If you thought they wouldn’t come around sniffing your poop, then you had a lot more trust in these people than you should have had.
For the past 10 years, Sonia Grego has been thinking about toilets – and more specifically what we deposit into them. “We are laser-focused on the analysis of stool,” says the Duke University research professor, with all the unselfconsciousness of someone used to talking about bodily functions. “We think there is an incredible untapped opportunity for health data. And this information is not tapped because of the universal aversion to having anything to do with your stool.”
As the co-founder of Coprata, Grego is working on a toilet that uses sensors and artificial intelligence to analyse waste; she hopes to have an early model for a pilot study ready within nine months. “The toilet that you have in your home has not functionally changed in its design since it was first introduced,” she says, in the second half of the 19th century. There are, of course, now loos with genital-washing capabilities, or heated seats, but this is basic compared with what Grego is envisaging. “All other aspects of your life – your electricity, your communication, even your doorbell – have enhanced capabilities.”
The toilet technology being developed by Joshua Coon’s academic lab is focused on urine, because it is easier to sample and analyse. He describes himself as “a smart toilet enthusiast”, rather than someone who is racing to get a product to market, although he says he is in talks with industry leaders. “There are several thousand known different small molecules that exist in urine and they give you insight into what’s going on,” says Coon, who is a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Similar developments have been made elsewhere. In 2018, Panasonic launched a smart toilet in China that tested urine and tracked body fat. This year, at the influential annual Consumer Electronics Show, the Japanese manufacturer Toto announced its “wellness toilet” – a concept, but something it is working on (it previously developed a toilet that analyses urine flow). Its sensors – including one for scent – would aim to detect health problems and conditions such as stress, but also make lifestyle suggestions. In one image provided by the company, it envisioned the toilet sending you a recipe for salmon and avocado salad.
Researchers at the Stanford School of Medicine have been working on technology that can analyse faeces (including “stool dropping time”) and track the velocity and colour of urine, as well as test it. An article this month in the Wall Street Journal reported that the researchers have partnered with Izen, a Korean toilet manufacturer, and hope to have prototypes by the end of the year. In order to differentiate between users, Izen developed a scanner that can recognise the physical characteristics of whoever is sitting on the toilet – or, in the words of the researchers, “the distinctive features of their anoderm” (the skin of the anal canal). Apparently, your “analprint”, like your fingerprints, is unique.
Vik Kashyap says we are ready for it (well, perhaps not scanners – in Stanford’s study of user acceptance, “the least favoured module is analprint”). Kashyap’s company, Toi Labs, has been working in the smart toilet space for about two decades and has a longstanding interest in gut health (he successfully treated his own ulcerative colitis by ingesting parasitic worms). He has seen other companies’ attempts at the smart toilet fail, but he thinks now may be the time. Not only has it become normal to track our data through wearables such as an Apple Watch or a Fitbit, but we are also less squeamish. Kashyap puts this down to the surge of interest and research in the microbiome and our gut health, including poo, which “has made this topic less of a taboo”.
Kashyap has developed a toilet seat, TrueLoo, which can be fixed to an existing toilet and recognises the user by their phone (one survey found that a majority of Britons take their phone to the loo) or a combination of physiological parameters: “What do they weigh? How are they sitting on the seat?” It then analyses excreta “using optical methods, looking at things like the volume, clarity, consistency, colour. It’s essentially understanding when someone has abnormal patterns and then it’s capable of documenting those patterns and providing reports that can be used by physicians to help in the treatment of a variety of conditions.”
Information from stool and urine samples could provide all sorts of information – your risk of disease, your diet, your exercise level; how much alcohol you drink and whether you take drugs. Even tracking something as trivial as the time of day you use the loo – regularly in the night, for instance, indicating sleeplessness – could reveal conditions such as depression or anxiety.
Where does it end? Could the police or others involved in surveillance track you by analprint, via the public and home smart lavatories you visit? Might you be asked to provide a print at a police station?
Yeah, they can also make sure that you’re eating your bugs, avoiding meat, and not ingesting ivermectin.
It is very, very important that you do not take any anti-parasitic drugs.
One thing we know for sure is that parasites are definitely not literally what they’re portrayed to be in the 2014 TV series called The Strain.
They can’t influence human behavior, so stay away from ivermectin and don’t try anything stupid. We need to turn toilets into spying devices to make sure you’re not putting yourself at risk by killing your parasites and eating meat.