Pro Tip: AI Might Not Be Great at Diagnosing STIs

Testing a new diagnostic app yielded mixed results

Smartphone camera
AI is making big steps towards diagnosing some conditions — but not everything.
Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Call it machine learning or call it AI; either way, there are certain areas where software searching for patterns in large quantities of data can make life better for humans. Last month, a new study suggested that AI tech could analyze coughs for traces of different illnesses, for instance. But analyzing a cough is one thing; diagnosing an STI based on an image of one organ is very different — and it may not be as accurate as the people behind a certain app would like it to be.

At the Los Angeles Times, Corinne Purtill contrasted the promises made by the makers of the app Calmara with a rigorous analysis of its findings. The app’s website offers a quick summary of how it works: “Our AI-powered scans offers you science-backed peeks at any suspicious spots that can be seen on the 🍆 skin.” Essentially, a user sends them a photo of a penis and the app checks for the presence of 10 or more conditions.

Calmara’s website emphasizes that it only works for images of one particular organ. But Purtill’s reporting reveals a gulf between expectations and reality. “[T]ests of Calmara showed the service to be inaccurate, unreliable and prone to the same kind of stigmatizing information its parent company says it wants to combat,” Purtill writes.

As part of the investigation, the Times uploaded a series of images from medical databases, and noted that Calmara correctly spotted some organs showing signs of disease, but missed others. Purtill highlighted “a chancroid ulcer and a case of syphilis so pronounced the foreskin was no longer able to retract.”

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In their own report on Calmara, The Guardian observed that some privacy advocates are concerned about the app, for obvious reasons. (Calmara’s website states that “[p]ics vanish faster than a Snapchat” and that the app does not collect personal information.)

Among the experts cited in the Los Angeles Times report was Dr. Ina Park of UC San Francisco. “With any tests you’re doing for STIs, there is always the possibility of false negatives and false positives,” Dr. Park told theTimes. “The issue with this app is that it appears to be rife with both.” All of which means that if you’re concerned that you have an STI, checking in with a healthcare professional is still your best option.

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