Stylish AI, Fashionable Healthcare. How Aesthetics Ease the Adoption of Innovative Technologies
Would you wear a device that monitors your health? What if the device is a fashionable ring or earring?
Recently a team of designers, engineers, and healthcare and financial specialists assembled in Bahrain to form the start up Oxygem. The product idea comes from the awareness of the socio-economic impacts of a local non-communicable disease (NCD): Sickle Cell Disease (SCD).The person suffering from it experiences related symptoms, ranging from fatigue to high risks of bacterial infections. Periodical onset of each crisis may generate both tendencies to retreat from social life, and drift toward social marginalization, possibly affecting the person’s education and employment. The patient needs careful health management to reduce the effect of the disease, and maximize the availability of data about an individual patient’s state. This management contributes significantly to the well being of the carrier of SCD. The first two products Oxygem proposes, today in prototype stage, are a ring and a set of earrings. Each gem is an intelligent piece of jewelry that will collect real time vitals of the wearer, passing it to the wearer’s devise to organize and visualize it. The use of such data goes beyond the individual user. Aggregated, it may inform both public and private clients, healthcare professionals, or policy makers.
The “cool factor” present in the product, as well as its innocuous appearance, will most likely facilitate its adoption. It is easy to imagine the extended use of this type of devices, from health monitoring to rapid diagnosis. Oxygem is only one example in the emerging constellation of objects and materials, consisting of intelligent fabrics weaved into designer clothes, jewelry, and/or accessories that insert themselves into the highly fluid fashion system. All the more important is the necessity to understand their intended and unintended impact on the socio-economic and political phenomena, and address them with the theoretical tools at hand.
The particularity of the current context, characterized by a global increase in life expectation, and the threat of climate change make all the more urgent the extension of healthcare into fashion. Collecting and analyzing aggregate data on population general health state combined with patterns of movement and consumption for example, may successfully forecast not only future evolutions of the general individual and collective health, but also sudden outbursts and possible spread of viral or bacterial infections. Identification of risk and rapid diagnosis are key in containing those type of events. Climate change unexpected events are prone to happen and to amplify those phenomena. Imagine that a hurricane arrives either outside the season, or in a region that did not previously have hurricanes. (Both events happened in the past couple of years). The marshes formed after the passing of the storm are ideal places for reproduction of malaria or zika agents (mosquitos). Instant aggregate data from the population collected by their clothes and accessories will facilitate the prevention and management of an infectious outburst. The necessary human-machine interaction in healthcare would be interwoven with the interaction with the latest trends in clothing and accessorizing. Their early adoption is important, and nothing is adopted earlier than the fashions of the moment.
The conversations on Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things is greatly diversified, touching a variety of domains from city planning to citizenship and human rights, passing through healthcare. However, the engagement with their materiality that form the intertextual communication between those various domains seems to have less vigour. The design and feel of the devices are as important as their functionality. Any form of human machine interaction is intermediated, enhanced, or diminished by the design and texture of the objects that form the support to the technological function. It is not different for AI and IoT, their immateriality being illusory, while the design domain extends to light, visualization and sound of their components. As the studies of adoption of technology have an important component of identifying possible challenges and roadblocks, both technological and cultural, the understanding of the combined effects of aesthetics with functionality is, or should become, central in this endeavour.
Fashion and design studies, together with the anthropology of material culture, are disciplines well placed to develop a coherent integrated account of Artificial Intelligence interaction with the human realm. The burgeoning domain of intelligent textile studies is a prime example that combines these domains. It also helps the cultural imaginary to move from the image of robots as human-scale supports of AI to nano-robotics and networked components of a dispersed, non-centralized type of AI – but this may stand for a completely different conversation.