[Transcript] – The Man Who Biohacks Olympic Athletes: Electronic Tattoos, Self-Quantifying Contact Lenses, Flexible Electronics, Artificial Intelligence & More.

Affiliate Disclosure


Podcast from: https://bengreenfieldfitness.com/2016/07/advanced-self-quantification-for-athletes/

[0:12] National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)/myusatrainer.com

[1:30] Organifi Fitlife

[2:27] Introduction

[3:59] About Dr. Mounir Zok

[5:40] If Dr. Zok is going to wear some self-quantification device, what are they?

[7:45] Wearable Technology

[12:01] Sweat & Tears: Goldmine for Self-Quantification

[16:07] Flexible Electronics

[19:14] Biodegradable Tattoos

[23:19] Measuring Eye Fluids through Contact Lenses

[25:25] Difference between analyzing fluids vs. analyzing tears

[26:30] Artificial Intelligence too gather data

[32:05] Striking a balance with the Art and Science of Coaching

[34:10] Neuro Priming

[40:22] Balancing Sports Enhancement & Decision-Making

[51:49] Bluetooth and Wifi Radiation

[58:15] End of Podcast

Ben:  Hey, what’s up?  It’s Ben Greenfield.  I’ve got a real geek on the show today.  So if you’re in to Fitbit and way, way beyond Fitbit, I’d definitely stay tuned to this episode.

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In this episode of the Ben Greenfield fitness show:

“The general understanding is that if you’re able to develop a technological solution for a very, very high performing athlete.  You know, an athlete who is pushing his or her body beyond extremes and beyond the boundaries of what most of the human population can do then through a trickle-down effect you can configure a product or service than can suit the majority of the people.  Many people refer to technology as enhancing performance.  I don’t necessarily agree with that.  I see technology more as an aid that would enhance decision making.”

He’s an expert in human performance and nutrition, voted America’s top personal trainer and one of the globe’s most influential people in health and fitness.  His show provides you with everything you need to optimize physical and mental performance.  He is Ben Greenfield.  “Power, speed, mobility, balance – whatever it is for you that’s the natural movement, get out there! When you look at all the studies done… studies that have shown the greatest efficacy…”  All the information you need in one place, right here, right now, on the Ben Greenfield Fitness podcast.

Ben: Hey folks, its Ben Greenfield here and I recently watched this fascinating video on You Tube about sports technology.  And in the video this guy named Dr. Zok, Dr. Mounir Zok who is the Director of Technology and Innovation for the US Olympic Committee, he delves into everything from electronic tattoos that read body signals to contact lenses that analyze fluid in the eyes for self-quantification.  This is basically I would qualify this guy as the nerd who biohacks the jocks, basically and he has a PHD in Biomedical Engineering.  He works with Team USA in their Emerging Technologies Department.  So he champions and sets up and runs the high performance technology and quantification programs that are designed to increase the chances that Team USA will win gold medals.  So now that all the Chinese and the Russians and the Germans and everyone else have their ears perked up so they can listen in to this episode for all the secret tips from the USOC (giggles).

What can you expect from this episode?  We’re gonna talk wearable technology.  We’re gonna talk smart textiles and fabric.  We’re gonna talk the internet of things, artificial intelligence, cognitive computing and how specifically all relates to making you perform better whether it’s your body or your brain.  And by the way, speaking of brains, I learned that Dr. Zok is also fluent in 4 languages, so he’s officially one smart cookie and he is here with us on a call.  Dr. Zok, welcome.

Dr. Zok:  Thank you.  Thank you so much for having me.

Ben:  And I suppose before we delve in I should ask you because I’m very curious, are you wearing any type of device right now?  Like are you wearing any self-quantification device right now or other form of technology?

Dr. Zok:  Not on me right now.  Today is my relaxing day, I wanna say (laughs).  Not today.

Ben:  Nothing.  Fully unplugged.  Naked.  Exposed to the elements.

Dr. Zok:  I just have my phone on me, that’s it.  

Ben:  If you we’re going to be wearing so it sounds like perhaps sometimes you do, If you were going to wear something are you like a Fitbit or a jawbone guy or you do you have some super-secret sauce that you use?     

Dr. Zok:  Yeah, you know usually I would have on me what you cannot find in the shops let’s say.  Yeah, I would have it on me before it makes a way to the shops I would have it on me before it’s even being say designed to be in the shops. 

Ben:  Okay like what?  Give me an example.

Dr. Zok:  So let’s say, I would have on me for example a technology that would help me understand how much oxygen I have in my muscles.  I might have on me some kind of a technology that would help me understand what are my stress levels right now?   

Ben:  Uhmmm, 

Dr. Zok:  No names that can be revealed, no specific technique that can be revealed.

Ben:  Okay.  Okay.  Gotcha.  Gotcha.

Dr. Zok:  I’m sure you understand.

Ben:  Sounds to me like you’re probably going above and beyond heart rate variability though, when you’re talking about stress levels?

Dr. Zok:  I mean you know what, we work with so many different sports.  We work with so many different athletes.  They all span the range of the technology needs from you know, from very basic to extremely, extremely advance.  And according to what we’re working with and sometimes we touch heart rate variability.  Sometimes we touch basic heart rate.  Most of the times we do touch though emerging concepts, emerging scientific concepts that are making their ways into consumer electronics let’s say.

Ben:  Yeah.

Dr. Zok:  And be given to the hands of Team USA coaches and athletes before they’re out for everyone to buy.

