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New Amazon wellness product wants to increase your ‘positivity’, whatever that is

Internet giant Amazon has entered the digital health market with products that, among other things, want to make you sound more positive.

Amazon’s new health and wellness offering is called Halo. It consists of a screen-free fitness band and ‘a suite of AI-powered health tools’. This suite is comprised of five categories: activity, sleep, body, tone and labs. Activity and sleep are fairly self-explanatory, providing the usual data points apparently craved by people obsessed with their own metabolisms. Then it starts to get properly creepy.

Body is a feature that uses your smartphone camera and some software to calculate your body fat percentage. Here’s how Amazon says it works: First, a deep neural network (DNN) identifies your body and separates it from the background with pixel-level accuracy. This network is trained on hundreds of thousands of images to recognize the body in the photo, regardless of what else is in the camera’s view (pets, furniture, shadows, etc.).

Next, the information is analyzed by another DNN to understand the relationship between images of a person and the physical properties of their body, including body shape and distribution of fat and muscle. This DNN does not directly see body fat but analyzes the details of regions of the body known to be “hot spots” for measuring body fat, like the torso, thighs, and mid-back, as well as the overall shape of your body from the scan images to accurately estimate your BFP.

The shape and appearance of your body in the images is analyzed by a third DNN to generate your 3D body model. Body can remove the distraction of background and personal cosmetic details such as facial expression and hairstyle from the 3D model. This model is personalized to you.

Having learned how a human body can vary at different body fat percentages, Body applies this knowledge to your 3D model as part of the body model slider. This allows the slider to show you how your body could change as your body fat changes over time. All of this happens in a matter of seconds and works across variations in the smartphone camera you’re using or the environment you’re in.

That all seems very clever and futuristic, but there’s something a deeply disturbing about taking a photo of yourself with your kit off and then sending it to Amazon so that it can tell you how fat you are. But even that seems mundane in comparison to tone, which we will once more leave it to Amazon to explain.

Tone complements traditional metrics like sleep and activity by helping you understand how you sound to others. It uses machine learning (ML) to analyze the positivity and energy of your voice—positivity is measured by how happy or sad you sound, and energy is how excited or tired you sound. The Amazon Halo app then turns that analysis into daily summaries that include easy-to-understand descriptors—for example you might see that in the morning you sounded calm, delighted, and warm.

Using Tone to reflect on your interactions can help build connections or identify patterns so you can consciously make improvements. For example, Tone results may reveal that a difficult work call led to less positivity in family discussions, an indication of the impact of stress on social well-being.

Is it just us, or is that completely dystopian? It’s like something out of a Philip K Dick novel in which nobody is ever sincere and merely says and acts in ways designed solely to achieve immediate tactical goals. Actually, once you look at it that way it’s not dystopian at all is it? It’s just a condensed manifestation of American corporate culture in digital form. Everyone’s going to end up sounding like HAL out of 2001.

“Despite the rise in digital health services and devices over the last decade, we have not seen a corresponding improvement in population health in the U.S.” lamented Dr. Maulik Majmudar, Principal Medical Officer, Amazon Halo. “We are using Amazon’s deep expertise in artificial intelligence and machine learning to offer customers a new way to discover, adopt, and maintain personalized wellness habits.

“Health is much more than just the number of steps you take in a day or how many hours you sleep. Amazon Halo combines the latest medical science, highly accurate data via the Halo Band sensors, and cutting-edge artificial intelligence to offer a more comprehensive approach to improving your health and wellness.”

Yeah, thanks but no thanks, Doctor. Amazon provides the inevitable boilerplate about privacy, but Halo is still asking you to tell the world’s dominant retailer how lazy, fat and stressed you are. It’s only available in the US right now, with the Amazon Halo Band and 6 months of Halo membership available for an introductory price of $64.99. Those lucky early adopters can presumably expect to be pointed towards trainers, salads and sedatives when they subsequently log on to Amazon.

The explosion in digital health has many positives, especially when it comes to things like managing chronic conditions and remote medical interventions. But Amazon seems to be tapping into the worst of people’s anxieties and neuroses in what we can only assume is a bid to know more, much more, about them. Halo’s omniscient AI presumably wouldn’t approve of the tone of this report but we don’t care.


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