Ignore the Apple Watch and the new Macbook… It is ResearchKit that will change the world

Apple, Apps


It was a big evening for Apple fans, as the biggest company in the world announced the latest round of updates to its products and gave us more details on a whole new one. A new Macbook Air, simply known as the “Macbook” was shinier, faster, and thinner than ever and eschewed all ports but a single USB-C input. Apple CEO Tim Cook also obliquely hinted at the future of Apple TV, saying “this is just the beginning”, whilst cutting the price of the current model, and of course – we got to see the Apple Watch in action, running real world apps.

But none of this really matters.

The most transformative new Apple product came earlier in the evening, as Cooked announced “ResearchKit”, which will sit alongside Apple’s Health app and let users participate in medical research. It seems that the next frontier for smartphones is helping cure disease.

It’ll do this using two things that a smartphone can do: It’ll share your health data with healthcare providers (such as your step count and heartbeat – which your iPhone and Apple Watch will do), but it will augment this with specialist apps developed by medical professionals.

For example, an app called “mPower” has been designed for research into Parkinson’s disease. And using the app is a bit like a doctor’s appointment, with it asking you to pace about, tap the screen (to detect tremors using the phone’s accelerometer), and it’ll even get you to say “ahhh” into the mic, so it can analyse your voice. This data will be fed back to medical researchers working on the disease, and will also give you as an individual information that could conceivably help any problems get picked up earlier than ever.

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There have been similar apps developed by Apple and medical organisations for diabetes, cardiovascular health, asthma and breast cancer.

As I’ve written about before, this adds a level of richness to the data that an eight minute appointment with your GP simply can’t match.

Obviously the big concern is privacy – and Apple was very clear in pointing out that it won’t see any of your data (though I guess the NSA still will), and all of the ResearchKit stuff will be opt-in, so you’ll have to consciously choose to participate.

Sounds brilliant, right? But get this – on a macro scale, it could be even more amazing. Typically medical trials only usually involve a relatively small number of people, answering vague questions. The sort of tech we see in ResearchKit means that trials could have thousands (if not millions) of participants, all sharing much more detailed data – which will hopefully lead to better and faster cures.

In a final brilliant move, Apple also said that ResearchKit framework will be entirely open source – which is essentially a codeword that means that developers will be able to build medical research apps that hook up to Android and Windows Phone devices too, meaning that data will be able to be collected from an even wider range of people. This should also help fuel an explosion in the number of research apps available.

So without doubt, ResearchKit was the most important thing that we saw today. And yes, we’re ultimately trading even more of our privacy and freedom into Apple – but just thinking about the possibilities of what this scale of medical data collection could do is enough to at least bludgeon the hardened cynic deep inside me.

I can’t wait to see what it will do.

James O’Malley
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  • A good (and really fast) comment on last nights event. There is one question that will soon have to be discussed, though: Since ResearhKit is open source, anybody can use it to make apps and claim that they’re doing medical research. But medical studies need to be approved by an ethics committee that will check for privacy violations, conflicts of interest, and other violations of ethics guidelines. Most people will have neither time nor interest to check all of this for themselves before downloading an app that lets them participate in a study. So there will have to be some authority, either Apple or an external institution, that will check and green light those new apps. Otherwise, we will soon have quacks like Mike Adams using ResearchKit, which may be a huge step forward for serious research, to promote their dangerous nonsense.

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