Ben:  Cool.  Alright.  Let’s jump in.  What are smart textiles?  I noticed that in your video you talked about those and by the way, for those of you listening in, just go to bengreenfieldfitness.com/quantify, that’s bengreenfieldfitness.com/quantify, yes, you need to be able to know how to spell that but good luck.  And if you go there you’ll get access to this video I’m talking about as well as everything else that Dr. Zok and I discussed in today’s episode.  But Dr. Zok, what is a smart textile or flexible electronic?

Dr. Zok:  Let’s talk about wearable technology.  Wearable technology is a term that has been coined about 3, 3 ½ years ago.  And if you look at the wearable technology trend let’s say on any search engine over the internet, you will see a very, very high peak towards the end of 2013.  Today, when we think about wearable technology we’re always thinking about a physical object.  Object that has you know, small dimensions.  It’s usually rigid.  It has a battery to it.  It has now very directed usage, it’s been designed to do one thing extremely, extremely well, and then it can perform other things or other measurements that’s say fairly well as well.

Now today, when we think about wearable technology we’re always thinking about a gadget.  An add-on that we put in our body you know, or it can be a watch, it can be a bracelet, it can be a necklace, it can be a ring, it can be something that we stick in our shoes.  Now the evolution of wearable technology and what is being worked on currently is found under these so many categories and the market has not come yet to a consensus about what to call it.

Ben:  Okay.

Dr. Zok:  In some cases, it’s referred to as flexible electronics, in some cases it’s referred to as smart textile, in some cases as functional fabrics, but the concept here is taking wearable technology beyond what we understand it today to really mean what it stands for.  A truly wearable technology.     

Ben:  So when you say wearable, like do you mean like shirts or underwear or pants that are measuring things like electrical muscle signals or nerve signals or something like that?  Or you’re just talking about like rings or wristbands?

Dr. Zok:  Shorts, pants, underwear, socks, you name it.  Our wardrobe today is the wearable part of the new wearable technology. 

Ben:  Okay, so we’re literally talking like wearable clothing, we’re not talking about like little trinkets that you hang around your neck?

Dr. Zok:  Exactly.  Exactly.

Ben:  Okay.  So what would be an example of something like this?

Dr. Zok:  So you know what, if I look at what a wardrobe of one of our speed skaters or one of our swimmers might look like 5 or 10 years from now, I’m imagining so many apparel hanging there in the wardrobe that provides our athletes information about how they’re conducting their lifestyle or how they’re conducting their sports, right.  So let’s say, athletes show up for their morning training session they’re wearing their socks, they’re wearing their shoes, they’re wearing their underwear, they’re wearing their shorts and each and every garment that they have on their body is picking up vitals from their body.

Now so some of the apparel would be picking up let’s say, what’s their heart rate.  Another one would be analyzing their sweat to give them an indicator of stress.  Another one would be picking up muscle and you know, there would be several of the apparels that are picking up so many different vitals at the same time communicating them to the device that would most probably still be the smart phone.

Ben:  Okay. 

Dr. Zok:  There’s no intent from any consumer electronic brand today to get away with the smart phone but on the contrary to make it even more the concrete part of our life.   

Ben:  Okay. 

Dr. Zok:  And then having on the smart phone or any smart device that they have that has display on it the information that helps them understand how their body’s behaving right now, and what kind of nutrition program should they be sticking to according to what their body needs.

Ben:  Now to delve into detail on a couple of things that you just mentioned and feel free to get into the nitty gritty science if you want to.  One of the things that you talked about was sweat and how you’d have like underwear clothing that could monitor sweat.  How exactly is it doing that?  Are you actually talking about something about that’s detecting minerals, sweat volume, both?  Like how would something like that actually work?

Dr. Zok:  So sweat and tears are actually believed to be the new gold mine in wearable technology.  Now there’s so much, so much information that is contained within our sweat and our tears that can substitute at one point blood testing.  Now so far to get any kind of indicator regarding the sort of the chemical composition of our body we do have to extract blood in some cases, even just 1 drop would suffice.  And we do have to run some blood testing technology to extract for example information regarding how well hydrated the athletes are?  What’s the mineral content of the body right now?  Do they need more iron?  Are they fine and so on and so on?

With the sweat and tears chemical composition and with the advancements that we are witnessing currently and the technology’s pace, we are on the very stages of devising technologies that analyze the sweat and that analysis can be towards whether giving you an information about how hydrated you are, so that you don’t have to do, let’s say, the urine test anymore.  Sweat can tell you so many, so many, so many things.

Ben:  What are some of the things, I mean obviously most people would know that you know, it seems pretty easy to wrap my head around something that would measure like water loss or say like you know, I’ve even had done sweat sodium analysis where I’ve worn devices that tell you the mineral composition of your sweat.  What are some other variables that one can measure via sweat theoretically?

Dr. Zok:  Well, you know what theoretically you can measure several, several elements.  And you can even take heart rate variability which we use today to gain an indicator regarding how prepared our athletes are and discover some new variables that we can measure through the sweat that would substitute heart rate variability at one point.

Ben:  Wow!

Dr. Zok:  Alright, so let’s say 10 years from now instead of talking about HRV as an indicator of how fit our athletes are, I predict that we will be using sweat or sweat indicators that would tell us how fit the athlete is this morning and whether they should be sticking to the plan that has been put forward by or (inaudible) be adapting the plan to satisfy what their body is requiring from them today.       

Ben:  I wanna ask you about tears as well here in a second, but when you are talking about a couple of these things I get a sense that you’re saying that this is theoretical or in the future.  When you talk about say like sweat and being able to measure heart variability in sweat, are there little lab rats somewhere in the US Olympic Training Center where this is actually being accomplished?  Is this stuff all just stuff that’s on paper right now?  Or like what’s the status of being able to measure for example, some of these parameters on sweat?

