“Lifelogging” is more than just counting steps. More tech firms are trying to predict your health using data from devices like Fitbits.
Fitbit was just the start. As lifelogging and wearable computing take off, the biggest technology companies are gathering data that will let them forecast our medical future.
In recent months Apple, Samsung, Google and Microsoft have all announced apps and devices that monitor health and activity. They differ in looks and cost, but they have one thing in common: the data they gather can be used to predict the health of the person wearing them.
The latest to join the party is Vida, a start-up that launched last week. Their app works with Apple's HealthKit to pull together data from lifelogging devices such as Fitbits and create a picture of an individual's health. For $15 a week, subscribers get regular in-app sessions with a team of coaches including nutritionists and nurses, without the expense of regular real-world doctor visits.
It is aimed at people with chronic conditions like cancer and heart disease, which account for 75 per cent of healthcare spending in the US. The app will also be able to suggest clinical trials to people who may benefit.
"We're at the beginning of an age of interrogation of the human being in real time, under real-world conditions," says Dennis Ausiello, chief of medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
Ausiello runs the Center for Assessment Technology and Continuous Health (CATCH), a partnership between MIT and Massachusetts General. Its goal is to develop tools that continuously monitor people to get a better understanding of how certain conditions affect us.
Google has a similar project called Baseline. Ausiello likens the ventures to the Human Genome Project – but instead of understanding the vast library of our genes, CATCH and Google are building a library of the behaviors and environments that can prevent or cause disease.
Baseline is just one of Google's so-called health "moon shots". The firm's most ambitious effort to peer inside us will use iron nanoparticles that attach to specific molecules in the bloodstream linked to cancer or heart disease. A magnetic wristband can pull the nanoparticles to the wearer's wrist and count them, assessing the progression of disease. The company is also working on a contact lens for people with diabetes that can monitor blood sugar levels in real time.
"I'm very, very impressed with what Google is doing," says Ausiello. "They've made the decision to get FDA approval for these devices. It shows their importance. These technologies aren't just gizmos, they aren't just gadgets."
A model of your health, built on data gathered through these apps, would show subtle deviations from normal. If those deviations look dangerous – the sign of an impending stroke, heart attack or hidden cancer – the software would recommend a visit to a doctor for further examination.
Medical diagnostics is getting better all the time, says Robert Langer, an engineer at MIT who has set up a company that uses ultrasound to let people with diabetes collect data on their glucose levels.”
Looking at more facets of our life might let us discover new correlations between behavior and health.
Zachary T. Brown