The Halo is a $100 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 scans your body three-dimensionally to track your progress 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 chief executive 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, and it didn’t 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!)
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 $330 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 also have been participating in clinical studies to see whether the data they gather can be used to predict the onset of coronavirus symptoms before patients even realize 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 $4 per month service attempt to use artificial intelligence 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 says understanding emotion is key to overall health, so it uses AI to analyze “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 says 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 AI thinks about your tone? Are you supposed to make behavior changes — or seek counseling? Amazon says 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 “judgments” about tone, but determinations such as “friendly,” “hesitant” and “overwhelmed” sure sound like judgments 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? 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 that 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 says body-scan images are sent to its cloud but are deleted from its computers after processing.
But using the Halo means Amazon is going to learn even more about you. Amazon says 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 insurance company John Hancock to share your data for savings.
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 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 $65.