As Personal Tech Moves Into Medicine Will We Get Better Health or Precrime?

Better Health or Precrime?

Smartphones, Fitbits, Apple watches, and much more are examples of personal technology that will measure all sorts of bodily functions. Instead of just improving you health what if they are used to assess your psychological state like a lie detector on steroids? Could we predict when an individual is about to commit a violent act? Before you shrug this off as sci-fi have you heard of SAFEHOME?

Did you know that the American government is considering a health research program called HARPA – The Health Advanced Research Projects Agency? It’s modeled after DARPA where the “D” is for Defense (You know, these are the folks who gave us the internet, stealth, etc.). HARPA too, will explore more “out-of-the-box” research possibilities. The concept is gathering bipartisan support and apparently Ivanka Trump has asked its supporters if they could come up with new approaches to stopping mass shootings.

The advocates response was a proposal for a project called SAFEHOME for Stopping Aberrant Fatal Events by Helping Overcome Mental Extremes — which calls for exploring whether technology including phones and smartwatches can be used to detect when mentally ill people are about to turn violent.

There are potentially a lot of issues with the development and deployment of such a technology. In addition, to the civil liberty challenges of mass monitoring citizens, there is the tenuous, at best, link between mental illness and mass shootings. Intuitively, it seems to make sense that individuals who commit such heinous acts must have deep mental problems. President Trump has repeatedly indicated his belief that mental illness contributes to mass shootings but in actuality there is very little scientific evidence.

Seems like a bit of stretch to get there then, right? Well, consider this: what if we coupled up the biological readings from our personal tech with the records of our Internet activity. We have all become aware of the vast amount of data that Google and Facebook have collected on us. Imagine the government doing the same and using its proprietary algorithms to hunt for patterns that portend violence.

Oh Wait! You don’t have to imagine it. Our friends at DARPA have been working on this for some time. It is called ADAMS for Anomaly Detection at Multiple Scales. As the DARPA site explains: “The initial application domain is insider threat detection in which malevolent (or possibly inadvertent) actions by a trusted individual are detected against a background of everyday network activity.”

Sounds like science fiction until it isn’t. Back in 1956, Philip K. Dick wrote the short sci-fi story: “Minority Report”. Steven Spielberg later made it into a movie of the same name. In it Precrime is the name of a criminal justice agency whose task is to identify and arrest persons who are predicted to commit crimes in the future.

Already today Internet technology and biology are connecting in ways we could not envision just ten years ago. We are finding criminals by their Internet activity and murderers by their genetic genealogy. Are we about to see some kind of Precrime arm of the government driven by reactions to mass shootings?

Who knows what even the next five years will bring let alone another ten. Never underestimate the results of tech capability coupled to political momentum. After all, remember the snickers that met Trump’s first call for a U.S. Space Force? Well, at the end of this August the U.S. Space Command was launched bringing the Space Force one step closer.

Get ready for a world with Precrime courtesy of the smartphone you are carrying.

By John Pientka


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