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TED@Cannes

Gary Wolf: The quantified self

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At TED@Cannes, Gary Wolf gives a 5-min intro to an intriguing new pastime: using mobile apps and always-on gadgets to track and analyze your body, mood, diet, spending -- just about everything in daily life you can measure -- in gloriously geeky detail.

- Journalist
Journalist Gary Wolf spends his days in pursuit of the most fascinating things. As a contributing editor at Wired, he's written about technology, mushroom hunters, venture capitalists ... Full bio

I got up this morning at 6:10 a.m.
00:17
after going to sleep at 12:45 a.m.
00:20
I was awakened once during the night.
00:23
My heart rate was 61 beats per minute --
00:25
my blood pressure, 127 over 74.
00:27
I had zero minutes of exercise yesterday,
00:30
so my maximum heart rate during exercise wasn't calculated.
00:32
I had about 600 milligrams of caffeine,
00:35
zero of alcohol.
00:37
And my score on the Narcissism Personality Index,
00:39
or the NPI-16,
00:42
is a reassuring 0.31.
00:44
We know that numbers are useful for us
00:48
when we advertise, manage, govern, search.
00:50
I'm going to talk about how they're useful when we reflect,
00:53
learn, remember
00:56
and want to improve.
00:58
A few years ago, Kevin Kelly, my partner, and I
01:01
noticed that people were subjecting themselves
01:04
to regimes of quantitative measurement and self-tracking
01:06
that went far beyond the ordinary, familiar habits
01:08
such as stepping on a scale every day.
01:11
People were tracking their food via Twitter,
01:14
their kids' diapers on their iPhone.
01:17
They were making detailed journals
01:19
of their spending, their mood,
01:21
their symptoms, their treatments.
01:23
Now, we know some of the technological facts
01:26
that are driving this change in our lifestyle --
01:29
the uptake and diffusion of mobile devices,
01:32
the exponential improvement in data storage
01:35
and data processing,
01:37
and the remarkable improvement in human biometric sensors.
01:39
This little black dot there
01:42
is a 3D accelerometer.
01:44
It tracks your movement through space.
01:46
It is, as you can see, very small and also very cheap.
01:50
They're now down to well under a dollar a piece,
01:53
and they're going into all kinds of devices.
01:55
But what's interesting
01:57
is the incredible detailed information that you can get
01:59
from just one sensor like this.
02:02
This kind of sensor
02:05
is in the hit biometric device --
02:07
among early adopters at the moment -- the Fitbit.
02:09
This tracks your activity and also your sleep.
02:12
It has just that sensor in it.
02:16
You're probably familiar with the Nike+ system.
02:18
I just put it up because that little blue dot is the sensor.
02:20
It's really just a pressure sensor
02:24
like the kind that's in a doorbell.
02:26
And Nike knows how to get
02:28
your pace and distance from just that sensor.
02:30
This is the strap
02:33
that people use to transmit heart-rate data
02:36
to their Nike+ system.
02:39
This is a beautiful, new device
02:41
that gives you detailed sleep tracking data,
02:43
not just whether you're asleep or awake, but also your phase of sleep --
02:46
deep sleep, light sleep, REM sleep.
02:49
The sensor is just a little strip of metal in that headband there.
02:51
The rest of it is the bedside console;
02:54
just for reference, this is a sleep tracking system from just a few years ago --
02:57
I mean, really until now.
03:00
And this is the sleep tracking system of today.
03:03
This just was presented
03:05
at a health care conference in D.C.
03:07
Most of what you see there is an asthma inhaler,
03:09
but the top is a very small GPS transceiver,
03:12
which gives you the date and location
03:15
of an asthma incident,
03:18
giving you a new awareness
03:20
of your vulnerability
03:22
in relation to time and environmental factors.
03:24
Now, we know that new tools
03:28
are changing our sense of self in the world --
03:31
these tiny sensors that gather data in nature,
03:35
the ubiquitous computing
03:38
that allows that data to be understood and used,
03:40
and of course the social networks
03:43
that allow people to collaborate and contribute.
03:45
But we think of these tools as pointing outward,
03:50
as windows
03:54
and I'd just like to invite you to think of them
03:56
as also turning inward
03:58
and becoming mirrors.
04:00
So that when we think about using them
04:02
to get some systematic improvement,
04:04
we also think about how they can be useful for self-improvement,
04:06
for self-discovery, self-awareness, self-knowledge.
04:09
Here's a biometric device:
04:13
a pair of Apple Earbuds.
04:15
Last year, Apple filed some patents
04:17
to get blood oxygenation,
04:19
heart rate and body temperature via the Earbuds.
04:21
What is this for?
04:25
What should it be for?
04:27
Some people will say it's for biometric security.
04:29
Some people will say it's for public health research.
04:31
Some people will say it's for avant-garde marketing research.
04:34
I'd like to tell you
04:39
that it's also for self-knowledge.
04:41
And the self isn't the only thing; it's not even most things.
04:43
The self is just our operation center,
04:46
our consciousness,
04:49
our moral compass.
04:52
So, if we want to act
04:55
more effectively in the world,
04:57
we have to get to know ourselves better.
04:59
Thank you.
05:01

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About the speaker:

Gary Wolf - Journalist
Journalist Gary Wolf spends his days in pursuit of the most fascinating things. As a contributing editor at Wired, he's written about technology, mushroom hunters, venture capitalists ...

Why you should listen

Gary Wolf is a contributing editor at Wired magazine, where he writes regularly about the culture of science and technology (as well as many other topics). He is also the co-founder, with Wired colleague Kevin Kelly, of The Quantified Self, a blog about "selfknowledge through numbers."

He was an early editor at Hotwired / Wired Digital, and helped push the technical and editorial limits of the early web. His books include Dumb Money: Adventures of a Day Trader (with Joey Anuff) and Wired: A Romance, and he’s working on a book called (for now) The Quantified Self.

More profile about the speaker
Gary Wolf | Speaker | TED.com