Dr. Zok:  For now the status is confined within the walls of university and research labs.  Now, we don’t have anyone within the Team USA using the smart garments for that specific purpose, or rather smart garments are used to pick up heart rate.  They’re used to pick up muscular activity.

Ben:  Yeah like EMG’s and heart rates and things like that.

Dr. Zok:  Yes.

Ben:  Yeah, I’ve messed around with some of that stuff and I have a few questions to ask you about that and I do wanna ask you about tears as well.  But something else related to for example this concept of some of the stuff being theoretical or still being researched on a university level.  Are there websites that you recommend or foreign feeds that you recommend or RSS feeds or anything like that, that you think would be ideal if people really wanted to stay on the cusp of this technology and be able to like read articles or see research that shows the most recent advances in this technology?

Dr. Zok:  My recommendation would be to search on any search engine the term flexible electronics today.  It still seems to be the one big umbrella under which you can find works on smart fabrics, work on the smart tattoos, on conductive inks.  There’s not one RSS feed, there’s not one website that I follow, and I do have all of the different alerts set up to come to my attention rather than me doing the work each and every day.

Ben:  Okay.  Gotcha.  Now how about tears?  You mentioned that you think tears are also gonna be one of the goldmines in terms of the future of quantifying folks.  Why?

Dr. Zok:  Well, you know what, let’s say the industry is looking at what does our body generate?  What has it been generating over the past thousands of years that we can tap into so that we begin to understand what our body’s trying to tell us?  You know, so elements like sweat, elements like tears, we mentioned earlier on the fluid content of the eye, those are sort of chemicals and those are elements that we possess and we’ll continue possessing these, and we will continue having tears and we will continue sweating no matter where we are in the world, no matter what we’re doing in the world.

So tears, just like let’s say urine right now, it’s a fluid that is coming out of the body.  And it’s used to determine how properly hydrated we are.  So tears can at one point also substitute urine testing to gain indication about how well hydrated the body is.  But of course…

Ben:   So what about like some other things in urine testing, sorry to interrupt but you’ll see glucose, ketones, you’ll see measurement of some of the cells like blood cell and a lot of things from a basic 10-point urine strip.  Are you suggesting that one could achieve something similar with something like a tear?

Dr. Zok:  You know what, the research that we are seeing and that we’re in contact with currently here in the US specifically research coming out of the military world is making breakthroughs that I don’t think we can even imagine right now.  Now talking about tears, talking about sweat those are just very, very, very minor elements of what is coming.  And what is currently, to be honest with you, being done inside the military and some of the sort of the US military forces are experimenting with such technology.

Ben:  Like what?

Dr. Zok:  Ahmmmm…  Let’s see what can I share with you?

Ben:  Without you having to kill me.

Dr. Zok:  (chuckles)  Let’s say, well maybe the most exciting one that I’ve heard about that I can share with you is has to do with biodegradable tattoos.  Tattoos that can be positioned anywhere on the body and according to the composition of the tattoo and according to where it is on the body, it can pick up the vitals from that specific area.  The tattoos have on them flexible transparent batteries and flexible transmission nodes that can transfer the knowledge from tattoo to a smart device that’s in the vicinity or on the body then communicate that to a remote control center.

Now, the main aim is for example to extract in this case we talk about the military soldiers from dangerous situations, but there are so many applications that come down the line such as informing firefighters for example of being in highly, highly dangerous situation. Adrenaline is so high, temperature is so hot, firefighter might not be aware you of them really compromising their life, or risk in their life at any certain point.  And if their fellow firefighters are aware of that then they can extract them in the proper time and not run any risks there.

Ben:  So when you say tattoo like I think about actual ink.  Are we talking about ink that has like nanorobots in it or are we talking about like an electronic health monitor that’s thin and that sticks to the skin?

Dr. Zok:  Either or, when you’re talking about smart tattoos you’re really talking about let’s say, zin film that you can put as if it’s a sticker on the body then the body would absorb it.  That…

Ben:  Uhm.  Wait what do you mean the body would have absorb it, like it would go past the skin?

Dr. Zok:  It can go past the skin sometimes.

Ben:  Really?  Interesting.

Dr. Zok:  And when you’re talking about conductive ink, I mean that’s ink that you can sort of draw on the body with, and then you can begin generating electrical circuits directly on the body and instead of having to put let’s say, a standard electronic chip glued to the body somehow.

Ben:  So you could just basically have like some type of material that gets absorbed into the skin that measures things like blood oxygen level, or heart rate or even something, like temperature or the potential presence of adrenaline, and that would then transmit a signal to a smart phone without one actually needing to wear a wearable, and potentially even without anyone around that person knowing that person was quantifying themselves.

Dr. Zok:  That is very well described.  Yes, these are the usual cases that are being worked on right now.

Ben:  That’s pretty damn cool.

Dr. Zok:  And even if you wanna take it further also, there are some sleek universities working on research around nanorobots.  They’re working on research that which you can develop let’s say, invisible submarines where you can delve those submarines, you can inject those submarines somewhere in the body, and then through let’s say, a smart device you can navigate the body and let’s say, get to a certain organ, you can pick up certain tissues from that organ and then navigate the robot back to the injection point, and then extract it, without having to run any operations or do any cuts.

