How soon is too soon for two strangers to look at pictures of poop together? Because Seung-min Park and I just met 20 minutes ago, and we’re now scrolling through the “poop” subreddit.
Park is an instructor and biomedical engineer in the urology department at Stanford University, and he’s also the lead inventor of a new kind of toilet that connects to an app and offers direct feedback on the health and makeup of your pee and poop – a smart toilet. The photos he’s showing me aren’t a gross way to make a point. Park fed nearly 30,000 of them to the artificial-intelligence technology that will be linked to the smart toilet so it could learn to recognise healthy versus unhealthy number ones and twos.
On its brilliantly white and very clean surface, Park’s smart toilet doesn’t look like anything special: on the outside, it’s pretty much like the one you already have at home. But look closer and it’s blinged out with LED lights, cameras and even a fingerprint scanner on the handle. Together, all these tools will collect health data and alert you if something’s up on the corresponding app. There’s a lot of information we can dig up from urine and stool, but we’re just flushing it away, he tells me.
That data could reveal basic health hiccups such as dehydration, urinary tract infections (UTIs) and kidney stones. And the info could also alert you to more serious stuff, like colon and prostate cancers, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and even COVID. And Park isn’t the only one after this data: bowl analytics is having a bit of an arms race at the moment. Researchers at Duke are also working on a smart toilet that will screen stool for biomarkers that can point to colon cancer, IBS and other health issues, and the Japanese company Toto says it’ll have one on the market in a few years.
All you have to do is, well, go about your business. But how much can we really learn when we let companies snoop in our poop? And do we need a fancy bathroom fixture to do it?
From Gross to Genius
A couple of years ago, the smart-toilet concept was a tough sell. Park remembers his mentors brushing off the idea, saying it was interesting but ultimately too gross. Then, spurred by COVID-induced toilet-paper shortages, interest in bidets exploded, and all of a sudden people didn’t mind talking about toilet business. Turning more attention to the bowl is a boom in microbiome research that “has made it apparent just how important the organisms living in our gut really are,” says Joshua J. Coon, a professor of biomolecular chemistry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Factor in interest in wearable trackers, and people started giving a shit about smart toilets. That included the formerly bathroom-shy science community Park encountered when he was first thinking about the concept.
Last September, an editorial in a prominent journal, Nature Reviews, cited two of Park’s studies and made a bold demand: “We need to talk about poo. Everybody does it, and research into defecation and associated disorders deserves more attention.” That’s right: it’s finally happening.
Coon believes toilets could be the next frontier of health tracking and disease prevention. “If you think about what made smartwatches a success, it’s that you didn’t have to change what you do,” he says. “You just put it on and it’s always measuring for you.” Same with these; you get effortless continuous data. What goes down the pipes is already being mined for data by companies checking community wastewater for diseases like COVID. It helps them figure out where to bolster testing and helps forecast clinical resource needs. In your own bathroom, the data’s a lot more personal.
Park’s smart toilet, a collaboration with the Korean company Izen, should be available in the US early next year, priced in the $500-$800 range. Here’s how the debut model will work: first, an LED strip turns on to light up the bowl, casting a bluish glow inside. When you go, cameras (which point down) capture the colour, speed and duration of the urine stream. If you poop, they’ll also take a picture of it. All this info is sent to a secure server, where Park’s AI technology compares it with thousands of images to figure out if anything’s up or not. The results get delivered straight to the toilet’s accompanying app. You’ll know if you have any symptoms of constipation, a UTI, an IBD or IBS.
“There’s a lot of information we can dig up… but we’re just flushing it away”
While the first version’s insights will be pretty limited, Park is aiming to make the next gen a little smarter. He envisions a toilet that has a urine test strip plus a way to sample stool to test for colon cancer, prostate cancer and COVID. He thinks that a future version could give you diet advice, such as more fibre or less red meat. It could even test your microbiome.
Yet the question remains: do you need a smart toilet to do all this? “The reality is that you can get a lot of information by just peeking inside the bowl on your own,” says gastroenterologist Dr Felice Schnoll-Sussman, at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. For example, it’s fairly easy to spot dehydration. Schnoll-Sussman says that urine darker than pale yellow is a sign to drink more water. Constipation is usually a no-brainer, too, she adds. “If you see hard, pebble-like stools, haven’t gone in a few days, or are straining to go, you’re probably backed up.” And if you’re already taking a look, keep colon-cancer red flags in mind: thin, pencillike stools and bloody number twos. Park thinks his first-gen toilet will appeal to biohacker types or those with chronic gut issues. “People with IBS and IBD often have to monitor their stool, and the smart toilet can do that for them with more accuracy,” he says.
Biochemist Coon still considers Park’s design a good start. “But there’s a limited amount of things that images can tell you,” he says. “I think the lion’s share of value is going to be in making molecular measurements that can tell you about health and lifestyle. We just need a lot more studies before that happens.”
Maybe smart toilets are where smartphones started – going from not-sure-you-needed-one to simply-gotta-have. Let’s just hope these don’t involve oversharing.
What gut tests can tell you
Until smart toilets arrive, a number of at-home kits can help you decode your symptoms.
Colovantage screens for bowel cancer. Suitable for people with no obvious disease symptoms, it can find polyps or cancer early when treatment would be easier. It’s simple, non-invasive and highly accurate, and involves no dietary restrictions by way of prep. Recommended for people over the age of 50. (colovantage.com.au)
The Complete Sensitivity Bioresonance Test Kit (checkmybodyhealthaustralia.com) tests for food and non-food triggers that may be behind any gut issues you have. Includes elimination-diet advice.
ZOE… to the rescue
This tests your microbiome and provides dietary recommendations with the aim of helping you balance your gut microbes for energy and weight loss. (joinzoe.com)
If you want to know whether a parasite is behind your gastro issues, you should probably see a doc. But you could start with this, which also assesses your digestive markers. (i-screen.com.au).
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