February 8, 2011

From quantified to optimized

The quantified self movement is clearly on to something: converging technologies are finally allowing people to measure, record and track their biometric information in meaningful ways. People are increasingly wanting to do this—whether it be to measure their sleep patterns or reveal the deep intricacies of their DNA.

But it's not enough to just measure yourself. Left alone, this approach doesn't complete the loop. What matters is that this information be acted upon. Otherwise it's just useless data.

One approach that I see arising from all of this is what I'd like to call the optimized self movement. I don't necessarily agree with the complaint that "optimized" is too nebulous and subjective a word; individual people can come up with their own definition of the term as it applies to their own sets of needs and goals. One person's version of an optimized self will vary significantly from the next person's, and that doesn't make it invalid or somehow wrong. It's all about personal campaigns driven by personal goals and values.

Specifically, I imagine a future not too far from now in which handheld devices and other gadgetry will be preconfigured to monitor specific health and life style factors and make specific recommendations to users based on a predefined set of goals.

For example, your handheld device (or even some kind of augmented reality display), could advise you to consume more protein if it senses that you're below your goal. It could also alert you to problems, like elevated blood pressure or glucose levels, while also advising that you avoid the cheese cake. It could remind you to take your vitamins and supplements. The potential number of trackable and actionable factors are nearly endless.

We're pretty much there right now. There are already toilets in Japan that can measure sugar levels in urine, blood pressure, body fat and weight. This is the kind of thing we can expect more of in the near future.

Sure, you could ignore the advice of your virtual health coach, but if you're keen on hitting your goals you're more apt to listen to it. It could even give you positive feedback and bonus points for consistently hitting your daily lifestyle targets.

And if you're not hitting expected performance goals, you can recalibrate and experiment with different approaches. It's all measurable, so users will eventually know what works best for them. For the most part these are going to be very personal campaigns; individually, we'll be striving to maximize our genetic potential (physical, cognitive and emotional). It will also be possible to tap into the larger network and discover what's working best for other self optimizers.

Personally, my inner perfectionist and health-nut finds the idea of the optimized self particularly appealing. Books like Tim Ferris's Four Hour Body show that personal improvement is part of the new geek agenda. It has suddenly become quite cool and fashionable to apply the latest science to our bodies in order to get the best results possible. It's likely why transhumanists like myself, who are notorious early adopters, are increasingly getting involved in not just things like the quantified self, but also activities like CrossFit and the Paleo diet, both of which which claim to produce the best results in fitness and diet respectively.

I'm looking forward to seeing just how "optimized" I can get. Such a thing would be great for not just health purposes (especially life extension!), but it's also a worthwhile project in personal betterment and self-experimentation in general.


Chris said...

I've been waiting for this kind of thing for years and am glad to see it happening. I know there are wearable computers that take your BP etc but I want something like an Apple product deeply embedded in Google and 23AndMe clouds, with lots of users. George, is there a currently available suite of self-monitoring tools and gadgets you could recommend? Also, when these tools really hit the consumer market, do you think people (and yourself) will feel comfortable sharing the details of what you call their 'predefined set of goals'?

ZarPaulus said...

The problem with "quantified self" is that it assumes people are mass-produced robots. The minute differences between people mean that say, one person might be perfectly healthy with a specific Body-Mass Index and another would be at risk of heart attack with the exact same height and weight.