You’ve heard a photo can tell a thousand words, but you may not realize a photo can also tell a thousand data points. In the age of smartphones and AI, companies can analyze your health, overall wellness, and even your estimated life expectancyjust from a photo.
An app called BVI Pro is perhaps the latest to venture into this area. Just launched earlier this week on iPad, the BVI Proapp uses two photosa head-on shot and shot of your profileto estimate your body volume. This shouldgive you a more completepicture of your internal health. Select Research, the company behind the app, alsoeventually hopes to gather enough data to prove to leading governmental and global health bodies that BVI is a more accurate indicator of health than the current standard, BMI.
Take, for example, a bodybuilder:A bodybuilder packs an enormous amount of muscle onto their frame, which drives up their weight(and their BMI). Inactuality, the bodybuilder has a low amount of visceral body fat around their abdomen, and visceral body fat is one of theleading indicatorsof health issues such as Type 2 diabetes. While BMImightsuggest this individual was at risk for such a disease, BVI wouldshowthey were healthy.
“Governments have been using BMI out of default because there’sbeen no other alternative, and people are being misdiagnosed for health risks as a result,” said Richard Barnes, CEO of Select Research, the company behind BVI Pro.
Select Research is taking a cautious approach to its app. For now, it’s limited to the iPad, so that photos gathered are relatively standardized. It’s also designed to be used by physicians in a clinical setting (at least for now).And while the app analyzes photos of your visage with little to no clothing on, the app doesn’t store any photos (only the resulting outline of the body and relevant measurements, like waist-to-hip ratio), or any personal identifying information. It also encrypts all data sent between the mobile app and the cloud for processing.
Select Research isn’t the only company working to analyze wellness based on photos, though.The National Human Genome Research Institute isusing selfies to analyze children for rare diseases.“Human malformation syndromes appear different in different parts of the world,” Paul Kruszka, a medical geneticist in NHGRI’sMedical Genetics Branch, said. Where experienced clinicians may have difficulty diagnosing diseases such asDiGeorge syndrome, facial analysis technology can make correct diagnoses more than 96% of the time.
A company called Lapetus Life Solutions is also using facial analysis onselfies but to a different outcome: to estimate life expectancy. And life insurance companies are quite interested. From an image of your face, Lapetus can learn whether you were ever a smoker, identify physiological markers of aging, and estimate your body mass index.
Life insurers already try to estimate life expectancy based on a number of factors, such as your prescription history and motor vehicle records. Going through all that means insurers may takeup to a month before approving applicants for a policy. With Lapetus’s Chronos technology, that approval time shrinks down to 10minutes.
There are clearly some benefits and trade-offs to photo-based health analysis. On one side, it’s convenient. It can provide you with useful health data in a noninvasive way. However, if researchers, clinicians, and insurers can learnthis informationfrom a photo you provide, what’s to keep less altruisticentities fromanalyzingselfies you’vepublicly sharedto social media?
The Donald Trump administration has already damagedinternet privacy rules. We’re also in the face of an impending healthcare overhaul that could send health insurance costs skyrocketing for those with preexisting conditions. What’s to keep pharmaceutical companies from analyzing your photos and presenting ads catering to your health conditions?What’s to keep health insurance companies from mining your social media feedsbefore estimating your premium costs? What if they determinefrom a photothat you have a preexisting condition you were never even aware you had?
We’re in a quirky, murky period where technological advances are outpacing regulationand those who should be regulating itdon’t even care enough to learn what’s happening. Luckily, companies like those we mentioned are taking precautions that consider a person’s privacy. (On top of that,Lapetus’s Chronos technology would even need state regulatory approvals before it canbe adoptedin the wild.)As the line between what’s public and what’s private blurs, though,that may not always be the case. Your photos could be up for debateby health analyzing algorithms.