So Appy Together

Siri, the iPhone’s sassy personal assistant, was just the beginning. Right now, behavioral scientists are racing to develop a new generation of apps and programs that can mimic compassion, concern, and sympathy—technology they hope we will form relationships with, even fall in love with. Janelle Nanos goes inside this brave new world to find out how our ever-smarter phones are changing what it means to be human.

So privacy is definitely an issue as personal technology becomes an even bigger part of our lives. But I had another question: What happens when the QS movement — which began as a kind of protest against the commercial chokehold on data — becomes a commercial enterprise in itself? Best Buy is now stocking these kinds of sensors, for Christ’s sake. Is the introspection component of QS, so important to Wolf, getting lost?

After the self-tracking meeting in Central Square, I share some ice cream at Toscanini’s with Michael Nagle, an MIT grad who heads the QS chapter here, and Joshua Kauffman, a researcher at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, who was an early member of the QS movement. I ask them about some of the critiques of QS — that it’s self-absorbed or narcissistic, and that the time spent tracking could be better spent actually living life. Kauffman shakes his head. “The most intelligent rebuttal to the Quantified Self that you hear most often is that it’s just like GPS,” Kauffman said. “If you’re too reliant on GPS for direction, you lose your sense of space. It’s the same thing with the Quantified Self, that if you’re looking too much at external sensing and indicators of who you are, you’ll lose your capacity for self-reflection.

“But the answer to that is the Quantified Self enhances your capacity for self-reflection,” he continues. “And if anything, it enhances your intuition. If you can use a tool that can help you understand the relationship between your consumption of ice cream and your body mass index, eventually you’ll be able to look at the ice cream and go, ‘I know what that means on my graph. It’s not just an abstract object, it has a relationship. It affects my biological system.’”

But doesn’t that take all the fun out of ice cream? I ask, looking down at my half-eaten scoop of toasted coconut–macadamia nut chip.

“It reinserts the fun,” he says. “There’s not the feeling of guilt, there’s the feeling of honesty.”

 

When Henry Ford created the Model T, it didn’t have a dash-board. Early drivers had no idea how fast they were going or how much gas was in the tank. We’ve been functioning in much of the same way when it comes to monitoring our health. Aside from the occasional visit to the doctor, we’ve had little way of really knowing what was going on underneath our hood. But now technologists see opportunity in a brave new world where the screens on our phones are tiny dashboards, crunching our data and tipping us off when our bodies are running out of gas, in need of a tune-up, or somehow malfunctioning.

And Frank Moss, the former director of MIT’s Media Lab and current head of the New Media Medicine Group, says Boston is poised to lead the way in developing those dashboards. When I visit him in his office at Cambridge’s Bluefin Labs, Moss tells me that our phones are on the way to becoming “personal digital nervous systems” that monitor our activities. Our city may have lost out in the race to develop the personal computer, but he says the consumer health revolution is our chance for redemption: “This is the biggest challenge and opportunity of the 21st century.”

He’s right. You can’t throw a rock in this town without hitting a self-tracking startup. Need a way to monitor your weight? Download the Lose It! app, created in Copley Square. Feeling groggy in the mornings? Pick up the new mobile headband from Zeo, the Newton-based maker of sensors that help you analyze your sleeping patterns. Focused on wellness? The Daily Challenge from South End–based MeYou Health sends you e-mails and texts that help you set tiny goals each day. Looking for motivation to get to the gym? Dozens of developers in Boston are building apps that will get creative in finding ways to nudge you toward the treadmill: Are you motivated by challenges, games, or rewards? Do you respond to positive or negative feedback?

  • Andrew

    One thing I worry about is that these apps can further exaggerate the relevance of surrogate or intermediate outcomes to our health, so that we are pushed to produce the best lab test results, instead of living the most healthful lives that fit with our goals and values.

    Too many patients are already obsessed with the test. For example, a survey of people with diabetes found that one in four considered their hemoglobin A1c levels to be a more important outcome than even death, stroke or heart attack!
    (Murad MH, Shah ND, Houten HKV, et al. Individuals with diabetes preferred that future trials use patient-important outcomes and provide pragmatic inferences. J Clin Epidemiol. Jul 2011(7):743-748.)

    Such distortions occur when the first thing clinicians talk to their patients about is their test results. Patients know they’ll get gold stars for good lab tests and a harrumph for missing the mark.

    Sure, people with diabetes should be aware of hemoglobin A1c, heart attack survivors should track their LDL, and so on. But we should not let these numbers consume our attention far out of proportion with their actual usefulness to promoting health.

    Smartphone apps are great at tracking numbers, but can any track how many times we…