Ben:  Yeah.  I’ve heard a little bit about this nano surgery.  I think it’s fascinating.  And obviously that’s kinda like a whole different ball o’wax compared to say like enhancing sports performance, or nervous system performance, or decreasing stress by quantifying one using some of these things that go way above and beyond a ring or a wristband.  But yeah, the concept using nanorobots for surgery is that to me is also fascinating/scary especially for anybody who’s read in a few Howey’s novels like Silo in which the world is basically destroyed by tiny little nano bacteria.

But anyways, back to tears real quick.  What about, and I think you mentioned this briefly in your You Tube video, contact lenses.  When you mentioned about the use of contact lenses to monitor eye fluids, are you specifically referring to tears or are you referring to something like an alternative medical practice for example of Iridology?  Where one actually reads the patterns you of the retina and the rods and the cones in the eyes to determine the presence or absence of health issues.

Dr. Zok:  You know what, when we’re talking about contact lenses we’re really targeting the analysis of the fluids that are present around the eye area not necessarily the tears.  The concept is always the same over here, Ben.  How can we use objects that we’ve been using for so long and that we use for alternative purposes to begin deriving from those information?  Now there’s a great, great work coming out of the MIT group at the MIT Media Lab by a professor called David Rose, and he talks about enchanted objects.  And the concept of enchanted objects is transforming any shoe, a tennis racket, a phone, an earphone into an object that can give you more information so that you can live a better life.  Right?

Ben:  Right.

Dr. Zok:  So for example questions such as, do I take the umbrella out today or not?  The umbrella can eventually tell us what the weather forecast is like and help us make a more informed decision so that we’re not worried about the umbrella, and where do we put that and it can become a little bit awkward carrying an umbrella when it’s not gonna rain.

Ben:  Interesting.

Dr. Zok:  Or you think about sports and say, let’s take soccer shoes for example and have the soccer shoe tell the strength and conditioning coaches or the physical trainers who are at the edge of the soccer field, how many miles that the athletes run right now?  What was their frequency of steps?  And how long they spend in each of the speed zones rather than having a GPS unit that they have today where you know, on their backs.

Ben:  What would be the difference between analyzing fluids versus analyzing tears?

Dr. Zok:  Analyzing well, hold on, what do you mean by fluids?

Ben:  You mentioned that the primary purpose of a contact lens for self-quantification would be to analyze fluids in the eyes versus tears.  So we have other fluids coming out of our eyes aside from tears that we can also analyze?

Dr. Zok:  Yes, so the tears are coming out of let’s say, the tear hole that we have just outside the eye.  However, the fluids that are in the eye, they have a different chemical composition different compounds are in there.  What can we analyze?  What can we not analyze?  I don’t think we need to look at this from an exclusive perspective.  And it’s not about whether do we extract the tear or do we put a contact lens, but I would say, it’s more about how do we put our hands on technology that we can use in our everyday life with our athletes or with our stakeholders that can extract the information that we’re after and the seamless and easiest way possible, and inform every one about what’s best decision that they have to make.           

Ben:  Gotcha.  One of the things that appears on your bio is that you delved quite a bit into Artificial Intelligence.  Have you come across the use of AI for something like enhancing sports performance or something that an Olympic athlete may use?  

Dr. Zok:  So, I do have sort of a… over there a philosophical stand if you want around technology because many people refer to technology as enhancing performance.  I don’t necessarily agree with that.  I see technology more as an aid that will enhance decision-making.  And the real question that I believe everyone should be focusing on is not how can technology enhance performance but rather how can technology inform all of the stakeholders, athletes, coaches, high performance directors, physical therapists, nutritionists, physiologists, you name it.  Everyone work around the athlete to make the most informed decision.

Ben:  Yeah, I guess that’s kinda what I meant, right?  So yeah, indirectly improving sports performance by supplying quantified intelligent about an athlete’s activity so that programming could be altered to enhance that athlete’s response to training.  I guess, I think we’re on the same page basically…

Dr. Zok:  Excellent.

Ben:  … in terms of how these things will be used.  But Artificial Intelligence, how would that be used for example for a coach or scouts, or anyone else to gather data about a player’s activity?

Dr. Zok:  Well, artificial intelligence is a very sexy term to represent clever mathematical models.  Mathematical models that can learn from the person or that can learn also from the data that is present within the data ecosystem that it’s operating in.  So far for example, when we are talking about high performance let’s take soccer, right?  So in soccer there are so many studies and so many groups working on correlations between speed and performance focusing on the transfer of training to the competition ground focusing on how quick do you lift certain weights in the gym, and how does that correlate with your performance on the field.

Now so many variables though, come into play are not taken into account for such as weather conditions, such as turf conditions, such as humidity in the air, such as travel scheduling, and so on.  And when we think about artificial intelligence, we are thinking about building intelligence on top of all the possible date sets that we can bring into an ecosystem and having algorithms teach us about the correlations that are present within the data sets.  On one hand to uncover surprises and on the other hand maybe to confirm some decisions that have been made in the past.

So for example, right now, our Track Cycling team specifically our women’s Team pursuit is using extensive artificial intelligence technology to help the coach and the team determine the different correlations that come into play when they’re training.  Now what does the environment look like?  What is the temperature?  What’s the air pressure?  What is the humidity?  What is the timing?  What is our timing in the velodrome?  What is the power generated from the bike?  What is the heart rate?  What is the oxygen level and the muscles, and so on.  And all of these data points come into one ecosystem upon which artificial intelligence are running, and then extracting information delivering it to the coach and then maybe it can tell the coach hey, you know what, when the team is at an altitude that goes beyond 5,000 feet, the power output is changed by so much.

