Perhaps a shameful realization of the misdirection of some of our best technology, rendering engines typically used to for immersive battlefields can now immerse you in the colon of Larry Smarr. In a new Atlantic profile and its companion video, Smarr baits scientists and hospitals to usher digital imaging into healthcare, mainly by revealing the infinitesimal of our insides. As a computer scientist and director of California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, he began a pursuit to lose weight and understand weightloss by analyzing in minute detail his “data-rich” stool, which eventually lead to discovering Crohn’s disease in himself, to the dismay of skeptical doctors. He was inspired to show people.
“Have you ever figured how information-rich your stool is?,” Larry asks me with a wide smile, his gray-green eyes intent behind rimless glasses. “There are about 100 billion bacteria per gram. Each bacterium has DNA whose length is typically one to 10 megabases—call it 1 million bytes of information. This means human stool has a data capacity of 100,000 terabytes of information stored per gram. That’s many orders of magnitude more information density than, say, in a chip in your smartphone or your personal computer. So your stool is far more interesting than a computer.”
Smarr says, “There’s no reason why an ordinary person can’t see their own insides on their new home theater system and really begin to have a more intimate relationship with their body.” His mission does indeed seem tailored to public imagination. From the profile:
If past thinkers leaned heavily on the steam engine as an all-purpose analogy—e.g., contents under pressure will explode (think Marx’s ideas on revolution or Freud’s about repressed desire)—today we prefer our metaphors to be electronic. We talk about neural “circuitry,” about “processing” information, or about how genes “encode” our physical essence. In this worldview, our bodies are computers, and DNA functions as our basic program, our “operating system.
Larry sees medicine as a stubborn holdout…Take the standard annual physical, with its weigh-in, blood-pressure check, and handful of numbers gleaned from select tests performed on a blood sample. To Larry, these data points give your doctor little more than a “cartoon” image of your body. Now imagine peering at the same image drawn from a galaxy of billions of data points. The cartoon becomes a high-definition, 3-D picture, with every system and organ in the body measured and mapped in real time.