Tech by VICE

The More We Quantify Our Bodies, the More We’ll Want to Hack Them

Nootropics startups are banking on the idea.

by Kaleigh Rogers
Jul 12 2016, 2:30pm

Image: PicJumbo

"If you were counting your steps 10 years ago, you were Rain Man," Michael Brandt told me. "Now, everybody has a fitness band tracking their movements."

It's quite a line, but considering Silicon Valley's booming interest in human enhancement, it doesn't come as a shock. Brandt, a 27-year-old Stanford grad, is a cofounder of Nootrobox, a startup that's taken nootropics from a world of mysterious powders sold on the internet to slickly-packaged supplements for people who want a mental performance edge. Investors from venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz to Marissa Mayer have bought into the vision. They believe that as we become increasingly focused on quantifying everything about ourselves, the desire to enhance what we've got will surely follow.

I met with Brandt recently at Motherboard's Brooklyn office to chat about his vision of the future. He told me he's betting that our growing collective interest in ultra-personalized biological data—from fitness bands to DNA services like 23andMe—is the first step towards a desire to improve ourselves. First comes quantifying our bodies, then comes trying to hack them to perform better.

Nootropic users combine different cocktails (called "stacks") of natural and synthetic drugs believed to improve cognitive performance, with varying degrees of evidence and legality. They range from easy-to-source, household drugs such as caffeine (you can buy caffeine capsules at your drugstore) to pharmaceuticals banned in the US, such as piracetam—believed to improve memory function.

"The whole notion is about taking drugs for improvement," Brandt explained. "You're not taking them to get high or to party, but to be more productive."

See, nootropics aren't designed to treat anything, the way medication is. Evangelists of the brain-boosting drugs look for stacks that offer a "low side effect profile," meaning they don't get you high or have any undesirable side effects like jitters. They just meant to make you better at whatever you're trying to do, whether that's focus on a project at work or fall asleep after a stressful day. It's part of a philosophy that permeates Silicon Valley and may soon spread elsewhere: that being healthy and normal isn't good enough. Why be good when you can be better? Brandt calls it "upgrading your firmware."

And if the businesses profiting off the quantified self trend are any indication, there's a big market to tap into for cognitive ascension. The wearable devices market has nearly tripled since 2014, with fitness tracker FitBit taking the biggest share at 22 percent, according to a report from research firm International Data Corporation. Fitness and health tracking apps are exploding too: MyFitnessPal has more than 80 million users and was acquired by Under Armour for $475 million last year. 23andMe, which offers consumer genetic profiles, is valued at more than $1 billion.

There's clearly a lot of people who want to gather as much data about their bodies as possible, even when they're in good health and not trying to deal with any particular ailments. And there's a lot of money to be made helping people collect that data. But does that really add up to people wanting to pop pills to hack their bodies?

There's a pretty good chance, actually. Though estimates can be tricky to verify, the vitamin and supplements industry is somewhere in the ballpark of a $27 billion market in the US alone. Vitamin Water, the supplement-spiked beverage brand owned by Coca Cola (that even the soft drink giant admitted is far from a health drink) rakes in $1 billion for Coke each year. People are already dishing out cash to try to go from human to human plus, so while there's no guarantees when it comes to consumer trends, nootropics could very easily be the next frontier.

"Nobody has a crystal ball," Brandt told me. "But there are a lot of trends that point to people being interested in nootropics."