeking to track health or wellness. Sensors worn on the wrist, housed in a phone or even adhered to the body are continuously collecting biomarkers that concerned wearers can reference when investigating their poor sleep or reviewing their weekly activity.

And while some of the latest personal sensors are starting to open the doors to diagnoses or are working in tandem with other medical interventions, Dr. Poppy Crum, chief scientist at Dolby Labs and an adjust professor at Stanford University, says that systems like these still have a greater opportunity to help individuals truly understand their mental and physical health.

Soon, she said it won’t be a stretch for sensors and systems to anticipate an individual’s feelings or intentions, augment their efforts, and do so at a person-to-person level — although reaching that point will require “empathetic technologies” that use biomarkers to understand and respond to a person’s various needs.

“Today, our devices help us know our stories, and optimize our environment for us based on behaviors. It enables us to save resources and save money,” she said during her keynote talk at Health 2.0 yesterday. “But there’s a big gap, because they’re still missing the critical [information]. They don’t even know whether we’re really hot or cold, they don’t know what I’m trying to do in that environment — What is my cognitive goal in that environment? Am I trying to sleep? Am I trying to be cognitively alert and finish a presentation late at night? Am I trying to heal, and how is my body different than yours?”

Already, there are a handful of well-understood biomarkers that are ripe for sensors to explore, Crum continued. Pupils, for example, will dilate in response to increased cognitive activity, while changes in the chemical composition of someone’s exhaled breath can be directly tied to external stimuli (Crum said that she and her team have previously been able to the align specific plot points in feature films with shifts in the audience’s breath compositions). The inner ear in particular is “basically a USB port” for humans, she said, as in-ear sensors could be employed to track spatial attention, gaze direction, stress, voice patterns and more.

But developing and validating these types of sensors is only a first step, Crum said. To really become effective, these tools will need to be ubiquitous, and no longer be solely housed within smartwatches, phones and other personal devices.

“The types of sensors that we used to tether our bodies [to] are moving off our bodies and into our environment,” she said. “Our environment can have a personalized relationship with us in a way that can optimize what we’re trying to do in that space. It can modify its color, sounds, temperature, all in a way to optimize my health, my healing, my training, my cognitive capacity.”

This type of move represents a different kind of passive monitoring, where individuals wouldn’t consciously activate data collection but still could yield the benefits of their insights and responses. With enough data, she said that these systems could come to understand more about a person’s condition than the individual themself, whether that be in regard to an undiagnosed medical condition or to their daily emotions and impulses.

But for all of this system’s potential, Crum did note that this future of passive, continuous monitoring would require a hard look at data privacy and consent — especially if these tools are analyzing unavoidable body functions.

“You start realizing there are two very powerful phenotypes, breath and voice, both for disease diagnosis as well as mental and physical wellness,” Crum said. “They’re incredibly powerful, but they’re also really tricky because in terms of data and privacy, they’re not tied to a device. They have this amorphous expansion of where that data flows, and that is something we have to think about.”

The privacy hurdle is by no means optional, but the benefits of solving this challenge make it well worth the effort, Crum said. Finally, we’ll have a clear picture of each person’s health and wellness needs, and be ready with data-driven systems already moving to address them.

“The ironic reality here is being able to track mental, emotional, physical wellness in a space is that increased tracking and ubiquitous sensing can, in some cases, really can mean greater autonomy and freedom for individuals,” she said. “Elders who would normally be in a care home, you suddenly know so much more information about them — whether they’ve taken their pills, whether they’ve fallen. And you can go well beyond that, to knowing whether they’re actually having a good quality of life.”