Can your smartphone detect how drunk you are?

A small proof-of-concept study shows smartphones could help detect drunkenness based on the way you walk.

woman sitting at bar using smartphone

Can your phone detect your blood alcohol level?

Photo by wavebreakmedia on Shutterstock
  • The legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit for driving in the U.S is 0.08 percent. You can measure your BAC 15 minutes after your first drink and your levels will remain safe if you consume no more than one standard drink per hour.
  • Portable breathalyzers can be used to measure BAC, but not many people own these devices.
  • A small proof-of-concept study suggests that your smartphone could detect your drunkenness based on the way you walk.

The legal limit for driving within the United States is a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent. According to BAC Track, you can measure your BAC (blood alcohol content) as soon as 15 minutes after your first drink. BAC Track suggests your BAC level will remain within safe limits if you consume one standard drink per hour.

According to BAC Track, one standard drink is half an ounce of alcohol, which can be:

  • One 12 ounce beer
  • One 5 ounce glass of wine
  • One 1.5 ounce shot of distilled alcohol

There are many things that influence a person's BAC, including how quickly you drink, your body weight, altitude, how much food you've eaten, whether you're male or female, and what kind of medications you're currently on.

A new study has found that your smartphone could actually tell you if your blood alcohol concentration exceeds the limit of 0.08 percent.

    The small study that could mean big things for alcohol testing

    alcohol impairment by BAC level chart

    Image by gritsalak karalak on Shutterstock

    While devices such as portable breath analyzers are available, not many people own them due to how expensive they are and the social stigma surrounding them. This 2020 study suggests smartphones could be an alternative. According to PEW Research, up to 81 percent of people own a smartphone.

    The study

    For this small-scale study, there were 22 participants who visited the lab to consume a vodka-based drink that would raise their breath alcohol concentration to 0.02 percent.

    Dr. Brian Suffoletto of the Stanford Medical School's Department of Emergency Medicine (and corresponding author of the study) explains to Medical News Today: "I lost a close friend to a drinking and driving crash in college," Dr. Suffoletto says. "And as an emergency physician, I have taken care of scores of adults with injuries related to acute alcohol intoxication. Because of this, I have dedicated the past 10 years to testing digital interventions to prevent deaths and injury related to excessive alcohol consumption."

    How it works:

    Before having the drink, each participant had a smartphone strapped to their back and was asked to walk 10 steps in a straight line and then back again. Every hour for the next 7 hours, the participants repeated this walk.

    The sensors on the smartphone measured each person's acceleration and their movements (both from side to side and up and down).

    This is not the first study of it's kind.

    Previous research (such as this 2016 study) has used machine learning to determine whether a person was intoxicated. That data, gathered from 34 'intoxicated' participants, generated time and frequency domain features such as sway area and cadence, which were classified using supervised machine learning.

    This 2020 study showed promising results of the smartphone analysis: over 90 percent accuracy.

    Researchers found through analyzing the data that 92.5 percent of the time they were able to determine if a participant had exceeded the legal BAC limit.

    Of course, the study had some limitations.

    In real life, a person is very unlikely to keep their smartphone strapped to their back. Placing the phone in your pocket (or carrying it) could impact the accuracy.

    This study also measured breath alcohol concentrations, which are on average 15 percent lower than blood alcohol concentrations.

    The implications of this small-scale study are exciting.

    While this was a relatively small study, it is being used as a "proof of concept" marker for further research. Researchers on this project explain that future research would ideally be done in real-world settings with more volunteers.

    Dr. Brian Suffoletto explains to Medical News Today:

    "In 5 years, I would like to imagine a world in which, if people go out with friends and drink at risky levels, they get an alert at the first sign of impairment and are sent strategies to help them stop drinking and protect them from high-risk events, like driving, interpersonal violence, and unprotected sexual encounters."

    This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

    A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

    Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
    Surprising Science
    • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
    • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
    • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

    First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

    Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

    All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

    BepiColombo

    Image source: European Space Agency

    The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

    Into and out of Earth's shadow

    In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

    The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

    In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

    When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

    Magentosphere melody

    The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

    BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

    MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

    Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

    Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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