Invasion of the Body Hackers
Are "biology-enhancing" gadgets the next big thing?
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 analyzing 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 analyze data and tweak specifications in order to optimize a software program, people are collecting and correlating data on the "inputs and outputs" of their bodies to optimize 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.
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 United Kingdom unrolls a 12-foot 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."
"We're moving away from the era of the blockbuster drug and toward personalized 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 personalized drug development.
"We can see the tipping point," says Gary Wolf, one of the founders of the modern-day quantified self movement and an organizer 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.
April Dembosky is the FT's San Francisco correspondent.
Photograph of man with heart monitors by Jupiterimages/© Getty Images.