Editor’s note: This essay responds to an invitation (issued here and here) to submit commentaries on the ethical implications of partnerships between social media companies and biomedical researchers. The invitation is ongoing.
Wearable devices, social media platforms, and smartphone apps are increasingly being seen as new data sources, capable of capturing complex and continuous personal health information that is relevant to understanding health and disease (see for example here, here and here). This trend has opened the way for major consumer tech companies, which have had little interest in health care in the past, to enter the space of medical research. From Apple’s ResearchKit, which allows researchers to carry out medical studies on iPhones, and the company’s reported forays into DNA collection, to Google’s Baseline Study, which aims to paint a picture of “what it means to be healthy” based on data collected on its devices, and Google Genomics, a cloud service for genomes, Silicon Valley is intent on revolutionizing medicine.
Indeed, in comparison to the new methods of acquiring and managing data that these technologies enable, traditional research models like the randomized control trial feel painfully slow and restricted to small populations, while the computer capacities of universities and hospitals seem antiquated. In the terms we have become accustomed to hearing from Silicon Valley, medical research appears ripe for disruption. As the call for essays and some commentators have pointed out (here and here), however, disruptive innovation in the medical field raises a number of ethical issues that it would be important to think through before the revolution goes forward.