Object 39

Micromort Detector

2032, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Every second of every day, we're confronted with choices that test our appetite for risk. Should you eat that tasty but calorific dessert? Should you walk to the shops or take the car? Do you really want to take that spacedive? Sure, it'll be fun — it might even, quite literally, be the trip of a lifetime.

Sometimes it's easy for us to make the calculation, especially with high-risk activities that are saddled with a known probability of death. Most of the time, though, we make decisions unconsciously, even though their cumulative impact may have more weight on our chances of living to old age than any single spacedive.

But what if you could measure and quantify those decisions immediately and directly? What if you could have a number that told you exactly how risky an action was going to be? That's what Mutual Assurance, an insurance co-operative based in Buenos Aires, set out to make with their Lifeline bracelet in 2032.

The bracelet I’m about to put on is a slender band of sensor-packed composites that tracks the usual things: blood pressure and oxygenation, heart rate, metabolic panel readings, galvanic skin response levels, and so on. The Lifeline also hooks into the wearer's glasses and other technology to determine, in short, what they are doing and how risky it is. All of this health and behaviour data is then combined and converted into a single number — the micromort.

A micromort is a unit of risk representing a one-in-a-million chance of death. Drinking a couple of glasses of wine would accumulate a single micromort, whereas spending an hour canoeing would accumulate ten micromorts. As I take a bite of an Owen’s Original burger, you can see my Lifeline here recording an extra 0.1 micromorts; I suppose it isn’t happy with the salt. In theory, a Lifeline would detect the entire sum of its wearer's activities — every wash of their hands, every flight, every run, every drink, every human function — and calculate their associated risks in real time. Mutual Assurance's aim was to help individuals make more informed choices about the risks they took in everyday life and, of course, to better assess insurance premiums.

Initially, Mutual Assurance had planned to make the bracelets available solely to their own customers, but the tremendous demand encouraged them to ramp up production. No doubt much of the appeal of the Lifeline came from its novelty value — plenty of people were intrigued to see their micromort count gradually ratchet up as they drank a coffee or went for a swim — but a great deal of interest came from how it played upon the fears of the ageing baby boomers and Gen-Xers of the time. In an interview a decade after the Lifeline's introduction, CEO Maria Mendoza admitted, "It didn't escape our notice that there was an entire generation who were very, very anxious about their mortality, and that we could try and address that by quantifying it in a way that they understood."

The Lifeline didn't alleviate anxiety, though — it accentuated it. Many wearers obsessively checked their micromort readings every hour, worrying over statistically insignificant increases and becoming paralysed with indecision. Sadly, their heightened anxiety usually increased blood pressure and cortisol levels, further increasing their micromorts for the day — which increased stress, and so on...

There were other problems with the Lifeline. One was the inaccuracy of the risk data it relied on for calculations; most of the data had been calculated on an aggregate basis, and so their applicability to specific circumstances or individuals was comparatively low. Another was the inconvenient tendency for humans to be contrary; some users deliberately tried to increase their micromorts as much as possible without harming their health, regularly embarking on risky sports activities and venturing into dangerous areas, just to get a 'high score'.

A few years on, and attitudes had shifted: people were tiring of such simplified measures of their lives. Ian Kyd, a gamification academic, comments:

"The fashion of trying to precisely quantify everything in the universe, from health and happiness to intelligence and inspiration, had its roots in the turn of the century when the politics and economics of the time rewarded people for thinking in strictly numerical terms. Back then, they really did think that representing things like happiness with a number out of a hundred was not only a good idea, but the best idea. The ideals of the self-quantification and gamification movements reached as far as the 30s, and then thankfully retreated as the Modern Romantic movement emerged."

Ultimately, the Lifeline was never particularly accurate nor useful as a tool for managing risk and improving health. It did, however, succeed in inspiring a new range of mostly ridiculous but occasionally thought-provoking knock-off bracelets that purported to measure tiny, incremental amounts of change, such as the 'Microfun detector', the 'Microsmarts detector', the 'Micromorals detector', and so on.

And that's perhaps the most useful thing that the Lifeline did. Those trying to use its simple metrics to guide their behaviour were frequently stymied, but that very effort often prompted a fleeting understanding of mortality and caused more subtle, longer-lasting changes in outlook. It wasn't a magical device that made people wiser — it was a memento mori.