When Apple announced, last year, that it was developing a watch that had the functions of a medical device, it became clear that the company was eyeing the $3 trillion health care industry; that the tech industry sees medicine as the next frontier for exponential growth. Apple’s recent announcement of ResearchKit shows that it has an even greater ambition: It wants to also transform the pharmaceutical industry by changing the way clinical trials are done.
Apple isn’t alone. Companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Samsung and hundreds of start-ups also see the market potential — and have big plans. They are about to disrupt health care in the same way in which Netflix decimated the video-rental industry and Uber is changing transportation.
The upshot? We will receive better health care for a fraction of the cost.
This is happening because several technologies such as computers, sensors, robotics and artificial intelligence are advancing at exponential rates. Their power and performance are increasing dramatically as their prices fall and footprints shrink.
We will soon have sensors that monitor almost every aspect of our body’s functioning, inside and out. They will be packaged in watches, Band-Aids, clothing, and contact lenses. They will be in our toothbrushes, toilets and showers. They will be embedded in smart pills that we swallow. The data from these will be uploaded into cloud-based platforms such as Apple’s HealthKit.
Artificial intelligence–based apps will constantly monitor our health data, predict disease and warn us when we are about to get sick. They will advise us on what medications we should take and how we should improve our lifestyle and habits. Watson, for example, the technology that IBM developed to defeat human players on the TV show Jeopardy, has already become capable of diagnosing cancer more accurately than human physicians can. Soon it will be better than humans are in making any medical diagnosis.
The key innovation that Apple just announced is ResearchKit, a platform for app builders to capture and upload data from patients who have a particular disease. Our smartphones already monitor our activity levels, lifestyles and habits. They know where we go, how fast we move, and when we sleep. Some smartphone apps already try to judge our emotions and health based on this information; to be sure, they can ask us questions.
ResearchKit apps will enable constant monitoring of symptoms and of reactions to medications. Today, clinical trials are done on a relatively small number of patients, and pharmaceutical companies sometimes choose to ignore information that does not suit them. Data that our devices gather will be used to accurately analyze what medications patients have taken, in order to determine which of them truly had a positive effect; which simply created adverse reactions and new ailments; and which did both.
The best part is that the clinical trials will be continuing — they won’t stop once the medicines are approved by the FDA.
Apple has already developed five apps that target the most prevalent health concerns: diabetes, asthma, Parkinson’s disease, cardiovascular disease, and breast cancer. The Parkinson’s app can, for example, measure hand tremors, through an iPhone touchscreen; vocal trembling, using the microphone; and gait, as you walk with the device.
Combined with genomics data that are becoming available as plunging DNA-sequencing costs approach the costs of regular medical tests, a health-care revolution is in the works. By understanding the correlations between genome, habits, and disease — as the new devices will facilitate — we will get closer and closer to an era of Precision Medicine — in which disease prevention and treatment is done on the basis of people’s genes, environments, and lifestyles.
Google and Amazon are one step ahead of Apple in the data they capture — they offer a repository for DNA information. Google also announced last year that it is developing a contact lens that can measure glucose levels in a person’s tears and transmit these data via an antenna thinner than a human hair. It is developing nanoparticles that combine a magnetic material with antibodies or proteins that can attach to and detect cancers and other molecules inside the body and notify a wearable computer on the wrist. And it wants to control aging. In 2013, Google made a significant investment in a company called Calico, to research diseases that afflict the elderly, such as neurodegeneration and cancer. Its goal is to understand aging and, ultimately, extend life. It is also learning how the human brain works. One of its chief scientists, who is a mentor to me, Ray Kurzweil, is bringing to life the theory of intelligence expounded in his book How to Create a Mind. He wants to enhance our intelligence with technology and allow us to back up our brains onto the cloud.
We may have been disappointed with the advances in medicine in the past because things have moved slowly because of the nature of the health care system itself. It hasn’t been focused on delivering health care — it has been about sick care. That’s because doctors, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies only make money when we are in bad health; they don’t get rewarded for keeping us healthy. The good news is that the technology industry is about to change all this.
I have little doubt that the next 20 years will be nothing less than amazing — as the technology industry “eats medicine.” But I’ll admit that I am not quite ready for Kurzweil to beam my intelligence up into the cloud. I’d rather keep this in my limited local storage.