Do you want a toilet that sends you recipes? Toto, the Japanese toilet maker, showed off a concept toilet at CES 2021 that would measure a person’s “outputs” and then send them suggestions. One notification suggested the user had an unbalanced diet and shared a link to a salad recipe. When asked about what, exactly, the prospective toilet could actually measure, Toto’s marketing representatives became vague. And yet, Toto isn’t alone.
The concept of a smart toilet has been with us for a while, despite most people’s reluctance to discuss what happens in their bathrooms and a general reluctance to share that data with big companies or potential hackers. Kohler has a smart toilet that connects to Amazon’s Alexa and can flush on verbal command, for example. It also has a bidet and ambient lighting. But it doesn’t analyze your poop.
The combination of “smart” gadgetry and wellness come full circle in the Toto concept as well as in a planned smart toilet proposed in March by Utah company Medic.Life, which would also track people’s waste and then share health data with them based on the analysis. But while smart toilets are certainly something to aspire to, installing them in homes for individuals’ use isn’t.
The real benefit of a smart toilet isn’t personal; it’s public. As in public health. But, as I do with so many other smart devices already on the market, I worry that the businesses behind them are building for consumers when they really should be building for the public good. Companies do this because there are so few incentives aimed at driving R&D for the public good. But trying to apply the benefits of large-scale data collection at an individual level misses a lot of benefits we could derive from the internet of things.
Smart toilets are a perfect example. They could benefit both public health and water conservation. On the medical front, installing smart toilets in nursing homes, hospitals, and other medical settings makes a ton of sense. It’s a non-intrusive way to monitor patient health and eliminate a routine task from harried lab and nursing staff. This is what the IoT is made for.
Having a device report that a patient is dehydrated or that they haven’t pooped in a week is relevant, and doesn’t require a lot of high-end sensors. As sensors become more advanced, a toilet might be able to detect fragments of viral DNA (like COVID-19) or the presence of drugs. However, a better home for such a sensor is likely in neighborhood wastewater plants, given their cost and the fact that they are currently designed for one-time detection.
Making a multi-use, flushable sensor that could detect disease or specific compounds would be a feat. I suppose someone might invent a disposable detection tab that can monitor for a specific item and then get flushed away after communicating its findings.
But if we don’t want to flush electronics, how a toilet should communicate its findings becomes a challenge. Maybe a camera could detect a color change. After all, Stanford scientists have already installed a camera and done research on identifying people based on their anus. The research was mocked, but it actually has relevance, because in a toilet used by multiple people in a hospital setting, medical staff would want to ensure that the measurements taken by the smart toilet are linked to the correct person.
Obviously, smart toilets of Toto’s imagining have a long way to go before they can detect what’s missing from your diet. Plus, that sort of research should be done in a setting where its cost can be spread out over many different users, and for reasons that go beyond curiosity.
But the other role for smart toilets is worth investing in today. Toilets consume about 27% of a home’s water, and somewhere between 10% and 20% of toilets leak, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency and various city water departments. Those leaks can waste up to 1,000 gallons a day per home.
A simple sensor attached to the toilet’s water line could detect those leaks. Leak sensors could also be integrated into the smart toilet, alerting users whenever the flapper starts deteriorating or there’s another type of leak. This use of sensors is easy to implement, but currently that doesn’t happen.
Meanwhile, toilet sensors highlight a big issue with the IoT. Companies are often so focused on marketing futuristic scenarios they leave any real benefits behind. Smart toilets could be installed this year that make a huge impact on water conservation while companies invest in sensors designed for use in medical or wastewater facilities that can analyze people’s stool — not to send them recipes, but to impact public health.
Instead we get a concept toilet that seems to be focused on meeting our narcissistic desire to have someone analyze our shit.