Bio & Life Sciences Techonomy Events

Innovating Tools for Quantifying the Self, and Future Self

From left, Marcus Wohlson of WIRED, Autodesk's Carlos Oguin, Drew Purves of Microsoft Research, and BioCurious co-founder Eri Gentry

From left, Marcus Wohlsen of WIRED, Autodesk’s Carlos Oguin, Drew Purves of Microsoft Research, and BioCurious co-founder Eri Gentry in the “Innovating Ourselves” lab at Techonomy 2014

The quantified-self movement is rapidly moving beyond the Fitbit. Forget about wristbands to measure your vitals. DIYers known as Grinders are embedding electronics in their own bodies; transcranial direct-current stimulation experimentalists are putting wet sponges on their heads to improve cognitive function; and others, hoping to enhance their relationships with pets, are investing millions into developing EEG headsets that let them read dog thoughts.

Eri Gentry, Carlos Olguin, and Drew Purves, all innovators at the fore of the field, joined WIRED writer Marcus Wohlsen at Techonomy 2014 on Monday for a conversation exploring what we mean when we talk about “innovating ourselves.”

Gentry, a research manager at the Institute for the Future and a founder of the BioCurious hacker space in Sunnyvale, says the self-innovation pioneers who are exploring augmentations and self-tracking hacks are not the usual suspects. “It’s not necessarily people who have ever been interested in health,” she says, but people who see a problem, such as the need to adhere to a medication regimen, and an opportunity to make an app for it. When computer scientists and designers instead of doctors tackle these problems, the solutions look different and better, Gentry says.

Trouble is, indie innovators are brushing up against FDA regulations. “People are dealing with real serious challenges,” Gentry said, pointing to one colleague who equipped an insulin pump with Bluetooth technology to direct medication times via his iPhone. “That would never pass FDA inspection.”

At Autodesk Research, Olguin looks at life and other programmable matter as a new design frontier. “Biology is a technology we don’t fully understand,” he says. The Bio/Nano/Programmable Matter Group that he heads is taking an archeological approach to biology and “trying to create tools that help abstract some of what we know about biology.” The aim is better-designed tools that create more knowledge.

Take, for instance, a project his team supported to create a living 3D printed ear from Vincent Van Gogh’s DNA. “You print tissue that has your DNA and you can expose it to all sorts of things and learn from it,” Olguin says.

He foresees a future in which it would be possible to introduce pathways in human tissue that allow, say, radiation absorption. “Imagine 20 years from now, you have those pathways in your body and when you’re exposed to a nuclear bomb you already have the upgrade in your system. We are experimenting right now to understand what that future might mean.”

Purves, who heads the Computational Ecology and Environmental Science Group within Microsoft’s Computational Science Lab sees two goals of self-innovation tools. “The ability to take drastically more data from your body—by floating sensors in blood and monitoring gene expression—might enable us to understand and predict things about your body,” he says. “The other is to design devices that go into your body to do things.” And then, he says, there is the possibility of combining the two approaches. For instance, a computer built from DNA in the cell model that could observe the body’s ecosystem from inside.”

“There’s been a quiet revolution in computational science,” Purves says. Beyond neural networks that simply model the nervous system, “we create simulacram—living, breathing, virtual versions of things,” he says. The more faithful and realistic such models become, the more data can be collected to “realistically project yourself into the future” and “change the way we interact with medicine.” For instance, rather than a woman making the decision based on genetic testing to have a mastectomy, data that predicted her chances of developing the disease could enable an even more informed decision.

Illustrating the vast opportunities ahead , Gentry says, “Most of what we know as life is yet to be discovered. It was only in the 1950s we began to be able to culture living cells inside a lab and get a sense of what life looks like in an extreme environment like our mouths.” Just 60 years later, she notes, Craig Venter’s sailing genome sequencing lab is finding new life to unravel in every scoop it takes from the ocean.

As synthetic biologist Drew Endy said on the Techonomy stage the previous day, “We’re at the snowflake at the tip of the iceberg. … How do we make living matter fully programmable? It’s not obvious what the path will be, but it’s possible to make true.”

To watch video of the session that Endy participated in, “The Next Revolution Will Be Biologized,” click here. For a complete video archive of Techonomy 2014 sessions, click here.

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