“Everything these days is connected and smart, but I feel like the bathroom is a very untapped area."
By Kate Baggaley - NBC News
Bill Gates believes the humble toilet is overdue for an update.
For the past seven years, the Microsoft-CEO-turned-philanthropist has been calling for the development of low-cost, high-efficiency toilets that would bring effective sanitation to the world’s most impoverished areas. At a toilet expo in Beijing in November 2018, he held aloft a jar of human waste and told the audience, “We see ourselves on the cusp of a sanitation revolution.”
But if Gates is bullish on a new toilet for developing nations, other advocates are calling for a do-over of the bowls in bathrooms all around the world.
“Everything these days is connected and smart, but I feel like the bathroom is a very untapped area,” says Sameer Berry, a Los Angeles-based gastroenterologist-in-training who penned a recent essay on toilet technology. “There’s not been much innovation there for hundreds of years.”
Since the 1980s, Japanese companies have been selling high-tech toilets for home use that pamper users with calming music, heated seats and built-in bidets for cleaning up. More recently, researchers overseeing a European Union-funded project called iToilet have begun testing amenities for elderly and disabled people, including motorized toilets that adjust their position in response to voice commands and depth sensors that can detect if a person has fallen. However, several smart toilets are in the works that would go a step further by offering a window into the health of the people who use them. At least one Japanese firm already makes a smart toilet for use in hospitals; Toto’s “Flowsky” toilet looks like an ordinary toilet but is designed to check for abnormalities in urine flow that might signal bladder or prostate problems.
Berry envisions smart toilets for use in private residences. His dream is an internet-connected toilet that safeguards health by using discreetly placed sensors and artificial intelligence to analyze waste. Such a toilet could detect early signs of disease and help people manage chronic conditions such as diabetes.
“If they were all incorporated into one toilet we’d be able to get so much data from that — I think it would be incredible,” says Berry, who will start a gastroenterology fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor this year. “The opportunities are honestly endless.”
Smart toilets could even yield insights into public health, says Michael Lindenmayer, the smart sanitation and digital health co-lead at the Toilet Board Coalition, a consortium of businesses and nonprofits focused on improving sanitation worldwide. The Geneva-based nonprofit is working with the city of Pune in India and the European Space Agency to collect data from smart toilets in public bathrooms, as well as landscape and weather information from satellites. The goal is to give health officials evidence of a disease before it becomes a full-blown disaster, such as the West Africa Ebola epidemic in 2014.
“Scientists that we’re working with tell us we could have predicted that type of outbreak if we’d been monitoring what goes into our toilets,” says Cheryl Hicks, the organization’s executive director.
In waste, a wealth of data
There’s no doubt that human waste contains lots of clues about our health. Many ailments leave their mark in urine and feces, including diabetes, infections, kidney disease and cancer.
The telltale signs of trouble can be detected via cameras, chemical analysis, or other techniques, experts say. And smart toilets have a key advantage over Fitbits and other wearable health and fitness trackers: Users don’t need to remember to charge them or put them on.