This summer, I purchased a tiny computer, called a Fitbit, that I wear on my person that tracks my movements when I am both awake and asleep. Then, when I spend a few minutes in my office, with the device still clipped to my clothing, the information about my previous days’ movements are uploaded wirelessly to the internet and a report prepared for me, detailing how much I tossed and turned in my sleep each night and how much exercise I got. The Fitbit is a very advanced pedometer, counting steps and general movements and accelerations, but the integration with The Cloud is what makes the device special.
Some technologists would argue that the merging of humans and machines began when everyone began carrying a mobile phone, enabling us to communicate instantly with each other over long distances. And we advanced even further with smart phones able to look up extra-cerebral information in seconds. I can see their point, but the Fitbit is different: it’s actually monitoring my body.
What I love most about the Fitbit is all the data. I love having data to examine, especially data about myself. While I haven’t learned anything shocking about my daily movements, it is interesting to see how many more steps I take on days when I take my daughter to the park to play, versus when I don’t, or how few steps I take on rainy days when walks are scarce. It makes me more aware of how much exercise I’m getting, which almost always results in me getting more of it.
The hardest part about using a Fitbit is to remember to put it on and move it from article of clothing to article of clothing when changing. It weighs so little that it’s very easy to forget. While the Fitbit does measure general restlessness while I sleep, it can’t actually tell when I sleep or how well I’ve slept.
It seems pretty inevitable to me that most of us will have data-gathering sensors implanted in our bodies in the future. I see no reason why I shouldn’t be able to see graphs of all sorts of measurements taken over the course of my day, measurements that are easy to take in a laboratory or with handheld devices now, but taken by sensors from inside my body:
- Heart rate
- Breathing rate
- Blood pressure
- Blood sugar
- Blood oxygen
- Blood alcohol level
- Blood cholesterol
- Brain waves (electroencephalography)
- GPS and altitude coordinates
Imagine the diagnosing power all this data could give your physician, if she could pull up your vital trends for the previous six months or ten years. Obviously there are privacy concerns involved here. The Fitbit company has already had a security problem where information about their clients’ sexual activities were publicly searchable via Google. Where, when, and how often your heart rate and breathing rise is your own business and no one else’s, except for maybe your doctor’s if you are feeling ill.
There is a huge opportunity for medical preventive technologies given this sensor data, as well. Diabetes, seizures, heart attacks, and maybe even cancer, probably have early warning signs that could be watched out for and preventive steps taken before the first symptom is felt. One of the most memorable TED Talks I’ve seen was one by Robert Fischell back in 2005 about how his team has sensors that can predict heart attacks, and how much the chance of survival drops with each minute after a heart attack begins.
I, for one, welcome the future of implantable data collecting machines…and all the glorious data they will spit out!