Are we heading for a happy society?

In a few years’ time, new or further developed sensors in smartwatches will not only record the wearer’s movements, but also their heart rhythm and breathing as well as their stress levels via measuring their skin surface tension. Around the world, thousands of developers are working on the new possibilities, hundreds of investors are evaluating the economic potential, and millions of consumers are waiting for the new gadgets. Will intelligent machines such as smartwatches with such capabilities bring us one step closer to a happy society?

From a medical point of view, permanent monitoring of our heart opens up the possibility of detecting cardiovascular problems at an early stage and thus avoiding a reduction in quality of life. It can also remind smartwatch wearers that their goal is a weekly stride rate or a daily intensive circulatory load, and also that they can enhance their performance by implementing that goal. The skin surface tension, breathing rate, pulse and movement patterns of the body provide indications of a person’s well-being. In conjunction with the data relating to their personal ecosystem ( , i.e. the fitness center, the doctor, the pharmacy, or the car and the household, this gives rise to a detailed behavioral pattern. Powerful data analysis techniques, such as those subsumed under the term Deep Learning, help to identify behavior that is beneficial or detrimental to health and quality of life.

Ideally, a digital health coach helps people to achieve a deeper, healthier sleep, increases their fitness, or makes them aware of hidden heart and circulation problems. Individuals gain security or reduce fears if they can assume that their health is in good “hands” and that in critical situations they will receive reliable help from alerted third parties, i.e. if they are integrated into a health ecosystem. For example, parents already use sensor mats to monitor the breathing of children who are at risk of sudden cardiac death due to sleep apnea.

We can expand this vision of a health coach to include countless other digital services with presumed human benefit. But we can also develop dystopian scenarios if we consider what possibilities such smartwatches offer for surveillance and influence. The Western media become almost hysterical when reporting on the dangers of the Chinese social scoring system, which is currently being set up to monitor and evaluate individuals and companies alike ( The risks of such a tool in the hands of a power apparatus with little democratic oversight should not be underestimated in view of our history, but the prevailing discussion overlooks the surveillance capabilities of Western governmental organizations, which have access to comparable levels of data.

The private-sector megaportals such as Facebook, Google, Alibaba, and Tencent already possess gigantic collections of data that we provide voluntarily and they sell to the highest bidders, who want to leverage our needs and our weaknesses to sell their offers or to control our needs with targeted messages. We use smart services in all areas of life for convenience, vanity, and other motives. The company sells a smart bracelet for lovers so that they can be constantly connected, especially when one of them is traveling. “Pillow Talk lets you hear the real-time heartbeat of your loved one” is the provider’s advertising slogan. The gadget not only connects, but is also a perfect surveillance service for jealous people. Millions of people voluntarily wear various forms of smart bracelets and install microphones (e. g. in smart speakers) and cameras (e. g. in smartphones) in their homes.

The question is not whether we welcome this development; it is driven by the market and neither individuals nor individual states can stop it. The question is how we use the opportunities and ward off the risks. There are five main issues:

  • Who owns the personal data obtained from internet traffic and networked sensors? The individual, the company, or the state? Today, the de facto owners are essentially megaportals and government bodies.
  • Who uses this data to derive knowledge about people, their behavior, and the world around them? Does research and development have access to this data and knowledge?
  • What is happiness and how do people decide? Which factors determine quality of life and what drives us?
  • Who uses knowledge about behavior and quality of life to develop digital services that enhance quality of life or increase consumption?
  • How can we control the economy and society for human benefit? Do the interests of human beings and capital coincide? Are there mechanisms that complement capitalist control in such a way that it continues to function while simultaneously creating a more livable world?

The new capabilities of sensor technology, such as the smartwatch, will enable powerful electronic health assistants. As soon as people no longer have to collect health-related data themselves, but can instead rely on sensors to ensure effortless, up-to-date and accurate recording, and as soon as concrete health measures have been derived from the health data, health assistants will be accepted by consumers. The crucial question which then arises is who has access to the sensor data and what are the goals and resources of the health assistant provider. A pharmaceutical company will try to use these products to sell its pharmaceuticals; a sports goods manufacturer will try to sell its sportswear and equipment; a chain of clinics will try to sell its therapies and operations; and an insurance company will select good and bad risks more accurately.

It does not take a great deal of effort to transfer what applies to an electronic health assistant to a financial provision assistant, a mobility assistant, or even a digital information service.

Individuals themselves can probably improve their quality of life if they understand the interests that lie behind the health assistant. Companies that focus exclusively on shareholder value will examine consumers’ buying motives and develop life assistants that either generate revenue streams themselves or can be used to sell other products and services. If entrepreneurs, managers, and investors really do work toward a humane economy, as they have declared in the American Business Round Table, for example, they will incorporate into their management mechanisms not only capital but also factors relating to quality of life, and can be measured by these. If politicians and consumer associations incorporate the principles of digitalization into their thinking, they will develop rules that prevent obvious abuse and promote the relevant improvements. Whether we like it or not, Chinese social scoring could even become a social experiment from which we can learn a lot for the benefit of humankind.

Hubert Österle
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