Asked to choose the most important piece of technology in the home, you might expect people to name their computer, smart phone or television. For those who are more concerned about saving time rather than filling it, the washing machine or dishwasher might spring to mind. All good answers, but wrong.
The device that really should take the prize, the one has been around the longest, that we use more often and has more impact on our health, wellbeing and comfort, is lurking in the corner of the bathroom - the lavatory. A device that is so humble you could argue it doesn’t really have its own name. After all, do its various monikers: lavatory, bog, khazi and so on, denote the room or the device? Or both? It can be hard to tell.
What is more obvious is the enduring genius of the device. The flushing toilet was invented in the 16th Century by Sir John Harrington (godson of Elizabeth I). However, it wasn’t until 1775 that Alexander Cummings added the u-bend and then 1858 and the Great Stink in London when things really took off. In response to the foul sewage problems of the day, the Government commissioned London’s sewer network, and one Thomas Crapper exploited the situation by patenting a range of flushing toilets.
And there we have it. For over 150-years the technology behind the flushing toilet has been faithfully serving mankind with a barely a tweak to its fundamental design.
Until now that is.
Because now, the loo, like all things, is getting ‘smart’ and doing so in ways that could have a major impact on our health.
Researchers working in multiple locations across the world, including Stanford University, have been developing toilets that can analyse our biological waste and diagnose a range of serious medical conditions, including cancer, kidney disease and diabetes. The toilet can even analyse sleep patterns, exercise patterns and what over-the-counter medication someone has taken. The toilet can also identify different users by scanning the one part of the anatomy that is always presented to the bowl. (It turns out that this particular part of the anatomy is as individual as a fingerprint. Who knew? Until now, who cared?)
So the sample results can be matched to the individual. Wired up to the internet the results can be fed in real time to the appropriate medical practitioner or the ubiquitous App or other software. The genius of the system is not just that it can detect potentially life threatening conditions, but also that it can monitor, in real time, subtle changes to underlying conditions.
This diagnostic application of the ‘big data’ revolution that is sweeping other parts of our lives could be one of the most important changes in medical care that we are going through. It is already happening through other day to day technologies, think of devices such as smart watches monitoring our vital signs. The technology is now there for toilets to come of age as a medical diagnostic tool.
Issues will have to be ironed out, privacy concerns for example, and cost. But the technology is now in place. It’s just a question of finding the appropriate way to roll it out. On a larger scale some of this work is already being used in the real world. International studies are underway to test sewage water for traces of Covid-19. If the test results are reliable the data could provide the most accurate way of identifying local outbreaks of the virus way before any test and trace data becomes available.
So next time you flush the toilet, spare a thought. Before long, what is travelling around that u-bend could save your life.