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IBM Developing App to Provide Early Warning for Cravings and Mood Swings


IBM is developing wearable tech that could sync with smartphones or watches using the Appetit app to predict moods and cravings up to 20 minutes before they strike. iStock
IBM is developing wearable tech that could sync with smartphones or watches using the Appetit app to predict moods and cravings up to 20 minutes before they strike. iStock

Like most of us, you probably have some issue that you secretly struggle with. It could be sudden surges of irritability, anxiety, or intense cravings that drive you to stuff your face with junk food. And the worst part may be that it hits you when you're least expecting it. If only you knew when your cravings were going to happen, then maybe you could better cope with them, or even take some action to keep them from happening. Wouldn't it be great if there an early warning device for your mood swings?

Someday soon, thanks to IBM researchers, you may be able to foresee your personal woes and sidestep them before they hit you. Scientists are developing wearable electronics that can continually measure physiological signs and send the data to an analytic program running in the cloud.

That program, in turn, will be able to use your personal big data to deduce patterns and predict what you're going to feel, long before you actually experience it, and then send you a preemptive alert, perhaps even via text message.

"The message might be to take a walk, take a deep breath, or eat those carrot sticks you have in your briefcase instead of a bag of potato chips," explains James Kozloski, a neuroscientist and inventor at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York.

Kozloski and his colleagues already have developed an experimental version of such a system, called Appetit — a hybrid of the terms "appetite" and IT, for information technology.

A Shirt to Match Your Smartphone

A person using the system is outfitted with a biometric shirt made by the company Hexoskin. The shirt's equipped with sensors that measure vital signs such as respiration and the heart's electrical activity, in addition to motion. "It can tell when you're fidgeting," Kozloski explains. That data continually beams into the cloud, where it can be useed by IBM's own analytic software.

The wearer's also equipped with an IBM-designed smartphone app, which includes a set of colored buttons. Each of those can be programmed to signify a particular personal problem — such as an anxiety attack or hunger pangs — that he or she wants to monitor.

Over time, the analytic software spots patterns in the person's physiological signs and uses them to predict when the problem is going to happen again. In experimental trials with human subjects over a six-day period, Appetit has been able to predict events 10 to 20 minutes in advance with up to 90 percent accuracy, according to Kozloski.

The idea of putting your personal data into the cloud might alarm some people, but Kozloski says that Appetit has a built-in privacy protection. The user can label a colored button to signify any sort of problem, state or reaction, and doesn't have to tell the analytic program exactly what he or she is monitoring. "The label is yours," he says. "That's where the power is."

Monitoring for a Better You

Kozloski says that he got the idea for Appetit after noticing the rising popularity of personal monitoring devices like FitBit among athletes and exercisers trying to improve their performance. "I wondered what else you could use mine that data for," says Kozloski. "What if you could use it for other things that are important to you?"

He talked about the idea with colleague Henry Chang, who was interested in developing technology for stimulating patients to control their appetites, and two agreed to work together. "I said, 'This might make sense, in terms of seeing when to do it,'" says Kozloski. After a successful presentation at an internal IBM "shark tank," the project received funding.

In addition to helping people stick to their diets or cope with stress, he sees the technology as a potentially valuable tool for use in combination with mental health treatment for problems such as clinical depression. "It can assist an individual in heading off a change in his or her cognitive state," he says.

Kozloski says that IBM is now in the process of figuring out how to develop a product based on the invention and bring it to market. It may be years, however, before this kind of tech makes its way to average customers, if at all, as Appetit is still in early testing.