Like many people who are careful about their weight, Larry Smarr once spent two weeks measuring everything he put in his mouth. He charted each serving of food in grams or teaspoons, and broke it down into these categories: protein, carbohydrates, fat, sodium, sugar, and fiber.
Larry used the data to fine-tune his diet. With input nailed down, he turned to output. He started charting the calories he burns, in workouts on an elliptical trainer and in the steps he takes each day. If the number on his pedometer falls short of his prescribed daily 7,000, he will find an excuse to go for a walk. Picture a tall, slender man with the supple, slightly deflated look of someone who has lost a lot of weight, plodding purposefully in soft shoes along the sunny sidewalks of La Jolla, California.
Of course, where outputs are concerned, calories are only part of the story, and it is here that Larry begins to differ from your typical health nut. Because human beings also produce waste products, foremost among them … well, poop. Larry collects his and has it analyzed. He is deep into the biochemistry of his feces, keeping detailed charts of their microbial contents. Larry has even been known to haul carefully boxed samples out of his kitchen refrigerator to show incautious visitors. He is eloquent on the subject. He could sell the stuff.
“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.”
Larry’s fascination is less with feces themselves than with the data they yield. He is not a doctor or a biochemist, he’s a computer scientist—one of the early architects of the Internet, in fact. Today he directs a world-class research center on two University of California campuses, San Diego and Irvine, called the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, or “Calit2” (the 2 represents the repeated I and T initials). The future is arriving faster at Calit2 than it is in most places. Larry says his eyes are focused “10 years ahead,” which in computer terms is more like a century or two, given how rapidly the machines are transforming modern life. Intent on that technological horizon, Larry envisions a coming revolution in medicine, and he is bringing his intellect and his institute to bear on it.