Ben:  Yeah.  I’ve always wished that I could have access to stuff like that.  Like for athletes, I do some consulting with some business people and athletes some things like stress and sleep and everything from doing an Ironman, triathlon to just managing jetlag and I measure things like sleep data and heart rate variability data and training volume and nutrition, but have always wished that rather than me just sitting there on my computer pouring through the data, that some kind of artificial intelligence could just read this and then tell me, okay, this is what this particular athlete or CEO or anybody else, this is how much they should sleep based on the sleep debt that they might have accumulated. This is how much they should train this week based off training hours and stress core from a previous week et cetera.  It sounds to me like that technology exists and you guys are using it at the Olympic level.

Dr. Zok:  You know, that technology exists and that technology will become more and more widespread in the future.  It’s used in so many different verticals that have nothing to do with sports.  Take the financial market for example, you take the oil and field industry, you take the aerospace navigation industry, take the military industry.  There are so many, so many artificial intelligence examples that are already in place that help stakeholders make very good decisions.  I believe…

Ben:  Are there specific pieces of software that already exists that would be examples of something like that?

Dr. Zok:  I wouldn’t say there are sort of, I would not recommend any one software rather than the other, but again if you look up on a search engine the word artificial intelligence and software, if you want, then you will find different options to choose from.  In the big consumer electronics companies are developing their own AI platforms, their own AI plug-ins that you know any company or any research organizations can tap into to extract information.    

Ben:  Yeah.  It’s kinda interesting ‘çause there’s like this Good ‘Ol Boys Network that I think still is pervasive in specially team sports like, football and baseball and basketball in the US and even in a lot of individual sports like triathlon or marathoning that says, oh you should just listen to your body, you should just see how you feel, and make training decisions based on that.  Even like say, Brett Sutton is one really famous coach who coaches a lot of really good Ironman triathletes.  And what’s been said about him is that he just kinda looks the athlete in the eye and decides whether or not they’re ready for the rigors of that day’s training.  Do you think that there’s anything to be said for that kind of approach of just like a natural feel for the body or do you think that that kind of stuff is just like totally useless compared to what artificial intelligence and quantification can give us?

Dr. Zok:  You know what, all coaches who we worked with we always tell them this that we are here to come to a decision-making process.  Now I highly, highly doubt that technology one day will overtake the coach.  Now technology is gonna be very, very hard to use just technology and have your artificial intelligence coach telling you what to do and what not to do.  And all coaches who I’ve been working with over the past years with Team USA and prior to Team USA, they all say the same thing.  The best coaches are the ones who find the best equilibrium between the arts and the sciences of coaching.           

Ben:  Okay.

Dr. Zok:  Now, if you go only to the arts of coaching, you are taking yourself to this position where you will not know how to answer questions coming your way.  If you go to the scientific extreme, then you’re not taking the human element into consideration.  And you know, you have to be in that sweet spot that helps you make decisions based off of what you’re observing with the technology and science that you’re using, and also by in this case, looking the athletes in the eye and taking into account all the personal elements of the athlete.

Ben:  Got it.  Okay that makes sense.  Now we talked about tattoos, we’re talking about contact lenses, we talked about some of these flexible electronics like socks and underwear that you can wear, are there any other devices or self-quantification methods that exist right now that you’re aware of that not many people listening right now would know about but that are cool or that are intriguing or that you wouldn’t have to kill me after you tell me about it?     

Dr. Zok:  You know what, not necessarily on the self-quantification but maybe on the manipulation if you want of our learning capabilities?

Ben: Okay.  

Dr. Zok:  We’re looking very, very closely at a field of science called Neuro Priming which has to do with stimulating the brain with very, very low frequency, very low power electrical frequencies that are non-invasive, now the stimulation happens through headphone-looking device that allows the athletes to learn quicker certain specifically technical skills.      

Ben:  Is this like the Halo device that the Golden State Warriors were using during the NBA Finals?  

Dr. Zok:  Halo would be one of the companies that is working in that field.  But yeah, this is the philosophy that we’re looking at.  And you know what, whenever we consider high performance, Ben, within Team USA, we have come to the understanding that the sports sciences breakthroughs that we will see in the future are going to come exclusively from the technology area.  Now technologies that make their way into the traditional sports sciences, technologies that create new standards and new paradigms in sports.  Neuro priming is one, the smart tattoos, the smart fabrics, artificial intelligence, IOT, classical technology such as radar technologies that are now making their way into sports to help athletes make better decisions.  But it is the technological advancement that will help us make the most informed decisions in our capacity in the future.

Ben:  What about EEG?  I recently was down in LA and had a QEEG done to myself and that was based on neurofeedback.  You identify specific areas in the brain that might have limited blood flow or limited EEG activity, and then using neurofeedback more or less fix that area of the brain by teaching it how to either increase or decrease activity.  Have you experimented with much of that at all?

Dr. Zok:  You know what, our focus is not necessarily on experimenting with the scientific research in this case when EEG has been around for so long, there’s so many great studies that combine EEG and virtual reality or virtual for rehabilitation purposes, like virtual reality environments that can change the world in which you’re living in within brackets.  You know, they can manipulate the gravity, they can have objects falling in different speeds and then you would have to learn how to intercept those objects before they hit a certain target.

Our focus is mostly on empowering athletes and coaches with decision-making tools and most of the times the more than 99% of the times we are focusing on technologies that can be used directly on the field of play.  Hence the smart fabrics and smart textiles and wearable technology and IOT and AI.  We want to take the athletes out of the standardized lab, to take them out of the standardized scientific environment and to keep them on the field of play, and we want to get our data directly from them as they are performing.

Ben:  Okay. Got it.

