BMI (Body Mass Index) is a buzzword (buzzacronym?) that is all over – from the media, to schools, to workplaces and healthcare practitioners office. Some people believe that it determines how fat someone is, or that it determines health. Neither of those is true, and the use of BMI for these things is deeply problematic. BMI is actually just a simple ratio of weight and height (weight in pounds times 703 divided by height in inches squared). BMI has risen to such prominence in large part due to insurance companies – before Obamacare insurance companies used BMI to decide how much to charge people, and to refuse coverage to others (I was one of them ) All of that is to say that BMI has become such a popular “health” measure because it’s an incredibly cheap number to get.
Well, in partnership with the US government, Guodong Guo (an assistant professor at the Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at West Virginia University) and his team are working to change all of that. They have received a grant of over $200,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to create a technology that can accurately predict BMI using 2D or 3D images.
Why are they doing this? According to Guo “This research provides a theoretic foundation for developing a visual analysis system that can be deployed to provide convenient estimate of the BMI and related health conditions anywhere and anytime.” So we are using over $200,000 to create a “theoretical foundation” to create something that can give us a useless number that can currently be obtained with a scale and a tape measure.
In reading the grant abstract there is some stuff that would be hilarious if it weren’t such a ridiculous waste of money. In justifying this grant, the abstract states “A major reason of the prevalence of obesity is that many people are not aware of their BMI and the higher risks of various diseases associated with high BMI values.”
Of course there’s no proof provided that people are fat because they don’t know the ratio of their weight and height. Also no research is provided to suggest that people are fat because they don’t haven’t heard weight and height erroneously correlated. This is what the obesi-panic has led to – people can say just about anything and, as long as they promise to help eradicate fat people, the government will give them money (see also: The Let’s Move Campaign)
But this technology isn’t just to calculate BMI of someone in person, they are also trying to find a way to detect BMI from a picture, either of a full body or a face. Why?
According to Guo it could be used “on online dating sites, where it could help you assess the BMI and state of health of people you might date.” Sigh. Once again, even if the technology worked the best it could tell you is the ratio of weight and height of the person you are likely to date. To me the only good use of this would be to help people eliminate dates who would use such a device.
But I think that the grant application tells us quite a bit more “The developed technology can also improve personal health care and quality of life, and public health surveillance.”
I think that the idea that people’s personal health care and quality of life will improve if they are able to estimate their BMI from a picture rather than knowing exactly what it is by using a scale and tape measure is pretty questionable. In fact, I think that personal health care and quality of life would be improved greatly if we never talked about BMI again. But that’s not what bothers me most about this. What bothers me are three little words:
Public. Health. Surveillance.
Setting aside for a moment the fact that those are three words that I don’t think should ever be put together, let me get this straight: we’re going to take pictures of people and use those pictures to estimate the ratio of people’s weight and height so that we can make assumptions about their health, to what end exactly?
To put on my tinfoil hat of conspiracy theory: the idea that we have to surveil people’s height and weight ratio as part of public health is seriously concerning. The National Science Foundation program that this grant was given under is called ROBUST INTELLIGENCE (which I assume means “Intelligence” in the surveillance sense since there is nothing even marginally intelligent about continuing to perpetuate the use of BMI.)
So this is definitely a ridiculous waste of money, but whether or not it’s a dangerous waste of money is yet to be seen.
Want to say something to somebody? Perhaps suggest a better use for $200,000?
Email Guo at Guodong.Guo@mail.wvu.edu
Contact the grant sponsor: West Virginia University Research Corporation
P.O. Box 6845 Morgantown, WV 26506-6845 304-293-3998
Contact the NSF: firstname.lastname@example.org
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