Wearable tech will go from novelty to necessity

December 31, 2014

By Katrina Hamlin

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.

Wearable technology is a novelty. Soon it will become a necessity.

Consumers are embracing activity-tracking wristbands, which tell wearers how many steps they took or hours they slept. More than 3 million were sold in the United States alone in the year to last March. Developers like Jawbone and Fitbit collect the information and use it to offer motivational tips and advice on better lifestyle choices.

But in the not-too-distant future, the ability to gather personal data in real time will be vital for critical health services and products.

Health insurers may be early adopters. Discovery, a South African financial services company whose partners include insurers AIA and Prudential, already offers pioneering policies that mine data from wearable technology. Sporty customers can earn discounts of as much as 15 percent on their health insurance premiums. It’s an appealing strategy: 70 percent of consumers surveyed by PricewaterhouseCoopers said they would wear a device to reduce payments.

This is just the beginning. Applications will become more practical as both hardware and software develop. Devices that measure temperature and blood chemistry could allow doctors to monitor patients from afar. For victims of chronic illness, that could be life-saving, or at least life-changing. Think of diabetics, who could ditch daily blood tests for smart contact lenses that constantly monitor their glucose levels. Google is currently developing prototypes.

Admittedly, there could be some side effects. As soon as technology is capable of gathering truly intimate biometric data, that information becomes vulnerable to theft or misuse. Will the insurance industry refuse coverage to potentially unhealthy clients? Technology developers can only use personal data with express permission from the consumer. But if most healthy people are happy to share their data, those who opt out may be conspicuous.

These are big questions, but not big enough to stall the technology’s rise. Research group International Data Corporation says sales of wearable tech trebled in 2014 from a year earlier – and the market could increase more than five-fold to over 100 million units by 2018. These gadgets are fast becoming too useful to ignore.

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I won’t be among those adopting any of these geeky and pointless “wearable tech” gadgets. My primary reason is touched on by the article: the data collected by such gadgets can be used to track you and spy on you. Any electronic device that’s connected to the Internet can do the same, but something you wear can be used to form a much more intimate portrait of your biometric data, your movements, and who knows what else. The more someone else knows about you, the more power they have over you. That applies to fascist, corrupt governments like that of the US just as much as to any other crooks.

These devices will never be a necessity. Humanity has gotten along just fine without them for millennia, and I’m sure I’ll get along just fine without them in the future. But if others foolishly trust their government and choose to surrender all their privacy and what little remains of their freedom, that’s their choice.

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