Dr. Zok:  In many of the presentations that I make, I always give reference to how did we work in sports as technologists only 10 years ago, and how we had to bring athletes into the standard version environment, into the biomechanics lab, into the physiology lab.   And we asked the athletes to do the best that they can to simulate what they would do in the field of play and you know, the science was very accurate, the math was very accurate, excellent, excellent research but the core ingredient which is the data, the raw data, was the best wrong data that we could work with.  And today…

Ben:  Yeah.  It’s interesting because I studied Exercise Physiology at the University of Idaho and when we wanted to do a blood lactate evaluation for example, that involved multiple blood strips and multiple fingertip or earlobe pricks to analyze blood to coming out of the body at various work clothes, and those work clothes still as you just alluded to there just designed to simulate what an athlete might be experiencing in the field of battle, but now we have things like, I don’t know, if underwear measures blood lactate, but there are for example, I’ve seen like cat sleeves now that measure lactate.  And I believe they’re doing so via a sweat, if I’m not mistaken.

Dr. Zok:  And you know what, even if you take it to simpler metrics such as you what are the external loads on a skiers knees, let’s say, on lower limbs as they’re skiing down the mountain. Ten years ago, to answer that you had to run a scientific experiment.  There was no way that you would be able to put a reliable technology into the hands of any skiing team around the world and have the athletes use it.  Now today, almost everyone around the world is using the technology that helps them quantify the loads.  As a matter of fact, if you look at the skiing injury trends over the past years, you would see a decreasing trend with respect to the 10 years prior to that.

Ben:  Yeah.

Dr. Zok:  So technology is making its way into sports and the more technology makes its way onto the playing field, the more reliable the data we’re working with is and the more buy in we will get from the athletes, because we’re not asking them to allocate extra time to do the testing, but rather they’re just doing their sport and we are monitoring what they’re doing without, sometimes without them even knowing that we’re doing it.  And this is the beauty with working with sports technology today.       

Ben:  Where do you draw the line between something that would be considered for example, an ergogenic aid and something that could be paralleled with like an illegal sports performance enhancing drug, because I’ve seen arguments that for example, for Tiger Woods to go out and get a lasik surgery, and for that to be legal like how could he be able to go do that but Lance Armstrong can’t for example do EPO or testosterone.  Like where do you draw the line?  How do you frame this in the context of sports legality and sports morality?

Dr. Zok:  I would take a step back from that to be honest with you, because the way that I see technology and the way that we work with Team USA athletes is to get their hands on technology that helps make better decisions.  And this is why I have a very, very strong stand when people refer to technology as enhancing performance.  ‘Çoz we’re really enhancing the decision-making process here.  We’re helping athletes gain more awareness around how their bodies behave, we’re helping them understand how many miles are they running?  What was the G Force when their cutting?  What’s the oxygen levels in their muscles, and how does that correlate with their performance, and how does the weather impact their performance and sleep, and travel and all of the elements that come into the athlete’s life cycle.

I know that there are different practices out there that try to use technology to give the sort of physiological advances by manipulating the body somehow.  I’m not familiar with those.  We don’t do this at Team USA.

Ben:  Okay.  So you’re not talking about like implanting limbs, you’re not talking about for example, the tattoos somehow priming the body during sports rather than simply collecting information.  What about even like this neuro science thing, like this halo neuro, like I’ve seen their website and they say that they can for example, increase I believe it’s the activation of the motor cortex to improve the brain’s response to training, but they also say that it could accelerate strength and explosiveness and dexterity.  If one athlete or team has access to reducing something like that, can you argue that that would be unfair compared to another athlete that wouldn’t be able to use that type of technology?

Dr. Zok:  Well you know what, if we were having this conversation 10 years ago, I would have said maybe you can argue that technology can be a competitive edge for one country with respect to another country.  But you know, it’s 2016.  In 2016 you get portable computers that you can stick in your pockets for very, very, very accessible amounts of dollars.  And very accessible for so many countries around the world and not all the countries around the world.  And as a matter of fact, when you see all the athletes around the world. they do have some technological tool that they’re using whether it’s for leisure or whether it’s for sport.

The technology today is very accessible.  It’s not a matter of economy anymore, it’s not a matter about whether you can afford it or not.  I believe that the best countries who are using technology and not necessarily the ones who have more access to technology but are the ones who are pausing and asking themselves, and taking time to figure out what is the question that they need to be asking themselves.

Ben:  Right.

Dr. Zok:  Now within the US Olympic Committee we always talk about the 1% question.  And it is our duty as technologists to help coaches and to help athletes come up with the 1% question.  Like what is that one question that if we can find an answer to, we will be able to establish a 1% competitive gap with respect to the rest of the world and eventually help Team USA gain an advantage.

Ben:  Okay.  Got it.  Now, do you think that there are, and feel free to let me know if I’m stepping outside the bounds of what you can talk about, but do you think there are certain countries or nationalities that are lightyears ahead of others, like I don’t even know how US compares with say like, China or Japan or Germany or there’s this kinda like old-school thought that like the Russians are always ahead of the game when it came to like steroids and hormones, and perhaps the Chinese when it comes to technology, like do you know who is doing the best job at this type of thing or who seems to be ahead of the game?

