Invasion of the body hackers
By April Dembosky
Published: June 10 2011 17:19 | Last updated: June 10 2011 17:19
|Dave Asprey, who says that he has ‘rewired’ his brain through body hacking|
Michael Galpert rolls over in bed in his New York apartment, the alarm clock still chiming. The 28-year-old internet entrepreneur slips off the headband that’s been recording his brainwaves all night and studies the bar graph of his deep sleep, light sleep and REM. He strides to the bathroom and steps on his digital scale, the one that shoots his weight and body mass to an online data file. Before he eats his scrambled egg whites with spinach, he takes a picture of his plate with his mobile phone, which then logs the calories. He sets his mileage tracker before he hops on his bike and rides to the office, where a different set of data spreadsheets awaits.
“Running a start-up, I’m always looking at numbers, always tracking how business is going,” he says. Page views, clicks and downloads, he tallies it all. “That’s under-the-hood information that you can only garner from analysing different data points. So I started doing that with myself.”
His weight, exercise habits, caloric intake, sleep patterns – they’re all quantified and graphed like a quarterly revenue statement. And just as a business trims costs when profits dip, Galpert makes decisions about his day based on his personal analytics: too many calories coming from carbs? Say no to rice and bread at lunchtime. Not enough REM sleep? Reschedule that important business meeting for tomorrow.
The founder of his own online company, Galpert is one of a growing number of “self-quantifiers”. Moving in the technology circles of New York and Silicon Valley, engineers and entrepreneurs have begun applying a tenet of the computer business to their personal health: “One cannot change or control that which one cannot measure.”
Much as an engineer will analyse data and tweak specifications in order to optimise a software program, people are collecting and correlating data on the “inputs and outputs” of their bodies to optimise physical and mental performance.
“We like to hack hardware and software, why not hack our bodies?” says Tim Chang, a self-quantifier and Silicon Valley investor who is backing the development of several self-tracking gadgets.
Indeed, why not give yourself an “upgrade”, says Dave Asprey, a “bio-hacker” who takes self-quantification to the extreme of self-experimentation. He claims to have shaved 20 years off his biochemistry and increased his IQ by as much as 40 points through “smart pills”, diet and biology-enhancing gadgets.
“I’ve rewired my brain,” he says.
|Attendees at this year’s Quantified Self Conference discuss a sleep-tracking device|
Asprey shares his results with the CEOs and venture capitalists he consults with through his executive coaching business, BulletProofExecutive, but he’s found an even more welcoming audience at the first-ever international Quantified Self Conference.
Over the last weekend of May, in the upstairs of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley, 400 “Quantified-Selfers” from around the globe have gathered to show off their Excel sheets, databases and gadgets.
Participants are mostly middle to upper class, mostly white. Europe is well represented. Suits and skirts appear at a minimum. There are plenty of nerdy young men, nerdy older men and extremely fit men and women with defined muscles and glowing skin. There is also a robust contingent of young urban hipsters in military boots, hoodies and elaborate tattoos.
A quiet middle-aged man walks around with a pulse monitor clipped to his earlobe, a blood pressure cuff on his arm and a heart rate monitor strapped around his chest, all feeding a stream of data to his walkie-talkie-like computer. Someone from the UK unrolls a 12ft line graph charting the fluctuations in his mood over the previous year. A Canadian graduate student describes the web tools he uses to track his attention span.
Footsteps, sweat, caffeine, memories, stress, even sex and dating habits – it can all be calculated and scored like a baseball batting average. And if there isn’t already an app or a device for tracking it, one will probably appear in the next few years.
Brittany Bohnet, who was converted into a self-quantifier while working at Google, says she expects these gadgets will follow us in all aspects of our lives – even the most private. “Eventually we’ll get to a point where we use the restroom and we’ll get a meter that tells us, ‘You’re deficient in vitamin B,’” she says. “That will be the end goal, where we understand exactly what our bodies need.”
|Joe and Lisa Betts-LaCroix, self-trackers ‘I was giving birth to our son, and instead of holding my hand and hugging me he was sitting in the corner entering the time between my contractions into a spreadsheet’|
“We’re moving away from the era of the blockbuster drug and toward personalised medicine,” adds Joe Betts-LaCroix, a self-tracker and bio-engineer. He opens a laptop with graphs of his weight and that of his wife, Lisa, and two kids, measured daily for the last three years. He has data detailing his wife’s menstrual cycle for 10 years.
