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Max Levchin: Why don’t we have needles embedded in our skin, tracking everything?

Pando Daily: An interview with Max Levchin, co-founder at PayPal, about his strive to quantify everything and how it helps in life.

Max Levchin was quantifying himself long before we had cute rubber bracelets to wear and iPhone apps tracking calories and Indiegogo scams that promised to make you a better you through hardware.

Since I’ve known him, he has always charted and graphed everything about his life — even tracking, he once claimed, his girlfriends’ bra sizes in his long-gone single days. (I put that tidbit in a BusinessWeek article back in 2006, and Peter Thiel– Levchin’s cofounder at PayPal– thought it was unfair because readers would miss the context that Levchin simply charts everything.) Today, Levchin’s current company Glow is a fertility app that helps women get pregnant by– you guessed it!– quantifying everything going on in their bodies.

We simply couldn’t do a series on the quantified self without getting a glimpse into a day in the life of quantified Max– what he tracks, what he wishes he could track, and why the whole movement just isn’t moving fast enough for him. The following is a transcript of our conversation, conducted via email.

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SL: With most people in this series, we ask what thing they are particularly “data nerdy” about when it comes to tracking themselves. But with you I guess the question is is there anything you don’t track? Walk us through a typical day of Max Levchin, quantified being.

ML: The list of things I wish I could track is near endless. I’d love to know cortisol levels, hematocrit, testosterone, few other hormones, and continuous core temp, heart rate, and blood oxygenation, etc. But the one thing I don’t track that I totally could is sleep quality (I track duration, but it’s depressing — I don’t get enough).

SL: I may be an idiot — but why do you want to track all those things I can barely pronounce? What are you after at the end  of the day?

ML: Most of the things I track are either predictors or explainers of performance results: Stress, focus or lack thereof, attention span, alertness, physical strength, lactic acid removal times, etc. I don’t lust after data for the sake of data, but for the sake of peak performance — I want to be the best human being I can be — and the only gains one can hope for are marginal. It’s not like I can get 2x as smart, etc. but I can be 5% more focused, 3% more alert, etc, etc. To get such marginal gains, you must make very precise observations about what influences one’s performance.

The other reason is to prevent or early detect negative effects: Lack of rest, over-training, under-recovery. Same thing as above, but more about eliminating the very high cost of correction via early detection. We are able to detect lack of sufficient rest when we start getting massive headaches and try to sleep it off, but ideally, we should just have an app that says “Given your sleep pattern and the cortisol levels, you are going to get a migraine in less than 24 hours. recommend you rest NOW!”

SL: Have methods for tracking health and fitness really gotten better? Or are there just fancier apps and interfaces and devices that make keeping the same logs prettier and easier?

ML: It’s mostly the latter really. There are some cool new tricks in better step counting, but most devices are still just fancy pedometers. Some are cooler-looking than others, but I really wish someone would push the envelope here — a long-term dermal needle sensor, embedded in your skin for a week at a time (acupuncture users do this all the time with basic needles) grabbing samples.

SL: That needle thing is creepy and fascinating. Samples of what?  At some point does this just have to get inside the body to get to the next level?

ML: Yes — I think we have been fairly shy about in-body data gathering, though there is possibly a whole pile of breakthroughs just waiting to happen. We puncture our skin for tattoos and pierce soft tissue for earrings, and do leave-in acupuncture needles, etc. Why aren’t those things gathering data?!

SL: What app/device could you not live without when it comes to collecting data on you?

ML: The power meter on my bike. I just gotta know how many lightbulbs I could be keeping on as I pedal. And these days with the LED ones, I could light up a small ballroom!

SL: How data obsessed are you with your kids? We’re seeing a big trend of quantified babies…

ML: I am trying to stay reasonable, actually… mostly. Quantified babies is definitely a new category ready to emerge — on a (very) serious note, we should be able to eliminate SIDS [Sudden Infant Death Syndrome] with better sensors.

SL: When you say “quantified babies as a new category,” do you expect it to be the realm of things like eliminating SIDS or just the Fitbit version of baby tracking (ie, same logs, better UI) And to be fair– isn’t Glow also just a better UI of same logs?

ML: The really interesting stuff is in actionable conclusions, not vanity charting. SIDS, development pacing, early detection of asthma attacks, allergies, colics, etc. Stuff they cannot complain about until it’s wailing time. Yes re: Glow — but we are just getting warmed up! ;)

SL: Last we spoke you were bullish on wearables. Are you still? A lot of people feel like generally they’ve been a huge disappointment that just don’t gather enough data to be that interesting.

ML: I still am, though I am amazed at how incredibly slow the field is moving. I fully expected to have a sensor or five in every article of clothing I have by now. Still waiting for that order from Athos to ship meanwhile.

SL: What do you think is holding it back?

ML: Probably combination of capital cost, and sheer difficulty of sensor design — especially bio-sensors (think of FitBit and their irritant material controversies — now imagine what could happenunder the skin), FDA scrutiny, lack of business model precedent — just because we know you are healthier than the average, how do we monetize that? who wants to for a healthier you? your self-insured employer does, but then again, you don’t really want them know your health facts, because the day you learn about something that will hike their self-insured premiums, you want a choice in the matter of when and how to tell them…

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