Dr. Zok:  Each and every country has its own culture, it has its own traditions, it has its own sets of rules.  I’ve lived in so many countries, I’ve grown up in so many different countries that bring me to the understanding that, you know what, you cannot establish who is best in the world.  You cannot establish who’s doing better than anyone else in the world.  Let’s take the US Olympic Committee for example, the USOC is one of the very, very, very, very few Olympic committees around the world that is a non-government organization.  Now it’s a purely sponsored-driven organization, it’s a non-profit organization and that brings in a set of dynamics that does not allow us to use the same strategies that other countries use.  We cannot rely on a steady influx of resources like other countries do, but also and since we are a non-government organization that helps us make decisions maybe quicker than other countries can do.

Ben:  Yeah.

Dr. Zok:  We are in the US, we do have collegiate sports, we do have private education and those elements come into play whenever you’re talking about what technologies do we work with, what technologies do we use, how much do we invest?  I believe that what we need to be asking ourselves, and I have to say we do a great job at this within Team USA, is how do we find a 1% competitive gap with respect to the rest of the world?  And how can we then align ourselves strategically with the best companies and best scientific organizations in the US and outside of the US, so that we can bring into Team USA’s hand technologies way, way before those make their way into the hands of either other sports or unto the market and become accessible to everyone else.

Ben:  Got it.  Well, that was a very political answer but it was also insightful.  I didn’t really realize that you guys definitely have your hands tied compared to some other countries, but at the same time you perhaps have a little bit more freedom.  That’s interesting.

I have a couple of practical questions for you now.  Because this is something I’m concerned about because I’ve been given at biohacking conferences self-quantification devices that promise to measure electrical muscle activity or heart rates and heart rate variability during exercise etcetera, but I’m a freaking obstacle course racer, I do triathlons so a lot of times we’re talking about water, dirt, mud, the elements.  In terms of a lot of these stuff, like how much of it is just like white lab coats in pristine settings testing stuff that hasn’t been exposed to dirt and the elements.  How much of it is actually getting field tested, and if so, like are there things that can really hold up to the rigors of crawling through the mud under barbed wire, for example?

Dr. Zok:  Yeah, and you know what, one of the biggest criticisms that technology faces today specifically the wearable technology because it’s such a big market not only in the US but worldwide, is the lack of standards.  There are no standards that companies have to abide to.  There are no fixed standards that they have to abide to, so if you purchase ten different products and all of these are measuring your heart rate for example, or your step count, most probably you will be putting your hands on ten different readings with you not knowing exactly which ones should you trust, which ones should you not trust, and this is a huge issue and becomes very serious when you’re talking about high performance, when you’re talking about 1% margins.

Now me as a consumer, me as a person who is not an avid racer, I’m not a competitive athlete, I might be fine with even a 75% accuracy probably whether I slept 8 hours or whether I slept 7 hours and a half, maybe that doesn’t really affect me that much as it would affect very, very, very high performing athlete who is calibrating her life each and every day according to the data points that she is getting her hands on.

Ben:  Right.  Right.

Dr. Zok:  It is 2016, it is the time where we have so many companies getting generated on the market.  My recommendation or let’s say my take when I’m evaluating which companies do we go with, which companies do we not go with, is doing due diligence work on the company, with the companies.  Where are they coming from, who is behind them, who is advising them, what kind of research are they using, what kind of testing do they perform?  And then make a decision that would help you begin testing it and then making up your mind whether you’re gonna use or not.

Ben:  Yeah, I was actually asking for example, like I’ve tried like an EMG device where it’s a giant almost like pager right above your crotch.  And my response to the person who was testing it out on me, I told them like this would hold up for maybe the first 20 minutes of something like an obstacle training event at which point it would be crushed/broken.  So I guess the army though, they must be field testing a lot of these stuff in the army.  Like you mentioned some of the tattoos and things like that, so I would imagine that some of it has got to hold up through the rigors.

Dr. Zok:  This is actually a very important point that you’ve bring up because this tends to be a strategic point for us that we use within Team USA to establish a strategic partnerships with other companies.  The general understanding is that if you’re able to develop a technological solution for a very, very, very high performing athlete.  An athlete who is pushing his or her body beyond extremes and beyond the boundaries of what most of the human population can do.  Then through a trickle-down effect you can configure a product or a service that can suit the majority of the people.

And so, when we’re talking about Team USA and we’re talking about Team USA athletes, when we engage with companies, the companies are extremely, extremely excited and enthusiastic to work directly with the people who are going to push the boundaries with the athletes who are going to take the testing session within brackets to the next level.

Ben:  Yeah.

Dr. Zok:  Now they’re gonna put it in the mud, put it in the water, dive consecutively off of the 10-meter platform with it, and if it breaks, if water leaks, if data is skewed because of lots of usage and lots of impacts on the sensors, then the companies will be aware of this.  But as you said, many products on the market have not been crafted with high performing athlete’s feedback into them and have not been tested thoroughly.  So I’m not surprised that you can purchase something today and then it’s gonna break at a certain point.

Ben:  Right.  Now, another thing I wanted to ask you because we had a podcast a couple of years ago about how Bluetooth radiation next to the head for example was shown to cause some blood brain barrier leakage in rodent models.  And there is of course lots of anecdotal studies out there about how when you put like Wifi routers next to plants, the plants slowly die compared to similar plants under similar conditions not placed next to a Wifi router.

So there’s talk about like electrical pollution or dirty electricity in it, and then of course there’s a classic cellphone, how the label on the cellphone says, don’t put it next to your body, be careful with radiation, the studies that have shown that like cellphones in the pocket can reduce sperm count.  So there’s obviously effects that Bluetooth or Wifi radiation have upon the body.  My question for you regarding this is two-fold, do you ever study the effects of things like that in the athletes that are using some of this stuff?  Or you yourself concerned about the potential for as we delve deeper and deeper into self-quantification effects of more or less dirty electricity on the human body?  Like is the underwear gonna reduce my sperm count basically is what I wanna know?

