iCarbonX is a tech company that builds digital twins, enabling users to experiment with lifestyle choices to help defeat disease
“I started teaching computers to learn during my undergraduate days when many of my peers were still treating the machine as a big calculator,” says Jun Wang, Founder of iCarbonX, a Chinese startup that specializes in the creation of a digital twin and AI-powered health monitoring system to advise people on healthier living and to predict and prevent diseases.
Wang believes life is a “learning program”. Scientifically, these learning programs are known as genomes with DNA as the code. Genomes in different species represent different survival strategies – the hundreds or even millions of years of evolution and interactions that the species had with their environment. By sequencing and reading these genomes, Wang believes it opens a window to understand the history of the species and the kind of learning processes they took over the years. “I built a digital lady beetle to examine its search for food for my college thesis,” he explains. “After conjuring up a relatively simple neural network and algorithms, I was delighted to see it behaving like a real lady beetle. It was a very striking learning experience for a 20-year-old.”
“But this is not enough,” Wang continues. “Although genomes give us a lot of information, we cannot study them alone.” He cites the fact that 30 years ago the majority of China was still living in poverty. The diabetes rate then was about 0.67% and now, 11% of the Chinese population is diabetic. “Genetics cannot change within 30 years or in a generation’s time,” Wang says. “Something must have happened during this period to cause the boom. It could be diet, lifestyle or even stress. Genome is a starting point; our genes tell us we are at risks of certain diseases when we were born but it’s our choices that ultimately increase or decrease the risks of these diseases.”
However, it’s impossible to make multiple lifestyle choices and predict the kind of outcomes that each of them has on us before deciding which is the best to follow. “I began to wonder,” Wang adds. “Can I build a ‘digital me’ to simulate myself like the way I built a digital lady beetle 25 years ago? That way I would be able to run various options on my avatar as if I am living in a parallel universe to assess which works best for me.”
It was that proposition that led Wang to found iCarbonX in 2015. He subsequently built a digital copy of himself using his genetic information and all the other details he could obtain from his everyday life. Wang and his team also asked many ‘what if’ questions (‘what if I eat less, what if I had taken this medication or what if I sleep more?’) to discover what would happen to the avatar when certain behaviors are adopted. “Typically, I may need to undergo a rigorous control experiment on myself for at least two weeks testing all kinds of food and activities on me, to check my body’s reactions,” Wang said. “AI shortens this supposed elongated process.”
Wang’s digital twin shows that he has a genetic defect. He is extremely at risk of gout. While Wang may look healthy now, his uric acid level was found to be double the normal range. Wang’s digital twin recommended him to drink a lot of burdock tea, a remedy derived from old Chinese wisdom. “I drank that tea for three months and my uric acid level was back to normal,” Wang said. “It works for me because this is not a solution obtained from the air but a result of advanced analytics on who I am and all the existing knowledge in the world. We cannot possibly be so efficient and personalized with traditional methods.”
iCarbonX released Meum, a digital health management platform in 2017, so the public is also able to reach their optimum health through AI and their digital twin. “Meum is a digital service that combines a database of genetics, molecular profiles, phenotype (physiological traits), lifestyle choices and behavior information and real-time insights to provide individuals with personalized solutions to any health concerns and the best ways to take care of their bodies,” Wang says. “Meum exists to keep users in their healthiest state.
“At iCarbonX, we aim to develop tools that empower people to make better health choices and pull all the available data to create an engine that learns more about our health and diseases, as well as others. Ten years ago, I wrote an essay in Science, encouraging people to ‘sequence yourself, for one and all’. Now, I’d say ‘Digitize yourself, for one and all’. When we make this ‘digital me’ into ‘digital we’, and try to form an ‘Internet of Life’, people can learn from one another’s data. We will be able to learn more about human beings, unlock the meaning of life and provide advice to people on how to live healthier and longer.”