“I was giving birth to our son, and instead of holding my hand and supporting me and hugging me, he was sitting in the corner entering the time between my contractions into a spreadsheet,” says Lisa Betts-LaCroix.
The concept of self-tracking dates back centuries. Modern body hackers are fond of referencing Benjamin Franklin, who kept a list of 13 virtues and put a check mark next to each when he violated it. The accumulated data motivated him to refine his moral compass. Then there were scientists who tested treatments or vaccines for yellow fever, typhoid and Aids on themselves. Today’s medical innovators have made incredible advancements in devices such as pacemakers that send continuous heart data to a doctor’s computer, or implantable insulin pumps for diabetics that automatically read glucose levels and inject insulin without any human effort.
Today in Silicon Valley, the engineers who have developed devices for tracking their own habits are modifying them into consumer-friendly versions and preparing to launch them on a largely unsuspecting public. Though most people would cringe at the idea of getting a mineral read-out every time they visit the loo, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists see a huge market for consumer-focused health and wellness tools, using the $10.5bn self-help market and $61bn weight loss market as indicators of demand. Self-quantifiers who work at large technology companies such as Intel, Microsoft and Philips are drawing their bosses’ attention to the commercial opportunities. Public health advocates and healthcare executives are starting to imagine the potential the data could hold for disease management and personalised drug development.
“We can see the tipping point,” says Gary Wolf, one of the founders of the modern-day quantified self movement and an organiser of the conference. “The involvement of the businesses is a sign that we’re not completely alone in seeing something important happening.”
Tim Chang, the Silicon Valley investor, says that self-tracking will win minds and wallets the same way the Green movement put Priuses on the road and grapefruit-powered cleaners under the sink.
“Over the next five to 10 years, self-tracking will be critical to wellness,” Chang says. “It will be consumer-led, not prescribed by your doctor or mandated by your insurance company.” For now, though, it’s in the “geeky early adopter stage”.
Chang and many of the attendees of the Quantified Self conference liken themselves to the Homebrew Computer Club of the 1970s and ’80s, the Silicon Valley gathering of technical hobbyists – including Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak – who swore personal computers would one day grace every home. Quantified-selfers who are inventing personal tracking gadgets in their basements “will have the same scope of impact”, Chang says.
|Software engineer Alex Gilman explains the Fujitsu Sprout body monitor|
The self-tracking equivalent of an early model, 30lb, four-part desktop computer is Fujitsu Laboratories’ Sprout, as worn by software engineer Alex Gilman at the Quantified Self Conference: a maze of sensors and wires send data from his ear, chest and arm to the pocket-sized computer clipped to his belt – the Sprout. The Sprout synchronises the physical data from the body sensors and from the apps on his iPod Touch where he records his moods and drowsiness levels. What is now a mess of raw, useless data can be calculated and translated into a neat graph that will eventually be used to measure stress and fatigue, manage weight loss, even predict illness.
The potential of the Sprout is intriguing, but mass appeal will only come when such devices are consolidated into small, wireless, all-in-one products that make data collection completely passive, says Chang. Most will require little to no human effort and some will even be “game-ified”, he says, made as fun and addictive as Angry Birds.
Through his firm Norwest Venture Partners, Chang is placing his bets on Basis, a wristwatch-type device that records heart rate, physical activity, calorie burn and sleep patterns. Data readouts show spikes in heart rate data so users can see when they’re stressed and overlay that data with their work calendar to see which people or meetings might be the cause. When Chang tried a prototype, he noticed peaks in heart rate during his morning commute and decided to shift his route to a longer, but less busy, highway. It’s the interesting, useful, easy-to-digest information like this, he says, that will push these devices into the hands of ordinary users.
|Tim Ferriss, author of ‘The 4-Hour Body’Ferriss claims he can teach people how to lose weight without exercise, maintain peak mental performance on two hours’ sleep and have a 15-minute orgasm|
When the benefits of the information outweigh the costs, in money or time, people will buy the devices, says Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Body, an account of hundreds of body hacks he tried on himself which has won a following among employees at Google, Facebook and many Silicon Valley start-ups. Through his exploits Ferriss claims that he can teach people how to lose weight without exercise, maintain peak mental performance on two hours’ sleep and have a 15-minute orgasm. Ferriss has personally invested in at least eight devices.
