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Tim Cook wants a look inside your brain

September 21, 2021, 5:27 PM UTC

This March, my wife and I put our daughter into her crib for the first time. Born during the height of New York’s second COVID wave, she was just about three months old and we were eager to get her out of the bassinet next to our bed and into her own room so we could start sleeping something like normal again. (In retrospect, I wonder: were we ever so naive?). Having a newborn during this pandemic was an exercise in testing the limits of one’s nerves, and we were exhausted — but also terrified something could go wrong. There she was, alone and in the dark. What if she hurt herself? Or stopped breathing? How would we know?

Like any good Millennial couple, we turned to technology. We thought the solution was a little sensor that wrapped around her foot that measured her heart rate and, somehow, her blood oxygen levels. If something went wrong, it would alert us on our phones and through a docking station. We knew the odds of something going wrong were slim, but why take the risk?

Of course, it was not that simple. 

The second night we used it, at around 9 p.m., my phone flashed red and the dock made a sound like an emergency siren. She’d stopped breathing. I burst into her room and there she was, breathing and safe. After recovering from my small heart attack, I put her back down, which only upset her more. 

Then, at 3 a.m., my phone again screamed red, the siren wailed. We jumped out of bed only to — again — find our daughter was fine. The little strap that wrapped around her foot wasn’t all that great at staying put. For the second time, we’d wrecked her sleep for no reason. 

It turns out that the sensor wasn’t a medical device, even though it certainly appeared to give the kind of accuracy and certainty that you’d expect from one. Its guts were apparently not very different from the inside of an Apple Watch, and the implicit promise of peace of mind was something that many other parents had found to have backfired. 

I’m bringing this all up as Apple, in partnership with Biogen and UCLA, is looking to expand the capabilities of its iPhones to detect depression and mental decline. The idea, according to the Wall Street Journal, is that it would look for signals in people’s behavior on the phone — as well as reading facial cues — to determine whether these are outward expressions of the cognitive issues. 

It’s not that I doubt whether it’s a nice idea, but whether it can be done in a way that’s both accurate and responsible. Diagnosing depression isn’t the same as measuring a heartbeat. Many people who suffer from depression learn to hide it. If Apple thinks that a Reddit community wouldn’t spring up giving tips on how to trick your iPhone into thinking you don’t have depression, it’s not thinking far enough.

And as for mental decline — who gets that information? A family member? A doctor? What about an insurance company? How would Apple prevent advertisers’ software from accessing the same data — or just coming up with their own algorithms to come to the same conclusion?

And, crucially, what if they’re wrong? It’s not so far-fetched to think that someone could lose a job because a phone thinks he’s not as sharp as he used to be. 

Even if that’s an edge case, I still wonder what’s the point of all this. If I notice that I haven’t taken as many steps this week as I did last, I can always go out for longer walks. But if my phone tells me I’ve been depressed lately, would I really be so surprised? And what would I do with that information, anyway?

Kevin T. Dugan
@kevintdugan

NEWSWORTHY

Crypto slap. The Biden administration is sanctioning Czech crypto exchange Suex for allegedly facilitating ransomware payments. The crackdown comes amid a broader push by the administration to apply rules of the road for the crypto industry, and as ransomware payments — facilitated by Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies — have exploded in use.

Taxi commission. Uber is projecting adjusted profits this quarter of $25 million to an adjusted loss of $25 million. Even the possibility of making a profit before interest, taxes, depreciation, and other costs sent shares up more than 10%. 

Social security. Facebook said it has spent $13 billion on "safety and security" since 2016, just days after the Wall Street Journal published five damning stories based on a leak about how the company's services abet terrorism, drug cartels, make teens feel worse about themselves, lets celebrities post what they want, and lets vaccine misinformation fester. 

Softbank NFTs. The bank behind WeWork is now leading a $680 million funding round in SoRare, a fantasy soccer league that uses non-fungible tokens. SoRare said the investment values the company at $4.3 billion. 

Battery power. Volkswagen-backed electric vehicle battery maker QuantumScape said it's working with an undisclosed large automaker to test its solid-state batteries. The deal also gives the EV maker the option to buy 10-megawatt hours worth of battery capacity from the battery maker. QuantumScape, which was financed by a Bill Gates-backed venture capital firm, went public through a SPAC merger last year. 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Marketing as everything. Remember a few years ago when Elon Musk made a flamethrower, then named it “Not-A-Flamethrower” in order to get around customs officials? That was, I gotta say, dope as hell. As far as stunts go, it was stupid and funny and a good joke and nobody seemed to have gotten hurt. Yes, fire was involved, but people buy cigarette lighters and stoves and there’s no panic about that. People who got mad at the whole Not-A-Flamethrower episode would probably fall for anything. 

But what if you did the opposite? It’s been seven years since Tesla first introduced “Autopilot” — which, to be clear, is very much not an actual autopilot system — and the Federal Trade Commission is still apparently cool with it being labeled as such. Reuters has a deep dive into how faulty “Autopilot” can be—and it sounds pretty faulty. Things like the sun, as well as the dark, seem to confound it. I get that improving technology takes a long time, but changing the name so that it doesn’t give people a false sense of security seems like an easier, faster fix. 

From the story

"The past has shown the focus has been on innovation over safety and I’m hoping we’re at a point where that tide is turning," the NTSB's new chair, Jennifer Homendy, told Reuters in an interview. She said there is no comparison between Tesla's Autopilot and the more rigorous autopilot systems used in aviation that involve trained pilots, rules addressing fatigue and testing for drugs and alcohol.

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BEFORE YOU GO

Location, location, location. Google is reportedly buying a building in New York City for $2.1 billion, a sign that the tech industry believes that the future of the office is, in fact, the office. It’s hard to argue with that. There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about the return to office for tech companies, with other giants like Microsoft and Facebook repeatedly pushing back plans to get butts in seats. A company like Google can bend its well-compensated employees to its will a bit easier than, say, McDonald’s can. It seems like a no-brainer to plunk down a bunch of money now if you think this pandemic will end at some point.

It will end at some point, right?

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