Hi-tech balancing act

Growing up, I couldn't wait for the release of the next James Bond movie to see what cool gadgets MI6 would give 007 to help him save the world, sometimes from his wrist. These days, it seems pretty unimpressive considering what the tech attached to our bodies can do.

The digital revolution has ushered in an era in which clunky lab equipment has been miniaturised into tiny biometric sensors. Combined with the collection, aggregation and analysis of data, we are able to understand so much more about ourselves.

This world of wearable technology is particularly fascinating. We can now monitor the number of steps we take, the distance we run, our heart rate, blood oxygen levels, body temperature, calories burned, sleep and a whole host of other things we didn't even know about our bodies - all from an unobtrusive device we wear on our wrists.

It wasn't that long ago that Vitality launched a 10 000 Steps programme where our pedometers would only read up to six digits and cost R99. Vitality members needed to go into a pharmacy every week to capture the number of steps, so we could give them Vitality points.

Today we are receiving close to half a million workouts a week, in real time.

This, and the limitless increase in data processing and storage, gives us a window into our own bodies and in some cases, our minds. New sensors combined with greater analytics allow us to potentially quit smoking or improve our eating habits by analysing hand movements using the data from their wrist bands. The data flows seamlessly into our smartphones and provides us with nudges to change our bad habits.

The same technology is being used in the elderly who are at risk of falls. The sensors pick up a sudden downward movement and automatically alert a nurse or family member.

This comprehensive view of ourselves is popularly known as the "quantified self". There is no doubt that monitoring our body's function can help us be healthier and even save our lives. The important question, however, is how we ensure a balance between technology guiding us, as opposed to owning us. Some people believe that such technologies may further reinforce the modern sense of being disconnected from oneself. And some early analysis has shown that while these devices tend to be motivating in the short term, without the right incentive structure, they often end up suffering the same fate as home gym equipment, except that, unlike an unused treadmill, they aren't even useful to hang your clothes on.

- Dr Craig Nossel, Head of Vitality Wellness


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