Dr. Zok:  The first question that you asked Ben, we do have a group of people who advise us.  We have a group of experts who guide us whenever we’re making a decision.  Now we take their advice and their recommendations heavily, heavily into consideration.  We don’t do any testing ourselves on a continuous basis, there’s nothing that concerns us for now, mostly because the technologies that we’re using with our athletes did not approach by any means set of the 24 continuous like 24/7 usage if you want.  It’s technology that’s used on the spot, it’s technology that has a very, very specific purpose.  And you can be using technologies here and there but they’re so various in nature, they’re so various in terms of what kind of wireless communication product host they include that does not raise any concerns for us right now.  But it’s a very, very interesting topic.  It’s a very important topic that needs to be addressed with more energy specifically as we near the say, smart clothing era, if you want, because we will have those technologies on our bodies right now.

Ben:  Yeah.

Dr. Zok:  What I can tell you is that the technologies that will be coming available to the consumers over the next 2-3 years will rarely, rarely have any wireless transmission capabilities imbedded on them, but rather they will still have let’s say a wired element to them to very, very, very small transmitting unit.  So in the case of the underwear, I don’t think that you have to worry about Bluetooth right now, being imbedded in the underwear, but it will be like a very, very small sized gadget that you will have somewhere on your body that will take care of this transmission for you.

Ben:  Yeah.  Yeah.  Well I tell you what man, I would love to see testing done in this too, like I would like to see for example, investigation of say like, blood brain barrier permeability, maybe you look at like micro RNA, like blood micro RNA to see if there’s any potential damage being done to RNA, and then maybe sleep cycles right, like you’ll sleep late and see you’re percentage of deep sleep and in an athlete exposed to X amount of Bluetooth or Wifi during the day versus an athlete who is not exposed to those same signals during the day.  I have my own personal hunch that there is kind of a law of diminishing returns.  I don’t know what it is, but I still would love to see a really big emphasis in this whole self-quantification industry on the long term health effects on an athlete or any other person who’s using something like this.

Dr. Zok:  I’m with you on that one.

Ben:  Yeah.  Yeah.  Well, first of all for people listening in.  I’ve been taking some notes to things like this halo neuro science device and flexible electronics, and Mounir’s website as well as his video about sports technology, and everything else that we discussed.  You can go to bengreenfiledfitness.com/quantify, to check out the show notes and then if you have comments, you have questions or things you want to add in, type in on the comments section there, leave your own thoughts ‘coz I read them all.  I try to reply to as many of them as possible and this stuff is super fascinating.  I like it/hate it.  I’m like Dr. Zok and that I definitely love to have those days when I’m completely unplugged, but I certainly acknowledge the usefulness of doing something like getting a tattoo that will measure your blood lactate levels.  Maybe that’s my next tattoo.  I’ll add that in to primal sun and the Ironman tattoo.  A skin tattoo to self-quantify myself.  Dr. Zok, thanks for coming on the show and sharing all these stuff with us, man.    

Dr. Zok:  Thank you.  Thank you, Ben for having me. 

Ben:  Alright folks, well this is Ben Greenfield and Dr. Mounir Zok signing out from bengreenfiledfitness.com/quantify, and you have yourself a healthy week.  We’ll catch you next time.       

You've been listening to the Ben Greenfield Fitness podcast.  Go to bengreenfieldfitness.com for even more cutting-edge fitness and performance advice.



I recently watched a fascinating video about sports technology in which Dr. Mounir Zok, who is the Director of Technology and Innovation for the U.S. Olympic Committee, delves into everything from electronic tattoos that read body signals to contact lenses that analyze fluid in the eyes for instant self-quantification.

In other words, this guy is the nerd who biohacks the jocks.

Dr. Zok, who holds a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering, plays an instrumental and strategic role in bringing emerging technologies to Team USA. He is responsible for championing, setting up and running high-performance technology programs that increase the medaling chances of Team USA athletes at the future Olympic and Paralympic Games, including wearable technology, smart textiles and fabric, Internet of Things (IoT), and artificial intelligence and cognitive computing.

And Dr. Zok is fluent in four languages. So he is officially one. Smart. Cookie.

In today’s episode, we take a deep dive into the realm of advanced self-quantification techniques for athletes. During our discussion, you’ll discover:

-How Dr. Zok measures the oxygen levels in his muscles…

-Why sweat and tears are the new goldmine in self-quantification…

-How an electronic, biodegradeable tattoo can be used to detect muscle and nervous system activity…

-The fascinating emergence of new contact lenses for analyzing fluids in the eye…

-Socks that can measure your blood lactate levels…

-Headbands that can prime the motor cortex for enhanced performance…

-How the US Women’s Track Cycling team is using artificial intelligence to enhance training…

-How to strike a balance between the fine art and the nitty-gritty science of reading the body…

-Whether you need to be concerned exposure to excessive bluetooth or wifi radiation from self-quantification devices…

-And much more…

Resources from this episode:

Mounir Zok’s LinkedIn page

Flexible electronics

Mounir’s video about sports technology

The Halo neuroscience device

Read more https://bengreenfieldfitness.com/2016/07/advanced-self-quantification-for-athletes/



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One thought on “[Transcript] – The Man Who Biohacks Olympic Athletes: Electronic Tattoos, Self-Quantifying Contact Lenses, Flexible Electronics, Artificial Intelligence & More.

  1. blocker1962 says:

    Published on July 9, 2016.

    I do not agree: https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2006/08/te…

    Best regards, Tish

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