A stool pigeon you can trust

Everything’s vying to be smart nowadays: phones, apps, children’s toys, cars, refrigerators… Oh, and did I mention toilets? I suppose, as Ecclesiastes suggests, there is a time for everything. But, everything? Some things are just too private to be smart, don’t you think? I had rather hoped my ablutive proclivities would not be internet fodder -well, at least until my mortal coil had shuffled off the stage and my will was probated.

It all started with seat-design, I suppose. Novelty sells -who wouldn’t want a coloured seat? Or, once that was commonplace, a designer hole? Then, of course, the custom-sized, padded seat done up like a chesterfield. And in some chi-chi hotels, even music that played while seated (to avoid those embarrassing bathroom sounds).

It was only a matter of time before technology realized there was another niche. It did that with GPS, and now most of the apps on my phone track me wherever I go. They, however, are different from toilets, and I’m pretty sure my phone is not accurate enough to know whether it’s the kitchen or the bathroom I’m visiting. I’d need an special app for that, probably. Mind you I have to admit I don’t always read the interminable fine print you have to swear you’re aware of when you install them. Okay, I never read it, but if I want the app I have to tick the box anyway, right?

I mean, the idea behind (sorry) the smart toilet is in keeping with what they’re already accomplishing with smart-watches, and activity apps. I use an app for running and biking to keep track of distance as well as calories, for example. And since I can post it to Facebook to brag, I assume the same information could be channeled into some health-watchdog office somewhere. And yet while I can take pride in how many kilometres I’ve run on any particular day, and am happy to post the information for anybody who cares to check, a toilet is not really a rose by another name.

Nonetheless, I have to admit to a certain tittering curiosity when I came across an article in the Smithsonian magazine talking about a smart toilet that recognizes your bum: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/why-scientists-created-smart-toilet-recognizes-your-bum-180974641

You have to agree that it’s a catchy title -almost in the click-bait realm -and yet the subject matter is serious. A team of scientists out of Stanford University ‘has developed and tested a “smart toilet” that analyzes the users’ urine and feces to monitor for abnormalities that could signal certain diseases, infections or even certain cancers, such as colorectal or urologic cancers.’

And if that sounds a bit Orwellian, how about the fact that the toilet seat can recognize you? I mean, it doesn’t greet you or anything, but it scans, not your fingerprint, but your “anal print.” It turns out that anal prints are as unique as the finger variety. Who knew?

Uhmm, I don’t know about you, but that sounded a little creepy to me, and I’m not sure I’d want that particular print on file anywhere. Like, where does it all stop? There was a little candy thrown in to reassure elders like me, however: ‘the researchers assure that the tech is only used as a tool to match users to their data. According to a Stanford press release, “no one, not you or your doctor, will see the scans.”’

Still, it gets a bit icky: ‘the contraption uses motion sensors to record urination duration and pressure sensors to measure how long the users take to do their business… These sorts of measurements can help indicate illnesses like chronic constipation or irritable bowel syndrome.’ I suppose, but I think I’d rather tell my doctor about my symptoms in person, and judge by her face whether or not to be worried.

Also, I’m not keen on having CCTV in the loo -‘For those who pee standing up, dual high-speed cameras will also measure the velocity, flow and duration of their urine stream.’ Really? We used to have contests like that at summer camp when I was a kid. I never included the results in my letters home to my parents, though -we never told the counsellors either, for that matter.

Anyway, I think it may take a lot of salesmanship before it launches. A spokesperson for the team tried to be reassuring to the more modest among us who were taught from a very early age that there are certain things you simply do not share with friends even in the unlikely event that they ask. I would still blush if my mother asked me whether I’d washed my hands before I sat down at the table. And yet, even wearing the full panoply of Age’s blossoms, it seems to me that some activities are, and will remain, sacrosanct and therefore exempt from most full-disclosure entreaties.

It is with some relief (sorry) that the Stanford team felt that some more reassurance was in order. They have attempted to dispel some of our more intimate fears, at least for those abluting in the USA, ‘that all data will be secure and de-identified when it is uploaded to the cloud, in accordance with the Health Insurance Portability (I had to keep my fingers from typing ‘potty-ability’) and Accountability Act (HIPAA).’

I’m not sure if we have a Potty Act here in Canada yet, but if it catches on south of our border, it’s probably only a matter of time. Hopefully, it will not be coming soon to an airport washroom near me anytime soon. I have enough trouble hanging my coat, carry-on luggage, and computer on the little hook on the cubicle door without having to worry whether my derriere-print is in the national data base so the toilet is cleared to let me sit on it. I suppose they could always put the information in a bar-code on each passport, so that you’d kind of be able to clear your print before entering the lavatory.

On the other hand, unlike our southern neighbours, we have universal health care in this country. Maybe we could just skip the techno-pot and make an appointment to see the doctor if we’re having, uhmm, problems


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