Healthcare's tragic flaw: Big bias in big data | IPG Health @ Cannes 2024

Panel Recap from the 2024 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity 

It’s a ticking timebomb in the truest definition of the word: 1.2 billion people worldwide rely on their smartwatches to keep track of their health, unaware that the technology is inherently flawed. It doesn’t accurately read the heart rate of darker skinned people.

And with 70% of all clinical trials set to use smartwatches by 2025, the consequences of this flaw could be catastrophic. Inaccurate data for people of color could lead to missed health risks, delayed diagnoses and treatment, and potentially even the loss of life. 

In response to this problem, FCB Health New York designed EQL BAND, the first smartwatch band prototype that hears all heartbeats equally, regardless of skin tone. At the 71st Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, IPG Health gathered a panel of thought leaders to unpack the issue of bias in health tech and the revolution that a device like EQL BAND could create.

An image of four people seated in chairs during a panel at Cannes Lions

Trial and error 

To start the discussion, moderator Channing Martin, Chief Diversity and Social Impact Officer at IPG, asked the question that was on everyone’s mind: Why do smartwatches not accurately read the heart rates of darker skinned people?

Shaheed Peera, Global Executive Creative Partner at IPG Health, put it all in layman’s terms: most devices use green light technology to read heart rates, which fails to penetrate darker skin tones. In Shaheed’s opinion, manufacturers continue to use green light technology due to cost-cutting measures and because of a persistent problem in the tech world: the lack of diversity in the workforce. 

“I imagine it's also because they just don't have the right representation around the table while they're creating these products.”

Since 70% of all clinical trials are going to rely on smartwatches by 2025, the scale of the problem is only going to get bigger. “That could potentially…impact up to about 125,000 clinical trials,” Shaheed estimated.

Technology that sounds smart 

To address this health inequity, FCB Health New York created EQL BAND, the first smartwatch band prototype that hears all heartbeats equally, regardless of skin tone. This device harnesses the power of sound to measure people’s heart rate because unlike light-based technology, sound is not affected by skin color. EQL BAND is now a prototype innovation that is seeking investors and representation.

According to Shaheed, EQL BAND transcends innovation. It’s a movement that urges health tech companies and engineers around the world to unite in erasing the green light bias in smartwatches. The hope is that it will serve as a catalyst for all health tech companies to innovate with inclusion, creating equitable health tech that is accessible for everyone. That’s why EQL BAND is an open-source platform designed for universal adoption and integration.

Kumar Vora, SVP of Emerging Solutions and Partnerships, Digital Media at Adobe, applauded this open and collaborative approach to the innovation process. “You took on a problem, you solved it with technology, and you are putting it out there for others to consume. This is a remarkable amount of progress,” he stated.

AI is biased because we are

Because of the breakneck speed at which technology is evolving, more mistakes are bound to happen. “We'll keep running into unintentional introduction of biases in technology as we invent new things,” Kumar warned.

The question is not if we can avoid these errors, but how quickly we can identify and solve them. This is a challenge his team is also facing at Adobe, with the development of their generative AI platform, Firefly. Generative AI is trained by the data we supply it with, so if there is an inherent bias in the input data, the AI platform would only amplify that bias a thousandfold. Hence, why some generative AI platforms spit out an image of a white man when asked to show a lawyer.

As Kumar explained, Adobe is going to great lengths to address these issues both in the input of data and the output of results. “We have taken extreme measures on both sides of this. Number one, diversity in the data set. Number two, check the data set results under varying conditions before we release any software.”  

The art of activism  

While the AI arms race continues, the general public remains blissfully unaware of the inherent biases and problems in the technology. Which means there isn’t enough public pressure to introduce the kinds of checks and balances Kumar mentioned. So, can art help to raise awareness and drive change? As a spoken word artist and social justice activist, George the Poet stressed the role of creative storytelling to cut through the jargon. “There needs to be an impetus in the cultural space to not only put forward these talking points but make it sexy… something that people want to come back to,” he said.

When FCB Health New York reached out to him about EQL BAND and this panel, he saw this as a perfect opportunity to combine activism with art. He could see how problems with smartwatch technology could perpetuate mistrust within underserved communities.

“I remember the look on my mother-in-law's face when I bought her a smartwatch as a gift,” he said. “The minute you find out something like this, it just raises questions about their interaction with all sorts of technology. If I can't even believe what my smartwatch is reading about me, what else does that say about my engagement with my phone?” 

To underscore the importance of art in this fight for health equity, he performed a poignant spoken word piece, titled Blindspot to the backdrop of a video imagined by Adobe Firefly. The poem was inspired by the racial bias in smartwatch technology. The assignment to the FCB Health New York team that created the video backdrop was to create content using Adobe Firefly and its related applications, exclusively.

Said the team: “Since our campaign employs unequal and equal symbols, which to date had only been designed as vectors, this challenge caused a lucky accident to occur. Discovering Adobe Firefly’s ability to manipulate vector objects into anything you could think of made us realize the full capability of our design language. The fact that they could be images, 3D textures and animations in any style, helped us telegraph the inequality of green light technology and the hope for equitable tech. As a tool, it is fast and is key to enhancing any project.”

As George beautifully stated in the last stanza of his piece, “You see the ultimate equalizer is the fact no one knows how much time we've got. And that's why the best we could do is learn from our blind spots.”

A seat at the table 

The panel concluded with a clear call to action: mistakes cannot be avoided in the innovation process, but the infrastructure needs to be in place to spot and then redress them. And that starts with including the people you are designing for, in the design process itself.

“You need to be having them around the table. It's exactly how you would do any product design,” Shaheed stressed. “You would have that person at the start of the process, in the middle, and at the end.”

As for EQL BAND: the mission is to ensure equitable health data in clinical trials by 2025 and push tech companies to erase the green light bias in their own technology.

“Hopefully this time next year…this will be an issue that is no longer something that we need to be sitting on this stage talking about”, Shaheed said.