Amazon’s creepy health wearable analyses your voice and body

Geoffrey A Fowler

THE WASHINGTON POST – 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 (AI) would like you to stop sounding overwhelmed now.

3. That nagging voice inside your head is now on your wrist.

The Halo is a USD100 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 progress at gaining your quarantine-15.

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.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, but I review all tech with the same critical eye. Amazon declined to let me speak with an executive about the product, nor did it offer me the chance to get my hands on one for first impressions. (Anyone can sign up for the product’s waiting list, and I did. Hope they pick me!)

Amazon’s Halo Band and app track the wearer’s fitness, health and even emotional state. PHOTO: AMAZON

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 USD330 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.

The makers of Fitbits, Oura rings and other wearables have also been participating in clinical studies to see if the data they gather can be used to predict the onset of covid-19 symptoms before patients even realise they’re sick.

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 with content from companies including Headspace and Orangetheory Fitness.

Unlike the Apple Watch and other devices, Amazon’s Halo hasn’t received Food and Drug Administration clearance for any of its functions. It doesn’t count as a medical device. But the Halo and Amazon’s USD4 per month service attempt 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 said 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 said 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 said 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 “judgements” about tone, but determinations such as “friendly”, “hesitant”, and “overwhelmed” sure sound like judgements to me. 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 said the company trained its system with data from “all demographic groups”.

Privacy is also clearly a stumbling block. Many owners of Amazon’s popular Echo speakers are, rightly, concerned the Alexa assistant is eavesdropping on their conversations. (Police are increasingly turning to those recordings for evidence.) Unlike Echo speakers, the Halo doesn’t send Amazon the words you say – instead, it listens on the band itself, where it runs an analysis of your tone and then deletes the files. (You can press a button on the band to deactivate its microphone.) Amazon said body scan images are sent to its cloud but are deleted from its computers after processing.

But using the Halo does mean Amazon is going to learn even more about you. Amazon said no one can view your health data without your explicit permission, and it won’t sell it. The giant retailer also says it won’t use the data gathered by the Halo to sell you things.

But it has already announced a partnership with health insurance company John Hancock to share your data for savings.

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 United States (US) 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 USD65.