Look into your camera for thirty seconds. You’ve just given your phone enough information to check your heart rate, oxygen saturation, breathing rate, heart rate variability, blood pressure, stress level, and perhaps 15 other health indicators at medical grade levels of reliability.
Now imagine doing that 50 times a day without even thinking about it.
And having the results funneled to your personal medical AI engine to monitor you for any signs of poor health, ready to notify your physician if anything looks out of the ordinary. Like higher temperature, which might indicate a fever, flu … or Covid-19.
That’s part of the vision of Binah.ai, an Israeli health startup that uses high-end artificial intelligence and low-end cameras built into all our phones and laptops to continuously monitor health. The company’s currently shipping technology acquires five vital signs. Another ten are in development, and ultimately the company says this will be around 20, including measurements of blood alcohol levels and maybe even glucose, cholesterol, and hemoglobin levels.
“Any smart watch owner knows those blinking lights at the back of your watch,” founder and CEO David Maman told me on a recent episode of the TechFirst podcast. “Those blinking lights … can monitor tiny color changes at your skin. And those tiny color changes provide an indication regarding the blood flow behind your skin.”
Analyzing that blood flow via photoplethysmography (PPG), a technology that dates back all the way to 1938, Apple can monitor your heart rate. Fitbit can check your oxygen saturation. And Samsung can measure some aspects of your stress levels.
“Instead of sending a light beam, what we are doing, we’re actually analyzing the light reflection intensity that comes from your cheeks to the camera lens,” Maman says. “And we can do it on a smartphone, on a laptop, on a tablet, even on a smart TV.”
The process doesn’t even require a great high-definition camera. 30 frames/second with a decent processor will get you there, meaning aging or low-end smartphones will work, and even laptop webcams will be just fine.
Binah’s business model is to license the technology, not bring it to market itself. And the tech is already in use by companies around the world, including Sompo, one of the larger insurance companies in Japan, which uses the technology to monitor health, wellness, and depression. A hospital in Montreal is using the same features to check patients’ health signals in an in-person but no-touch environment — making caring for Coronavirus patients safer and quicker. All told, Maman says that 7 million people globally have Binah technology running on their phones to assess various aspects of their health.
Other potential customers include telemedicine providers — imagine taking a pulse, blood oxygen levels, and other vital signs in a remote doctor’s visit, making it much more likely for a health care professional to correctly diagnose a patient that never actually makes it into the doctor’s office.
Blood pressure monitoring, which is not available yet but which Binah has filed several patents for, has obvious applications for cardiac patients and other health conditions.
“We worked very hard with seven different hospitals worldwide in order to create the dataset that we truly need, which is basically a person with invasive blood pressure measurement, or a cuff-based blood pressure measurement, and is face exposed to the camera with our own recording application,” Maman told me. “And once we’ve been able to build this sufficient database of almost 13,000 people, then we’ve been able to actually model it correctly. So we are generating handcrafted 1,400 features out of the PPG signal. And yeah, I know that’s hardcore.”
Blood alcohol levels is another test that Maman says is coming soon.
That, he says, would be great for a transportation company’s corporate app, to ensure truck drivers are sober before driving. Or for Uber or Lyft, which would help passengers know their drivers aren’t under the influence of a few too many drinks.
Wellness platforms could use the software, Maman says, to measure stress levels and counsel their customers or patients.
All of which, of course, brings up the question of patient privacy. This technology in the hands of an adtech company which could target ads based on your medical conditions would be a disaster. And insurance companies using the data without your knowledge or permission would be serious invasion of privacy. All the processing happens on-device, Maman says, and since it’s gathered by camera, operating systems have to ask permission to use it, and a light generally indicates when your camera is on.
“We as Binah, we never see the data that leaves the phone in any way,” Maman says. “Everything is just for our customers.”
In other words, you’ll need to trust that apps you give permission to use the camera to assess your health will only use the data in approved ways. But at least your health data only lives in their systems, not in multiple places.
An interesting possibility with such easy access to health data is national pandemic protection, perhaps via apps like the Google and Apple-enabled Covid-19 tracing apps.
“What if you just, while you’re going through Instagram, or watching a video on YouTube, or just checking your mail, you will be scanned because there’s a front facing camera that looks at you,” Maman asks. “So if you can have your entire vital signs being extracted 50 times a day, so everyone that owns a smartphone will have this information … what if all this information, just the metadata, yes, no identifiable features, will be then aggregated for the World Health Organization?”
he result, likely would be that health organizations could know if a percentage of the population in a specific area is experiencing health variations — say temperature rise — and would be able to isolate pandemics and health crises much quicker.
But it would definitely come with a cost in privacy. Everyone would have to trust that the data would in fact be aggregated, not personally attributable. And, as in everything, there likely would be bad actors.
As in all things, with great power comes great responsibility.