Amazon’s creepy new health wearable analyses your voice and body


I couldn’t pick just one crazy thing to say about the Halo, Amazon’s new wearable health gadget. So here are three:

  1. Mirror, mirror on the wall, Amazon thinks you’re fat.
  2. The artificial intelligence would like you to stop sounding overwhelmed now.
  3. That nagging voice inside your head is now on your wrist.

The Halo is a wrist-worn device that, among other functions, listens to your conversations so you can understand how you sound to others. And it comes with a companion app that 3D-scans your body to track your weight gain during quarantine.

Amazon's Halo has no screen, but can analyse your weight and voice.

Amazon’s Halo has no screen, but can analyse your weight and voice.

Amazon is upfront about these invasive functions, which users of the Halo have to opt into using. What’s revealing is that one of tech’s biggest companies thinks consumers in 2020 might want them.

It makes sense that Amazon wants to push into health. This year in particular, tech companies are trying to transition their body-worn devices from fitness trackers into health and wellness assistants. Earlier this week, Fitbit launched a new smartwatch called the Sense that includes a temperature sensor, an electrocardiogram app and an electrodermal activity sensor to detect the body’s response to stress. In September, Apple is expected to unveil a new version of its Watch with more health bells and whistles.

In some ways, Amazon’s Halo is a me-too health tracker. There’s no screen, but like Fitbits it has sensors that collect data about your activity, sleep, temperature and heart activity. Covered in fabric or silicone, the water-resistant Halo Band looks like a style of bracelet that might have been popular in high school in the 1980s. Its accompanying app and paid service nudge you to healthier habits.

The app requires you to take photos of your body to build an analysis.

The app requires you to take photos of your body to build an analysis.

But Amazon wants to use AI to be a more “comprehensive” wellness guide; and that’s where things get weird. The Halo can’t track your weight on its own, but it asks you to take photos of your body (wearing minimal, tight clothing) with its app so it can estimate your body fat percentage. A motivational slider in the app shows you what you would look like if you lost weight.

And then there’s the tone-monitoring. Amazon says understanding emotion is key to overall health, so it uses AI to analyse “energy and positivity” in a customer’s voice recorded from microphones on the band. (It knows your voice, as opposed to those around you, by making a profile of you speaking.) Amazon says tone results may, for example, “reveal that a difficult work call leads to less positivity in communication with a customer’s family, an indication of the impact of stress on emotional well-being.”

Say what? Why would you want to know what an AI thinks about your tone? Are you supposed to make behaviour changes, or seek counselling? Amazon says you could use it for feedback on public speaking, or to understand how sleep impacts your tone.

Amazon spokeswoman Molly Wade said its tech does not make “judgments” about tone, but determinations such as “friendly,” “hesitant,” and “overwhelmed” sure sound like judgments to me.

Amazon says its insights about your voice are not judgements.

Amazon says its insights about your voice are not judgements.

Also, why should we trust what AI has to say about this? The whole idea of “tone” is fraught with ideas about gender, ethnicity and class. Will it judge women more harshly than men? Amazon’s Wade says the company trained its system with data from “all demographic groups.”

Amazon has a long history of being the try-anything company in consumer tech. It doesn’t have its own smartphone on the market, so it has to think outside the box. Over the years, I’ve reviewed Amazon products including a closet camera that judges your fashion sense (the now defunct Echo Look), a TV streaming box you operate via voice (the FireTV Cube), and most recently glasses that let you have private conversations with Alexa everywhere you go (the Echo Frames).

Like many of those other Amazon product launches, you can’t just buy the Halo directly, at least not yet. Customers in the US only can sign up on Amazon’s website to request “early access” that includes the device and six months of service for an introductory price of $US65 ($89).

The Washington Post

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