The 21st century has ushered in a new age where all aspects of our lives are impacted by technology. How will humanity anticipate, mitigate, and manage the consequences of AI, robots, quantum computing and more? How do we ensure tech works for the good of all? This Ashoka series sheds light on the wisdom and ideas of leaders in the field.

Dr. Stephen Friend is a globally acclaimed serial entrepreneur and biomedical researcher. He currently is the President and co-founder of 4YouandMe, a visiting Professor of Connected Medicine at Oxford University and Chairman of the Board of Directors of Sage Bionetworks, where he was co-founder and President. He previously held positions at Apple, was Senior Vice President at Merck & Co, founded and led Rosetta Impharmatics, and was an Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School. He was elected an Ashoka Fellow in 2011. Before venturing into medicine and cancer research, he studied anthropology and philosophy.

Konstanze Frischen (Ashoka): Stephen, how can AI help us live healthier?

Stephen Friend: It’s simple: Wearable devices – rings or watches that register heartbeat and all kinds of other physiological data – today can allow individuals to follow themselves. But the potential is bigger: What we are betting on is that we can use AI and machine learning to analyze these data in ways that better track stress and individual symptoms so we can forecast the onset or worsening of chronic diseases like migraines, MS, Crohn’s disease, or even vulnerable times of metamorphosis, like pregnancy or menopause.

KF: And what are you learning?

SF: We are learning how to collect multidimensional, longitudinal data on chronic illnesses – and the results are remarkably strong. An individual’s physiological data – variable heart rate, breathing patterns, skin tone, and much more – yield patterns that correlate with flares of symptoms. And we are setting up studies to test if the more centered a person is in themselves, the lesser the degree of their illness. Conversely, we can see that stress is a breeding ground for symptoms.

KF: So, the data generated by wearables show that our states of mind like stress or wellbeing are underpinned by physiological markers that correspond to diseases?

SF: Yes, this is what we expect to verify. The signals are numerous, and in unison. The body has a way of responding to stress that changes your voice, blood pressure, sleep, what’s going on in your pancreas, your sweat and so on. And the ability to pick these data sets up and stick all of them together, means we can get a pretty good idea of how someone is doing and can start to make individual forecasts for a patient when a disease is likely to start or flare up.

Image Credit:  New York Times

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