Fitbit's stress-tracking smartwatch will usher a new era of diagnostics, along with some privacy concerns

  • Fitbit unveiled the first commercial smartwatch to feature an electrodermal activity (EDA) sensor.
  • And  the rapidly expanding diagnostic potential of smartwatches raises workplace privacy concerns.
  • Insider Intelligence publishes hundreds of insights, charts, and forecasts on the Connectivity & Tech industry with the Connectivity & Tech Briefing. You can learn more about subscribing here.

Fitbit unveiled the Fitbit Sense smartwatch this week, the world's first commercial smartwatch with an electrodermal activity (EDA) sensor. EDA sensors measure miniscule electrical changes within the sweat level of the skin, and Fitbit will analyze these readings to help estimate a user's stress level on a 1–100 scale. Based on the calculation, Fitbit will then recommend stress management techniques such as breathing exercises and meditation, as part of the company's broader push into the booming wellness industry.

Smartwatches are poised to rapidly expand their medical diagnosis capabilities, as companies such as Fitbit couple new sensor technology with advancements in artificial intelligence. To learn more about the diagnostic potential of smartwatches, we spoke to Adel Laoui, the CEO and co-founder of NeuTigers, a machine learning company that spun out from Princeton University.

Laoui believes that advancements in machine learning, edge computing, and sensor hardware will enable smartwatch platforms to eventually diagnose thousands of diseases. NeuTigers has been on the vanguard of this research, having developed clinical proof of concepts to show that machine learning and smartwatch sensors could be used to diagnose diabetes, depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.

Lauoi pointed out, however, that NeuTigers used smartwatches developed by MIT with research-grade sensors, while Fitbit's EDA sensors aren't yet clinically proven: "It's one thing to integrate these sensors, it's another thing to demonstrate their medical-quality grade." Nevertheless, the commercial availability of the technology is promising since researchers have used EDA sensors to accurately register emotional states such as fear, anger, surprise, and happiness.

The increasing diagnostic potential of smartwatches raises privacy concerns, however, as tech companies promote the use of smartwatches in the workplace. Apple and Fitbit (which Google agreed to acquire for $2 billion in 2019) have both recently emphasized their smartwatch-anchored programs to promote workplace health. The programs are marketed as a win-win for corporations and their employees: Corporations yield a healthier, more productive workforce, while employees will gain a personalized healthcare companion.

But the programs also raise a slew of privacy concerns. For instance, in response to the coronavirus, Fitbit launched a Ready for Work platform that uses smartwatches to assess the likelihood that an employee has the coronavirus, and it relays that information to employers through a health-monitoring dashboard. Similarly, with the announcement of the Fitbit Sense, Samy Abdel-Ghaffar, a research scientist at Fitbit, told Reuters that the stress score could be used to decide whether users should begin a new project or take a break, sleep early, or meditate.

The increasing diagnostic potential of smartwatches will bring questions of workplace privacy to the fore, since without guardrails, companies may soon have unprecedented insight into the physical and mental state of their employees.

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