Technology’s role in unintended consequences

I was drawn to a story related to the new iPhone as reported by The Verge.  Apparently, the iPhone 14’s capability to detect when someone has been in a crash or other car incident has been set off unintentionally by people riding rollercoasters.   Ambulances and police are being sent to amusement parks thanks to iPhones warning that someone has been involved in an incident when – in fact – they have been riding the coasters.

“System” not “button”

This story reminded me of working with a mobile phone company that made devices focussed on the elderly population emporia telecom.  One of the company’s most important innovations was an emergency system (note the use of emergency “system” not “button”).  When pressed this technology emitted a loud siren and called phone numbers until it encountered a real human being.  It was designed to tell the difference between an answerphone machine and a human being.  This was important because – in the words of the founder and CEO – “you don’t want to get home and listen to the last few moments of a loved one’s life”.  This served as a blunt reminder of the consequences of getting technology wrong.

It seems the new iPhone is struggling to understand the difference between a ride on a roller coaster and a car crash – and this has consequences.  Hard pressed police and ambulance resources could waste time attending “false alarm” call outs in theme parks.  This may lead to emergency services ignoring all call outs from theme parks altogether, risking legitimate emergencies being ignored.

MedTech needs to get the critical details right

This all matters because healthcare systems around the world will increasingly rely on technology to manage pressures of demand.  There is a great deal of enthusiasm towards medical monitoring and management solutions, delivering real time analytics related to people’s wellbeing across the mobile networks.  To give just one example, New Scientist has reported on the potential to use a smartphone to analyse heartbeats for home diagnosis.

But smartphones are not medical devices.  They have not been tested for this purpose.  They run out of battery, they misinterpret noises and images.  And ultimately, if there is not a trained human medical practitioner providing a professional diagnosis, real issues will be missed.

The iPhone crash detection issue demonstrates the importance of understanding how technology can support and enhance a human process but cannot not replace it.  Brave, innovative and daring technology solutions are critical to the future of healthcare, but these need to be integrated into human processes and systems.