“I think, as soon as the next 12 or 24 months, that people will have to opt out of self-tracking, as opposed to opt in,” he says, “much like GPS and geo tagging,” a feature of smartphones that records users’ geographic location automatically for use in various consumer mobile applications.
The implications for privacy are dramatic. Advocates and politicians were in an uproar when they realised the kind of access that Apple and Google have to geographic data derived from phones. Imagining three years worth of heart rate data or depression symptoms travelling through mobile devices – potentially being offered for sale to drug or insurance companies, exploited by advertisers or hacked by cyber criminals – puts watchdog groups on alert.
“What consumers need to realise is there’s a huge, huge demand for information about their activities, and the protections for the information about their activities are far, far, far less than what they think,” says Lee Tien, a privacy attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “A lot of these cloud services fall outside the federal and state privacy regimes.”
Mistakes will be made, Ferriss concedes, but he thinks “more good will come from it than bad”. He points to websites such as CureTogether.com andPatientsLikeMe.com, which harness individually collected data on conditions such as asthma, kidney disease, chronic pain and depression. People can then experiment with traditional and alternative therapies to find what works for them. That information is already informing new research and drug development.
Some doctors and public health advocates see great potential for personal tracking in managing chronic illnesses, especially among the rapidly ageing baby boomer generation. Mobile applications can track levels of blood sugar in diabetics or blood pressure in people with hypertension, and send alerts if a problem is developing. Movement-tracking sensors the size of watch batteries – like the one in the Basis wristwatch – can be placed on pill bottles to monitor if a medication has been taken and, if a dose is missed, generate a reminder text or e-mail.
“We believe it’s a differentiator that will help employers save costs,” says Nick Martin, vice-president of innovation with the UnitedHealth Group, a Minneapolis-based health insurance company that is considering covering the use of health-tracking technologies. This means that people’s personal health details could be shared not just with their doctor but with their insurer as well. But Martin says concerns about this will fade fast.
“We’ve seen this with credit cards and payments over mobile phones,” he says, where consumers gradually adapted to sharing financial information over the ether. “We’ve gotten over that hurdle, and I think we will here.”
Still, seniors and boomers are much less inclined to spill the details of their personal lives than the Facebook-ed generations after them. And to believe that even twenty- and thirtysomethings don’t have limits to what they want others to know, or what they even want to know about themselves, seems wishful. Despite promises of confidentiality, people fear they will be charged higher insurance premiums, denied coverage or even denied a job based on their healthcare data.
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|Alicia Morga, app developerThe data collected in Morga’s gottaFeeling app enables users to ‘predict an exercise slump or a spending spree and help avoid the behaviour’|
Alicia Morga is an accidental self-tracker. The 39-year-old entrepreneur says she identifies more with the Oprah Winfrey school of self-improvement than the Silicon Valley data geeks. She’s tried a heart rate monitor and the pedometer on her iPod to track her running workouts, but she only recently learnt the term “quantified self” when she started developing an iPhone app for tracking emotions. Her desire to track her own moods arose in a business context after she founded her own Hispanic marketing company, Consorte Media.
“I needed a way to manage the emotional rollercoaster that entrepreneurship is,” she says. “I was angry. But there’s a double standard in business that women are not allowed to be angry, especially if they’re the boss.”
She kept her anger pent up, but then noticed it would “leak out” in the office, in a snide remark or a contemptuous look. She wanted to be a better communicator and a better leader so she signed up for an executive course at Stanford University called Interpersonal Dynamics. The course sought to develop emotional self-awareness, determine when it was appropriate to hide a feeling or express it and practise ways to communicate those emotions in a constructive manner. “Emotional fitness requires exercise,” Morga says, “just like running.”
Shortly after selling her marketing company, Morga started designing gottaFeeling, an app that pings her one to six times a day, depending on the settings, and asks how she’s feeling. A menu gives her options such as happy, sad, confused, angry. If she clicks angry, it asks her to refine her answer with irritated, frustrated or pissed off. She then records where she is and who she’s with. At the end of a week she can look at a pie chart that breaks down the percentage of time she spent in each mood, and see overlaid data of where, when, and in whose company she felt that way.
