The Human Upgrade: The revolution will be digitized

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 Spearheaded by the flood of wearable devices, a movement to quantify consumers’ lifestyles is evolving into big business with immense health and privacy ramifications

From the instant he wakes up each morning, through his workday and into the night, the essence of Larry Smarr is captured by a series of numbers: a resting heart rate of 40 beats per minute, a blood pressure of 130/70, a stress level of 2 percent, 191 pounds, 8,000 steps taken, 15 floors climbed, 8 hours of sleep.

Smarr, an astrophysicist and computer scientist, could be the world’s most self-measured man. For nearly 15 years, the professor at the University of California at San Diego has been obsessed with what he describes as the most complicated subject he has ever experimented on: his own body.

Smarr keeps track of more than 150 parameters. Some, such as his heartbeat, movement and whether he’s sitting, standing or lying down, he measures continuously in real time with a wireless gadget on his belt. Some, such as his weight, he logs daily. Others, such as his blood and the bacteria in his intestines, he tests only about once every month.

Smarr compares the way he treats his body with how people monitor and maintain their cars: “We know exactly how much gas we have, the engine temperature, how fast we are going. What I’m doing is creating a dashboard for my body.”

Once, Smarr was most renowned as the head of the research lab where Marc Andreessen developed the Web browser in the early 1990s. Now 66, Smarr is the unlikely hero of a global movement among ordinary people to “quantify” themselves using wearable fitness gadgets, medical equipment, headcams, traditional lab tests and homemade contraptions, all with the goal of finding ways to optimize their bodies and minds to live longer, healthier lives — and perhaps to discover some important truth about themselves and their purpose in life.

The explosion in extreme tracking is part of a digital revolution in health care led by the tech visionaries who created Apple, Google, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems. Using the chips, database and algorithms that powered the information revolution of the past few decades, these new billionaires now are attempting to rebuild, regenerate and reprogram the human body.

In the aggregate data being gathered by millions of personal tracking devices are patterns that may reveal what in the diet, exercise regimen and environment contributes to disease.

Could physical activity patterns be used to not only track individuals’ cardiac health but also to inform decisions about where to place a public park and improve walkability? Could trackers find cancer clusters or contaminated waterways? A pilot project in Louisville, for example, uses inhalers with special sensors to pinpoint asthma “hot spots” in the city.

“As we have more and more sophisticated wearables that can continuously measure things ranging from your physical activity to your stress levels to your emotional state, we can begin to cross-correlate and understand how each aspect of our life consciously and unconsciously impacts one another,” Vinod Khosla, a co-founder of Sun and investor in mobile health start-ups, said in an interview.

The idea that data is a turnkey to self-discovery is not new. More than 200 years ago, Benjamin Franklin was tracking 13 personal virtues in a daily journal to develop his moral character. The ubiquity of cheap technology and an attendant plethora of apps now allow a growing number of Americans to track the minutiae of their lives as never before.

James Norris, in his 30s and an entrepreneur in Oakland, Calif., has spent the past 15 years tracking, mapping and analyzing his “firsts” — from his first kiss to the first time he saw fireworks at the Mall.

Laurie Frick, 59, an Austin artist, is turning her sleep and movement patterns into colorful visualizations made of laser-cut paper and wood.

And Nicholas Felton, 37, a Brooklyn data scientist, has been publishing an annual report about every Twitter, Facebook, e-mail and text message he sends. More than 30,300 people are following his life on Twitter.

Most extreme are “life loggers,” who wear cameras 24/7 , jot down every new idea and record their daily activities in exacting detail. Their goal is to create a collection of information that is an extension of their own memories.

Even President Obama is wearing a new Fitbit Surge, which monitors heart rate, sleep and location, on his left wrist, as a March photograph revealed.

Tech firms are eagerly responding to the human penchant for self-perfectability by inventing more devices that can collect even more data, which the tech titans foresee as the real gold mine.

At the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in January, new gizmos on display included a baby bottle that measures nutritional intake, a band that measures how high you jump and “smart” clothing connected to smoke detectors. Google is working on a smart contact lens that can continuously measure a person’s glucose levels in his tears. The Apple Watch has a heart-rate sensor and quantifies when you move, exercise or stand. The company also has filed a patent to upgrade its earbuds to measure blood oxygen and temperature.

In the near future, companies hope to augment those trackers with new ones that will measure from the inside out — using chips that are ingestible or float in the bloodstream.

Some physicians, academics and ethicists criticize the utility of tracking as prime evidence of the narcissism of the technological age — and one that raises serious questions about the accuracy and privacy of the health data collected, who owns it and how it should be used. There are also worries about the implications of the proliferation of devices for broader surveillance by the government, such as what happened with cellphone providers and the National Security Agency.

Critics point to the brouhaha in 2011, when some owners of Fitbit exercise sensors noticed that their sexual activity — including information about the duration of an episode and whether it was “passive, light effort” or “active and vigorous” — was being publicly shared by default.

They worry that wearables will be used as “black boxes” for a person’s body in legal matters. Three years ago, after a San Francisco cyclist struck and killed a 71-year-old pedestrian, prosecutors obtained his data from Strava, a GPS-enabled fitness tracker, to show he had been speeding and blew through several stop signs before the accident. More recently, a Calgary law firm is trying to use Fitbit data as evidence of injuries a client sustained in a car crash.

More sophisticated tools in development, such as a smartphone app that analyzes a bipolar person’s voice to predict a manic episode, and injectables and implants that test the blood, offer greater medical benefit but also pose greater risks.

Des Spence, a general practitioner in the United Kingdom, argues that unnecessary monitoring is creating in­cred­ible anxiety among today’s “unhealthily health-obsessed” trackers.

“Health and fitness have become the new social currency, spawning a ‘worried well’ generation,” he wrote in an opinion piece in the April issue of BMJ, the former British Medical Journal.

“Getting the data is much easier than making it useful,” said Deborah Estrin, a professor of computer science and public health at Cornell University.

Constantly measuring heart rate may be helpful for someone heavily involved in sports or someone at risk of a heart attack. “But it’s unclear how important and meaningful it is for the everyday person,” she said.

After all, Estrin and other experts argue, Homo sapiens has survived for about 130,000  years without such technology because the human body already has a number of alarm systems built into it. Any mother who has been woken in the wee hours by a crying child knows that a gentle press of the back of the wrist to a forehead is fast, free and eerily accurate in diagnosing a fever.


Ariana Eunjung Cha