Your Toilet Is Next

With the release of the Apple Watch came the announcement that the data it gathers will be handed over to IBM for analysis by its Watson supercomputer, the anonymized data seemingly to be crunched to generate a clinical output useful to the medical professions and insurers.

That such data, from such devices, be gathered and used in some manner such as this is in itself not surprising—indeed it was predictable. But where is it all going?

Well, your wrist isn’t going to be enough, that’s for sure. It offers a fair amount—heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure and location all being straightforward—but it is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the real prize on offer.

Soon enough those hungry data eyes are going to settle their gaze on your toilet—water closet, latrine, bog, crapper, john…or whatever you choose to call it in your part of the world.

The proposition will be straightforward—a device will be installed in your toilet that will analyse the various excretions deposited there. Every time someone uses the facility they will in effect have an up-to-the-minute urine and/or stool sample tested, yielding alerts on a whole range of conditions whose treatment can benefit enormously from such early indicators.

And the hook? Well, you can have such a device installed for free, they will say. And with half a dozen or so standard signals—liver function, cholesterol, sugar level, white cell count and the like. It will even get you discounts on medical insurance.

The catch? Well, in exchange the provider gets all your data—the term all referring to the much wider spectrum of data the device is capable of gathering than the limited set offered to you for free—but for which you can pay a modest daily fee if you wish.

The data collected will, of course, be anonymized—to re-assure you that your personal circumstances won’t fall into the hands of insurers and other, questionable, organisations.

Anonymized or not this will sound horrifying to some. A level of monitoring hitherto not seen in society. But there will be powerful forces in play to make it happen, and they will not be primarily commercial ones.

First, for many, the offer will simply be too good to refuse on health grounds alone. Indeed—how could you justify not accepting? This could eventually translate into an effective requirement for medical insurance –unless you can afford to pay a wholly impractical fee, you will need to subscribe to this.

Secondly, governments will quickly wake up to the public health benefits, seeking to legislate for mandatory use. In the UK, for example, we have a public health service that is free at the point of delivery—and it is fabulously expensive to run. Having a comprehensive view of the nation’s health that is accurate up to the minute would provide for unprecedented levels of anticipation and planning. For example, the emergence of winter flu could be detected and tracked region by region, with emergency departments staffed accordingly and efficiently.

It won’t be just public health services that would benefit. Drug companies will be much better positioned to produce the right medicines at the right time. Governments will have early warning system for pandemics as well as general public health issues.

The costs savings would be enormous.

How will all of this come about? Governments can legislate, but they are rarely able to roll out such sweeping reforms.

The answer is that it will be like the Internet. There will be no upfront plan or strategy, it will just sort of happen of its own accord. In the beginning it will be big business simply going after the data for its commercial value. The governments will step in when critical mass is achieved, with those same commercial enterprises unlikely to be happy about that.

So who’s coming after your toilet? Its most likely going to be a consumer aligned enterprise—someone already skilled at engaging with the people of the world in their very homes. So not the likes of IBM or Oracle.

I think it will be Google. We are talking toilets here and that won’t be cool enough for Apple and not business orientated (no pun intended) enough for the likes of Microsoft.

A good rendition on this subject, albeit taken to a whole other level, is Greg Bear’s Slant. A worthy read from which I have drawn for this post.