Microsoft's big data-like study on sleep proves what doctors already know

The company finds out what every doctor knows: Sleep deprivation takes its toll.

woman sleeping with yellow alarm clock in dark room
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We hear it from doctors, both allopathic and holistic, all the time: people don’t get enough sleep and it hurts them during the day. It even has long-term consequences. Now Microsoft is saying the same thing thanks to a big data project and some volunteers.

The researchers combed through data from 75 million keystrokes and clicks on Microsoft’s Bing search engine made by more than 30,000 volunteers wearing a Microsoft Band, which records bodily activity, including sleep. 

The research found that even a little sleep deprivation has a serious effect. Notably, results show that people who got less than six hours of sleep two nights in a row are sluggish for the next six days.

The study also shows that staying up an extra hour, even if followed by a full night’s sleep, has the effect of slower performance the next day. Going to bed an hour earlier than normal, however, has a negligible effect.

“When you don’t sleep well, it affects your cognitive performance, which means your work performance and lots of other things,” said Tim Althoff, who led the research during a summer 2016 internship with Microsoft’s research organization in Redmond. “There is something not only about the duration of sleep, but also the timing.”

Data from user calendars, which volunteers could link to their Microsoft Band, also proved insightful. “We can tell you things like if you have a packed day, you tend to sleep less well the night after,” said Ryen White, chief technology officer for health intelligence at Microsoft Health.

Microsoft could also detect a correlation between circadian rhythm and performance in users, with users searching faster in the morning than in the afternoon, and worse if they searched when they should be sleeping. Keystrokes and click speeds were worst at 4 a.m., when you should definitely be asleep.

Ironic, then, that Microsoft has effectively killed off Band and is no longer working on it. Going forward, White said, the hope is to apply the technique to all web users based purely on their Web interactions, so no Band will be required.

Microsoft plans to continue to perform these studies, which makes for good corporate responsibility. Technology is widely viewed as the cause of sleep deprivation as it is, with people staying up all hours using computers and gadgets.

Sleep experts have been screaming from the rooftops about this, trying to get people to stop using their devices for a few hours before bed time and filtering blue light from electronic devices at night. Then again, I have one of those blue light filter glasses and it’s a pain to wear over my reading glasses and really makes things look wonky.

But there is little doubt we have to learn to live in balance with our technology. I’ve felt the effects more than once of gaming right up to bedtime, then lying there completely unable to relax, much less fall asleep. Maybe if the warning comes from Microsoft and other tech firms people might pay more attention.

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for a nap.

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