On April 1, Baidu released a video announcing its development of a pair of “smart chopsticks” that could detect gutter oil, the infamous reclaimed cooking oil widely circulated on the black market. Initially dismissed as a creative April Fool’s prank by the IT giant, industry followers were stunned by the serious announcement about its upcoming release.
At the Baidu World Conference on September 3, Baidu officially announced Kuaisou, its upcoming chopsticks that can divine the origins of any food after being paired with a smart device.
“Kuaisou uses highly-sensitive sensors to scan food for the presence of gutter oil, identify the pH value of drinking water and search out the real origins of fruits,” said by Robin Lee, the company’s CEO.
Lee said later features would be able to detect illegal additives in mooncakes and spot milk that has been contaminated with melamine, the industrial compound that injured and killed numerous children when vendors slipped it into baby formula in 2008.
The combination of tableware and digital technology is a bold step, and one that is especially encouraging given the image of Chinese IT firms as copycats.
But whether Baidu Kuaisou is more conceptual than practical is a big question.
While many other “smart” devices have been criticized for trying to meet user demands that don’t exist, Kuaisou seems to have struck the Chinese market’s demand with the accuracy of an acupuncture needle.
“Waves of smart devices have raised eyebrows, but few have actually suited users’ needs. The design philosophy of Baidu Kuaisou could be regarded as a creative attempt to connect a physical product with an emotional demand,” said by Zhao Lei, a writer for Business Value.
That “emotional demand” is the expectation of safe food.
In spite of laws and oversight agencies, the Chinese food industry is a wild frontier where dishonest practices pose low risk and offer vast rewards.
In only the last five years, Chinese diners have had to contend with everything from mutton-flavored pork to poisoned milk. However, gutter oil is by far the most heinous.
More than 14 million tons of gutter oil were produced in China last year. Some 3.5 million tons ended up in the hands of small restaurants, according to a study by Zhong Nanshan, a health expert at the Chinese Academy of Engineering.
The distribution of such unsafe products has understandably increased the public’s anxiety. The arrival of Kuaisou offers a chance to fix a problem that regulators have been unwilling or unable to tackle, Zhao said.
“If these chopsticks help us to identify and avoid harmful foods, the industry will have no choice but to change its practices if it hopes to stay in business,” said a man surnamed Liu who has preordered a pair of Kuaisou.
But critics say Baidu will have a hard time ensuring the accuracy of its newest gadget.
“There is no standard way to test for gutter oil because its composition is so incredibly varied. Simply testing the TPM (total polar materials), the only acknowledged common component of gutter oil, is not scientific,” said an insider who refused to be named.
“The TPM of all oils rises significantly when heated,” meaning testing the TPM value of prepared food is pointless, he said.
Identifying the origin of fruits is also problematic, said Fei Xue, a molecular biologist who studies plants. Near infrared sensors might offer some data, but it is impossible to interpret without significant field work to collect and catalog the spectral patterns emitted by fruits grown in different locations, she said.
Users who depend on the unreliable readings could even be placing themselves at greater risk, she said.
The release of Baidu Kuaisou won’t make food safer, said Heather Timmons, the technology editor at Quartz. On the contrary, it will only further erode public trust in the domestic food industry, she said.
“Technology exists to simplify problems. What digital devices should focus on is to achieve subtle improvements for a better and healthier life,” the Wall Street Journal said in an editorial.
Earlier this year, Google announced it had taken over Lift Labs, a tableware firm that is developing a smart spoon. Rather than reshape the entire food industry, Lift Labs has the simpler goal of helping people with Parkinson’s disease to eat without embarrassing spills.
The Lift Wear records the frequency of a user’s tremors and adjusts itself to vibrate at a similar rhythm. For 70 percent of the users, this helps offset the hand tremors that make dining an embarrassing affair. The Lift Wear can be connected to forks, knives and keys.
Baidu Kuaisou may need to scale back its dreams if it wants to deliver a similarly reliable product .