Power in Numbers: IoT and the Quantified Self

Self-knowledge through numbers has long been the unspoken slogan of the Quantified Self Movement (QSM). Since its inception, the movement’s goal has been to enable a better understanding of ourselves and our actions and motivators through a quantified lens. However, as wearables give us access to personalized data, they also allow the sharing of this information in communities—enabling us to view our behavior patterns and trends on a more macro scale.

As we become a more connected society through the evolution of the IoT with devices like Nest or the Apple Watch, sharing personal information has become a part of almost every online experience—and the quantified self likely won’t be much different. So how might this affect our day-to-day lives and social interactions with both each other and technology?

How Technology Affects Social Services

The QSM began with recognizing the desire to collect empirical data in order to investigate day-to-day life so that participants could make more informed lifestyle decisions. The goal was, through data collection and continuous experimentation, to be able to better understand what affects us, motivates us, and drives us as humans.

Although a powerful tool for self-knowledge, the movement remained niche, existing in the lab journals of researchers and spreadsheets of diligent enthusiasts. It wasn’t until the emergence of the smartphone and web applications, which made individual data collection simpler and more convenient, that the QSM expanded into the public view.

Today’s quantification tools are mostly manifested in the form of personal health trackers, such as the Fitbit and Jawbone. By automatically syncing data with your smartphone and measuring more than just physical activity, these products have begun to counter the drop in engagement that they experienced a year ago, as reported by Parks Associates. According to CNET, however, with the recent introduction of smartwatches like the Apple Watch and Samsung Gear, these personal health trackers are looking for ways to stay competitive in the market of the quantified self.

In an effort to improve long-term engagement, the wearable industry is seeing a rapid growth in partnerships with a variety of service providers as well. Fitbit, for example, has been working hard at building their partnerships with other fitness and health companies, like Strava, in order to create a more uniform experience around fitness and health tracking. There has also been a notable shift from closed data platforms to more open architectures, where external individuals or companies can leverage the data from devices to create personalized experiences for users. The Guardian has reported that “a growing number of insurance companies and employers [are] offer[ing] financial incentives to people who use [fitness tracking] gadgets” in order to gain access to these appealing insights.

So what does that mean for the future of the quantified self? With the growing popularity of IoT in our environments, we are likely to see a surge of new interconnected wearable and connected devices that not only record our actions, but also interpret them more intelligently in the context of our environment. However, as we break down our actions and interactions with the outside world into ones and zeros, one of the next great evolutionary leaps for the quantified self occurs when we can interpret what is happening within our bodies in response to external factors.

From Quantified Self to Internet of Self

Imagine, instead of an all-in-one wearable sensor that tracks some of your external data, a network of thousands of nanosensors distributed throughout the body, each capable of detecting specific data points and relaying them back to a central hub that collects and interprets them into actionable conclusions.

A nanosensor is defined as any biological, chemical, or surgical sensor that is capable of measuring properties of nanosized particles. Because they can be as small as a human cell, nanosensors are ideal as embeddables in the human body, as they are not as intrusive as traditional implants.

Their small size also opens up the possibilities for hundreds of sensors to be distributed throughout the body to capture specific data points. Many researchers are already making headway in this realm. Scientists in the Department of Pharmaceutical Science at Northeastern University have developed a number of different nanosensors that are capable of measuring the levels of different chemicals in the body, such as a glucose nanosensor that can continuously measure glucose levels for people living with diabetes and nanosensors that can measure therapeutic levels of lithium and histamine. Labs at Princeton and the University of California, Berkeley have been able to detect temperature at the cellular level using nanosensors and quantum dots. A lab at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid has developed flexible, thin-film nanosensors that can be stuck to uneven surfaces, like human skin, to measure temperature, breath, and heart pressure.

Currently, there isn’t a full spectrum of nanosensors that can provide a holistic analysis of chemicals in the body like vitamins, minerals, and hormones that are essential to health. But, as nanosensors become more sophisticated, they will enable us to have more comprehensive insight into the internal operations of the human body.

Durability, positioning, and human testing—among many other limitations—are currently holding back the development and implementation of nanosensors in the human body. These sensors need to be manufactured in a high-tech, expensive, cleanroom facility because even the smallest impurity will ruin the functionality of a nanosensor. They also require a kind of onboard power generation so that their lifespan in the human body can be greatly extended. Positioning the sensors at targeted locations in the body is imperative to gathering useful and accurate data, but this is not yet an easy task, making the variability in measurements high. Finally, the implications of injecting these sensors into the human body are not fully known; therefore, much more work around the toxicology and longitudinal effects must be done. These limitations make a fully connected, quantified self at least 10 years away from hitting the market.

Limitations aside, these advancements in nanotechnology push our definition of what the quantified self really means. To date, data has remained centered around the individual and what we can learn about ourselves. When a system of nodes distributed throughout the body can provide a complex perspective on what is going on inside, questions begin to arise around how this data can be used in the context of everyday life in the ecosystem of IoT.

What Does This Mean for Industry?

Simply collecting a multitude of data points from an individual does not yet make the development of nanosensors relevant to IoT, but how this data is used can undoubtedly intersect with it. Once all of these data points are collected into a central hub, we have the capability of sharing it in many ways. To date, the main motivation for this type of data collection has been, unsurprisingly, healthcare.

Outside of the aforementioned examples of measuring glucose or lithium levels, researchers are also measuring immunity response to cancer cells; this leaves little room for doubt that the health industry can be revolutionized by the complex data collected by hundreds of nodes distributed throughout the body.

Aside from these more obvious health applications, this data can also be leveraged to interact with smart IoT devices in new ways. Imagine your Nest syncing with the individual body temperature of every person in a room and adjusting the space accordingly, or your Sonos system knowing when your stress levels are high so that it automatically plays soothing music, or your car receiving an instantaneous readout of your blood alcohol content upon you entering the vehicle to determine whether or not you are safe to drive.

Your mobile phone could also use this data in many interesting ways, such as pushing a recommendation to “eat a banana” because your potassium levels are low, or “take three deep breaths” because it senses a spike in anxiety. While off-the-shelf and hacked devices can accommodate many of these uses, it takes a great effort to implement and manage these scales with each new piece of technology placed on the body, embedded within a household item, or carried in a pocket. Nanosensors have the potential to enable these use cases without such overhead and with sharper accuracy and lower latency.

Changing the Rules

As QSM technology advances, an individual’s data will shift and will begin to connect into the IoT ecosystem. This shift will benefit us in a multitude of ways, from how we approach healthcare treatment to daily conveniences. Perhaps surprisingly, the biggest impact that this data will have might not be in healthcare or technology. Rather, it has the potential to significantly change our everyday human-to-human interactions, fundamentally altering how we connect with each other and respond to the internal chemical fluctuations of others. Talk about changing the rules of attraction.

the author

Brandon Smith