Just naming an emotion helps you manage it, Morga says. But the ultimate goal is for users to correlate emotions with eating habits, shopping behaviours or work tasks. If patterns emerge, the data could help users “predict an exercise slump or a spending spree and help avoid the behaviour”.
In the spirit of self-experimentation, Morga tried this on herself. She began studying her financial records. She never uses cash, so all her purchases were in one credit card statement, which she exported to Excel.
“Turns out, I consume a ton of cupcakes,” she says. Crunching the data to see when and where she bought the cupcakes, she discovered that 40 per cent of her purchases were made on Tuesdays at the same kiosk she passed in downtown San Francisco – on her way to see her personal trainer. She studied her mood data from the same time to see if there was an emotional factor but found no correlation and concluded the purchases were attributable to convenience. As a result she asked her trainer to meet her in a different neighbourhood and successfully cut her cupcake consumption by 40 per cent.
She’s still crunching the data to figure out how to trim the other 60 per cent.
|Brainstorming session at the Quantified Self Conference|
Back at the Quantified Self Conference in Silicon Valley, attendees break into smaller groups to explore the finer points of hacking sleep, cognition and ageing. A concentration of hipsters heads to the session on attention-span tracking. About 50 participants sit in a circle, one-third with laptops propped open on their thighs. Moderating is Matthew Trentacoste, a 29-year-old PhD student in computer science at the University of British Columbia and an organiser of the Vancouver Quantified Self group, one of two dozen groups around the globe that meet informally throughout the year. His long, curly hair is piled at the back of his head and tied with a knitted scarf.
“I’ve been diagnosed with ADHD,” he says, referring to the increasingly common designation of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. “As someone who’s easily distracted, I’m interested in figuring out strategies to reduce these distractions.”
Trentacoste describes a tool he’s developing to help him track how he spends his time online, down to the millisecond. It measures how long he spends on e-mail versus web browsing, how much time he spends in each web window and how often he switches his focus. The goal, among those who use or are building similar tools, is to reduce distractions, increase productivity and achieve “flow”, the optimum state of creativity and focus.
A discussion ensues on techniques for achieving flow, and a generational divide appears.
The younger people in the room talk about experimenting with Adderall, a common drug prescribed to people with ADHD that helps focus the mind. Older participants enquire whether meditating before bed has an effect on concentration the next day. The contrasts in method between the age groups are stark, as are the motivations for body hacking in general, says Dave Asprey.
“The people interested in this are under 30 and over 45,” he says, gesturing around the cafeteria at the conference. The people under 30 are the next Tim Ferrisses, the over-achieving entrepreneurs who are out to conquer Silicon Valley.
“The people over 45 are just tired of being fat and tired, and they see the kids under 30 and they know they’re going to lose their jobs to them,” he says. “They know they like to work ’em hard and burn ’em out young in Silicon Valley.”
|Michael Galpert, internet entrepreneur‘Running a start-up, I’m always looking at numbers, always tracking how business is going. So I started doing that with myself’|
Attempting to counter that trend, Michael Galpert, the New York internet entrepreneur, is using body hacking technology to promote healthier lifestyles in his office. He’s set up a workplace weight loss and fitness contest where employees use a mobile app to upload their daily weight and exercise routines into a shared online database. The idea is that seeing that your co-worker lost 2lb more than you last month, or did 20 more push-ups yesterday, will motivate you to keep up and keep going.
It’s not just a physical contest, Galpert says. The competitiveness and motivation on the treadmill will encourage people to push themselves at their desks as well.
“When you keep trying for one more push-up, it gets easier,” he says. “It’s the same at work. You can say ‘the project I’m working on is done,’ or you can say you’ll spend a little more time to make it better.”
Or, some ex-self-quantifiers would say, you could push the drive for perfection to breaking point.
“People thought I was narcissistic. What they didn’t see was the self-punishment, the fear, the hatred behind the tracking,” writes Alexandra Carmichael, one of the founders of CureTogether.com, in a poem about why she stopped tracking herself. “I had stopped trusting myself. Letting the numbers drown out my intuition, my instincts.”
Whether or not distilling human performance down to ones and zeroes will truly make us better, healthier human beings remains to be seen. Nobody has yet measured the full impact of so fully measuring their lives.
April Dembosky is the FT’s San Francisco correspondent