**Could an algorithm replace the pill?
IUDs, implants, condoms and the ever-present pill: for years, contraceptive methods have remained run-of-the-mill while the search for a new alternative that could revolutionise the industry has come up short. Recent headlines have focused on the negative aspects of traditional hormonal birth control: the pill causes depression and gender mutation in freshwater fish, while a clinical trial for a male contraceptive jab was abandoned when the subjects began suffering side-effects already well-known to women.
But 50 years since it first became available, the pill remains the default option, and women still shoulder the responsibility for preventing pregnancies. Could software be the solution? Elina Berglund Scherwitzl, founder and chief technical officer of mobile fertility app Natural Cycles thinks so.
Using a sensitive thermometer and sophisticated mathematics, Natural Cycles is an old-fashioned period tracker, with extra features. The app, which launched in 2014, asks users to take their temperatures in the morning, preferably before getting out of bed, then input that into the app, which tells them where they are in their menstrual cycle. Days when a woman can get pregnant become red; “safe” days are green. So far, so low-tech. What makes Natural Cycles unique, though, is the algorithm developed by Berglund…
Through daily use, the algorithm learns not just how to map an individual’s ovulation but to predict it, too. That allows the five days prior to ovulation to be identified in real time, alerting women to the fact that male sperm can linger for that long in their bodies, ready to pounce on an egg when it is released.
The app fills a gap in the market, spotted by Berglund when she felt fed up with the limited options on offer other than hormonal contraception. She devised the algorithm and started mapping her own cycle, as well as those of female colleagues at Cern. It proved so succesful that Berglund and her husband, fellow physicist and Natural Cycle’s CEO Raoul Scherwitzl, decided to devote more time to the app.**