Gizmos

Is Google’s Next Move to Help You Lose Weight and Eat Better?

Google is reportedly working on an A.I.-based health and wellness coach. Here’s what it would mean.

Google logo with a whistle around its G.
Illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

One of the promises of our phones’ continuous data tracking is that, some day, the information could be used to make our lives better. An app could, for example, learn your daily habits and then offer suggestions to help you achieve a particular goal, such as to eat healthier, lose weight, or exercise more often. Using artificial intelligence, it could then make small periodic recommendations. Some apps are already beginning to do this, but Google is reportedly now also interested in entering the A.I. health coaching space. If it does, it would move the idea into the mainstream.

Android blog Android Police recently reported that Google is working on its own health and fitness coach for Wear OS smartwatches. The wellness assistant is tentatively called “Google Coach,” according to the report, and would use what Google knows about your day-to-day life in order to push you to eat healthier or be more active. On the fitness side, it might recommend specific workouts, suggest replacement activities if you miss a workout, and keep tabs on your overall progress. On the meal front, it could make healthy order recommendations when it notices you’re at a restaurant or deliver a meal plan and associated shopping list to your Gmail inbox each week.

Thanks to its spectrum of hardware products, Google would have a notable advantage over existing wellness coaching apps. While its coach, as reported, would primarily exist on smartwatches to start, Android Police noted that the company could include a smartphone counterpart as well. The company could also eventually spread it to Google Home or Android TV. The latter is unchartered territory for these kinds of apps, which are typically limited to smartphones and wearables. With availability in the home, lifestyle coaching recommendations could become increasingly contextual and less obtrusive. If you ask for a chicken parmesan dinner recipe, it could offer a healthier alternative instead; or if you’re streaming music at 10 p.m. and have set a goal to get more sleep, perhaps it could interrupt your music playback to remind you start getting ready for bed. A smartwatch or phone could do this too, of course, but by linking up its product ecosystem, Google could deliver helpful notifications in the context that makes the most sense.

Apple has also taken steps toward turning its Apple Watch into a health guidance tool, although not yet with a dedicated A.I. coach. The watch offers periodic reminders to stand, exercise, and move each day with a gamified approach urging users to “close their rings” (a reference to the concentric circle graphs the watch uses to quantify how much activity it’s tracked). Google tried a similar approach with Google Fit, but it doesn’t seem to have taken off in the same way (although a recent redesign may help). Google Coach could fix that by better utilizing the company’s vast data on your habits and re-tooling that information into proactive tips and notifications, rather than supplying just a data portal. Apple has also partnered with research institutions so that researchers can use Watch wearers’ data to better learn about heart function and how to identify issues like arrhythmia. The information could one day be used to warn users to visit a physician when early signs of a possible heart condition are detected.

Using movement and wearable data for proactive medical diagnosis is more complicated and more distant an application, but A.I. coaches are already guiding users to better workouts and healthier eating in a number of apps. Fitness tracker Moov was one of the first to implement A.I. in the space by using a virtual personality to guide you through specific workouts and offer encouragement along the way. Another example, Vi, is a virtual run coach built into a pair of heart-rate sensing wireless earphones. After a few hours of use, Vi learns your running tendencies and can start to coach you toward higher speeds, longer runs, and more efficient movements. Another app, Noom Coach, uses a blend of human coaching and A.I.-based recommendations to help users build habits for successful weight loss.

Since Google’s wellness coach could potentially encompass a more holistic 24/7-style approach to improving your health, it is taking steps to ensure it doesn’t become a nuisance. The assistant will reportedly take a conversational approach to notifications, bundling a few reminders into a single message so you don’t get inundated with too many notifications throughout the day. This is smart: Notification fatigue could easily turn a maybe-useful assistant into a tool that’s loathed or ignored.

But depending on Google’s implementation, an A.I. coach could prove more a reminder of how extensively the company has invaded our personal lives. To provide accurate recommendations, such an A.I. would need access to a number of private data metrics such as heart rate, activity data, location, and app activity. Combined, it gives the company a complete look at who you are and what you do each day—and that is a significant privacy concern. But as with any app, privacy is a trade-off: If Google can prove that its insights into your everyday can successfully translate into help achieving health, fitness, or weight loss goals in a minimally invasive way, it could have a winner. People typically know what to do to lose weight, but they need help transforming that knowledge into habit. If Google can do that, it could see success.

AI-based coaching is a growing space, and Google is a natural fit. The company knows where you are and how you got there (perhaps unethically so) and thus knows how often you eat out, order in, or hit the gym. It also knows how to do A.I. well—as Slate’s Will Oremus wrote in May, Google isn’t a search engine at its core anymore, it’s an A.I. engine. While health coaching may not be for everyone, a plurality of Americans admit to going on a diet (45 million, according to the Boston Medical Center), needing more sleep (40 percent of those surveyed in a Gallup poll), or needing to exercise more often (nearly 50 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). If anyone could make an A.I. coach that can truly encompass your daily habits, it’s Google. Now we just have to wait to see if it can pull it off.