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​​Wonders and Obsessions ​of Technology

In spite their obliviousness, smart phones are... well, smart. The added value of their predecessors, the original cell phones, was mostly their mobility but their skills soon started to grow in many directions and to invade the territory of laptops, by acting as 'clients' in Internet, as computers commonly did. Smart phones are now overshadowing, when not displacing all kind of gadgets as calculators, sound recorders, cameras, GPS navigation devices, watches and chronometers.

Linked to other electronic tools, smart phones are getting into everything. For example, there are applications, already in operation or under development, that collect and manipulate data about physical and mental conditions for both research studies and health screening. Who would have dreamed of this! Let's look at two cases.

​The Stanford University School of Medicine completed recently an application for both cardiac health surveillance and the collection of information to help improve the understanding of the functioning of the heart. The software, which operates on an Apple platform, uses the motion sensors of the phone. The program not only records the physical activity of the owners and the associated risk factors but also generates, believe it or not, personalized recommendations. The day the initial study was announced ten thousand people signed up.

On the mental health side, the School of Engineeringat the University of Connecticut is designing a similar application that correlates variables such as energy level and social interaction to estimate people’s mood variation. This software will collect data on variables associated with physical activity and voice tone through the sensors and microphones in the phones. For example, the built-in GPS provides guidelines to calculate the frequency with which the user is getting out of her house while the microphones generate ‘measurements’ of her mood, according to the pitch of the voice. These and other pieces of information will provide bases to assess and compare levels of depression.

In the past, the transfer of new technologies to less developed countries could take up to decades; now the globalization of new developments happens much faster. Advances with so many potential benefits, as the two just described, will soon spread all over the planet. The kind of things that can be done through software applications and modern cell phones is only going to be limited by imagination.

Not everything is rosy, however. Cartoons that ridicule the growing dependency and the obsessive behaviors that smart phones are creating in their users abound in Internet. There is real concern among scholars of social sciences about the possible harmful consequences of this trend. Are smart phones diminishing personal contact? Are text messages replacing verbal communications? Are people becoming more introverted? The answers to these and many other questions are neither easy nor predictable.

However, for their impressive success, nobody argues the intelligence of modern cell phones, acknowledging that such gadgets are totally ignorant of what they are doing. Some of the fans of this wonderful enchantment walk with caution. A phrase I heard recently sums up the mixture of admiration and fear around the topic: "Current phones are so exceptionally smart they are taking control of their owners." And, furthermore, they could soon be writing prescriptions for them to follow.

Gustavo Estrada
Author of ‘Inner Harmony through Mindfulness Meditation’
Atlanta, August 25, 2015

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