“Siri, do you think I’m depressed?”
According to a Tuesday report in the Wall Street Journal, Apple is working on features to detect depression, anxiety, autism, and the cognitive decline that can lead to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
The depression and cognitive decline features would reportedly rely on extensive personal data collected by sensors on Apple devices such as iPhones and Apple Watches, such as sleep patterns, physical activity, typing habits, and more.
Apple is said to be working on the project with University of California, Los Angeles researchers who are studying stress, anxiety, and depression. According to the Journal, the tech giant is also collaborating with drugmaker Biogen Inc., which is researching cognitive decline.
The iPhone’s camera is used to observe young children’s physical behavior and help detect autism in a third reported collaboration with Duke University.
Apple did not respond to a request for comment on the report right away.
The projects are reportedly still in the early stages of development, and it’s unclear whether they’ll ever result in a commercial product.
Apple’s reported effort comes as a growing body of evidence suggests that using the company’s own devices may be contributing to mental health issues in recent years.
Researchers from the University of Arizona discovered that smartphone dependence among 18 to 20-year-olds “predicts higher reports of depressive symptoms and loneliness,” according to a 2019 study. Researchers from San Diego and Florida State University published a study in 2017 that found that heavy smartphone and social media use among teenagers was linked to higher rates of mental health issues and suicide.
Sources told the Journal that Apple Chief Operating Officer Jeff Williams, who heads the company’s health unit, has told employees “enthusiastically” that the company has the potential to help address rising rates of anxiety and depression.
Any attempt by Apple to detect mental health issues would inevitably raise privacy concerns for some users, and the company has already faced backlash from privacy advocates this year over a plan to scan users’ images for child pornography, prompting the company to postpone and modify the feature.
According to documents reviewed by Journal, Apple’s algorithms would work locally on users’ devices rather than sending data to the company to address privacy concerns.
Biogen, the company that is reportedly working with Apple to detect signs of cognitive decline, is the maker of a contentious $56,000-per-year Alzheimer’s drug that was approved by the FDA in June. Outside FDA advisers had expressed concerns about the drug’s efficacy and even chastised the FDA’s own staff for a “overly positive” review.