Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) are currently using a wireless monitoring system to keep an eye on COVID-19 patients at home. Soon, they’re hoping to see it installed widely so care providers can glean information about individual patients’ health from habits like microwave usage. If you think that sounds ominous, you’re not alone — and the researchers have already stated that they imagine the information would be shared with insurance companies.

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“Sapple” consists of a smart electricity meter and a wireless wall-mounted radio signal device called “Emerald,” which determine where a person is in their home and the frequency with which they use home appliances like dishwashers, hair dryers, and ovens. The device then uses AI to analyze these patterns and detect inhabitants’ movements, sleep patterns, and breathing rates, all of which can be reported to remote doctors and nurses.

In the context of COVID-19 response, the system lets health care professionals reduce their own risk of infection while patients with less severe symptoms get to stay in the comfort of their own homes instead of a hospital. The CSAIL team is currently testing it at an assisted living facility, where the system has already proven itself capable of monitoring signs of improvement, like walking around the house, in a COVID-19 positive patient.

The researchers say the information can also let health professionals know if a patient is observing proper hygiene and preparing food regularly without requiring wearable location sensors.

Helpful graphic explain exactly how the Sapple system locates individuals inside a house.

A paper released by MIT PhD student Chen-Yu Hsu provides a little more detail:

Learning home appliance usage patterns is useful for understanding user habits and optimizing electricity consumption. For example, knowing when a person uses their microwave, stove, oven, coffee machine, or toaster provides information about their eating patterns. Similarly, understanding when they use their TV, air-conditioner, or washer and dryer provides knowledge of their behavior and habits.”

“Such information can be used to encourage energy saving by optimizing appliance usage (Armel et al., 2013) to track the well-being of elderly living alone (Donini et al., 2013; Debes et al., 2016), or to provide users with behavioral analytics (Zhou & Yang, 2016; Zipperer et al., 2013). This data is also useful for various businesses such as home insurance companies interested in assessing accident risks and utility companies interested in optimizing energy efficiency.”

If limited to scenarios like monitoring elderly patients with health challenges at home so they can maintain independence, potential privacy concerns around technology like “Sapple” could be reduced. However, the researchers see it extending to common smart home systems in the future, normalizing widespread residential use. That’s a little worrisome, to say the least.

Sapple works using a combination of energy data and radio-based locating systems.

“As indoor location-sensing starts to potentially become as common as Wi-Fi in the future, the hope is that our technology can be effortlessly applied to all places with utility meters,” says Hsu. “This could enable new applications for passive health sensing in the homes. Utility companies, for example, could reduce peak demands by providing personalized feedback, optimize energy generation and delivery, and ultimately improve energy efficiency.”

Considering the degree to which we’re already surveilled by our own smartphones and internet usage, allowing this new level of monitoring may strike some people as no big deal. But if they’re already sharing appliance usage data with homeowners’ insurance companies, what’s to stop them, eventually, from sharing information like how often you sit on your couch with health insurance companies to determine your eligibility for coverage?

Would you be willing to install technology like this in your own home?