Prototyping Cancer Prevention

Introducing a year of speculative, oncology-focused design

I was driving west on the 10, obeying the gendered voice commands of Google Maps on our way to Santa Monica. These were new roads for me; I’m new to California and appreciate the guidance that navigation apps like Google Maps and Waze afford smartphone-equipped drivers like myself. I value “there-when-you-need-it” navigation, a deeply humane characteristic that I hope to imbue into my first project as a Concept Designer for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

I’m interested in passive yet observant technologies that can help nudge people away from cancer. Like following the suggestions of a GPS-enabled navigation app, our personal technologies should be able to offer us anticipatory and highly-personal recommendations to arrive safely at our shared destination of a cancer-free life. Of course, as many millions of us can attest to, cancer is not always born of behavioral or environmental factors. Genetics often play a large role in developing tumors, and the field is still very much at the mercy of unknown unknowns. Even so, as estimated by the Center for Disease Control, 86% of all health care spending in 2010 was attributed to people with one or more chronic medical conditions, a term the CDC defines as “the most common, costly, and preventable of all health problems.” To make a large dent on cancer it’s essential and increasingly possible to intervene prior to diagnosis.

Marvin Minsky, the (recently) late pioneer into artificial intelligence, has been quoted as saying “No computer has ever been designed that is ever aware of what it’s doing; but most of the time, we aren’t either.” It’s unreasonable to expect humans to synthesize the morass of seemingly inconsequential decisions, habits and family histories into a recognizable, actionable list of priorities that can improve one’s health. This, however, should not suggest there aren’t means to inching closer towards something that can.

For the next 2 months, I’ll be prototyping key moments of “Assist,” the aggregate of personal health data designed to spot opportunities for cancer prevention. Whereas some “virtual care” mobile products act as a health-focused dictionary, I see value in products that can offer proactive, preventative care based on observed routines, purchases, and user-specified concerns. This work, however, assumes a few things to be true in the near future (2019):

  1. Normal market forces will continue to produce cheap and novel sensors that increase the resolution with which people can more casually understand their bodies.
  2. People will expect their personal technologies to further complement and otherwise orbit around their lives, but will find difficulty in striking the right balance between helpful and superfluous notifications.
  3. Hospitals will look a lot more like technology companies, both in terms of institutional initiatives as well as the sorts of roles they’ll hire for.

The translation of a discovered, personal opportunity for prevention into a completed action is no easy task. Though I’m not a behavioral psychologist, I appreciate the weight of such a proposal as well as the chewy questions looming on the horizon. How will the product learn about and adapt to its user? How will the user not find the product invasive or annoying? How can the user be assured that they’re receiving clinician-grade recommendations for care and not a lazy calculation by the data team?

The ability to support and improve the lives of millions or billions of people through personal, connected, thinking machines is an entirely new phenomenon, and until recently almost entirely the purview of those tinkering within the labs of Silicon Valley. Data-driven organizations will grow or stagnate based on how well they align their mission with individuals and their increasingly connected, sensor-rich lives. Choreographies between software-mediated industries and their users will need to be artfully considered, highly adaptable, and anticipatory to the extent that a “wrong turn” isn’t life threatening, but an opportunity to correct course and thrive.

“Assist” is the first of three possible futures that I will be prototyping on behalf of MSK Data Products, a new product development studio within Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. This prototype and others will be designed as constructive, tangible speculations on how the intersection of technology, design and oncology might look, feel, and behave in the next 3 to 6 years. I’ll return to Medium periodically throughout 2016 to share progress and participate in public conversations about how our technologies might continue to bend in support of cancer prevention.