Illustration of a man sleeping in a bed, with many numbers floating overhead

(Illustration by Matthew Billington)

Features | From Pivot Magazine

Big Data Never Sleeps

More and more high-tech sleep aids are keeping watch over dreamland, leaving the sleep-deprived to obsess over numbers for a better night’s rest

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Some years ago, James MacFarlane, the director of education and quality with the MedSleep network of clinics, received a visit from a male patient whose wife insisted that he snored. The man, for his part, insisted he didn’t—until his wife recorded the noise with his smartphone one night and, because she managed all his electronic devices, turned his snore into the most shameful ultimatum. “She made it my ring tone,” the man told MacFarlane, “and she refused to change it until I came for this appointment.” The man gave MacFarlane his number and instructed him to dial it. The very ground shook.

For the man there was no refuting the evidence: “What was once a rumour,” MacFarlane says, “was now a fact.”

Today the digital revolution has rendered the need for vengeful bed partners obsolete: we are now able to direct our own sleep surveillance. Smartphones, wearable technology like the Fitbit and Apple Watch, and nifty monitors installed under sheets or at bedside are stripping the rumour and mystery from our slumbers. Accelerometers measure our nighttime movements, microphones the sound of dreams, low-energy radio waves our heartbeats. Proprietary algorithms translate this data into spreadsheets and graphs designed to illuminate what hitherto we could only guess at, via the most subjective judgments about the quality of our shuteye. These at-home devices can’t yet replace the electrodes and wires of the clinical sleep lab, but just give them a few years. “Hopefully not too soon,” MacFarlane says, “because I don’t want to lose my job.”

They call it sleep tracking, and it’s big business—part of a burgeoning, increasingly high-tech sleep-aid market valued at US$21 billion globally in 2017, and set to hit US$31 billion by 2025, according to a recent Persistence Market Research report. In January, for the second year in a row, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas featured a sleep-tech marketplace showcasing gizmos like the Somnox sleep robot, a soft, bean-shaped automaton meant to induce sleep with simulated breathing, and the Dreem headband, which collects brain-wave data and uses “special bone conduction technology” to send soothing noise directly through your skull. Driving this industry is an epidemic of sleeplessness: both Statistics Canada and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say a third of us are sleep-deprived.

As if we didn’t already have enough to worry about, most sleep-tracking systems assess the quality of your sleep each morning with a numerical grade, much like a judge scoring the performance of a figure skater or high diver. Although such analysis has its benefits- such as promoting sleep literacy and better sleep hygiene—it may also be worry-making. Do we really need data gathering machines to tell us to maintain a regular sleep routine, or to limit caffeine and avoid alcohol before bed (all the sort of truths these systems tend to offer and that we already tend to ignore)? In their quests to achieve a high sleep score, some tracking enthusiasts, especially those with pre-existing disorders like insomnia, “actually make themselves more anxious,” says Jeff Mann, founder and editor of Sleep Junkies, a website dedicated to the pursuit of sleep. “It’s that idea that when you observe something, you change the outcome.” Mann notes this sleep pitfall already has a name: orthosomnia—the misguided hunt for perfection in the zzz’s department.

There is also good reason to worry that by deploying these data-collecting devices, we’re inviting Big Brother into our beds. Consider SleepScore Max, a non-contact sleep monitor developed by SleepScore Labs, a joint venture between TV’s Dr. Mehmet Oz, Pegasus Capital Advisors L.P. and the sleep-equipment giant ResMed. Retailing for US$150, it uses radio waves to detect sleep metrics such as deep sleep and REM sleep, the time it takes you to fall asleep and how often you wake up. As its name suggests, it gives you a “sleep score” each morning—a number out of 100—letting you know how you made out.

“Sleep is the only area in which the average consumer has no single metric to assess how he or she is doing,” Colin Lawlor, the company’s CEO, has said. “Food has calories, exercise has steps, but SleepScore Labs has made it easier for the average person to measure how they sleep.” If the system suspects something in the bedroom is preventing you from achieving sleep excellence, you may receive advice about lighting (pull the blinds down) or noise (wear earplugs). If its algorithm picks up hints of a serious disorder, like sleep apnea, it will ask you a series of screener questions that may prompt it to advise a visit to a specialist (SleepScore has doctors available for virtual consultations). And if it finds your sleep may benefit from one of the sleep aids the company keeps in stock at its online store, it may suggest a purchase.

Less prominently advertised is the fact that SleepScore Labs owns the data collected by its proprietary hardware, representing some three million nights of its users’ sleep, and that the company’s long-term growth plan includes making this aggregated information available to healthcare providers. While that big data play will harness the slumber of SleepScore Max users for profit—potentially unsavoury to some—it may also grow the science of sleep.

“We know a lot about sleep disorders and about sleep in non-home, lab environments,” says Roy Raymann, VP of sleep science at SleepScore Labs. “But one of the things big data will reveal is sleep as we see it in a bedroom, night after night—and it may be totally different to the sleep reported in scientific journals.”

Then again, with the arrival of bean-shaped sleep robots and the advent of monitors X-raying our unconscious snoozings, sleep may never be the same again.