Stanford scientists engineer a ‘smart toilet' that checks your health

The smart toilet can analyze urine and stool samples for disease markers and can even recognize an individual user's "analprint".

Stanford scientists engineer a ‘smart toilet' that checks your health
  • The toilet has played an important role in the history of sanitation and health.
  • Stanford scientists have developed a "smart toilet" technology that analyzes a person's urine and stool samples for disease markers.
  • The toilet could assist health care professionals by collecting valuable data that is typically flushed down the drain.

The toilet holds a special place in the history of health. For most of that history, people collected their waste in cesspits, chamber pots, or the occasional pigsty, all precariously close to where they lived and what they ate. This meant our ancestors were never far from whipworm, cholera, typhoid, giardia, and the cavalcade of other pathogens that call feces home.

The earliest flushing toilets only appeared around 4,000 years ago, courtesy of the Minoan and Indus Valley civilizations. And while much is made today of ancient Rome's plumbing prowess, the Romans were no strangers to the micro-nasties mentioned above. May have had something to do with the sponge on a stick used for wiping in public latrines—which, yes, was also for public use.

By the mid-18th century, inventors began crafting the mechanisms that would make the modern toilet possible. After that, a businessman named Thomas Crapper—his real name, though he is not the namesake of the euphemism—promoted and popularized the indoor water closet.

Since then, most of the advances in toilet technology have occurred downstream, erm, flush. Granted, the Japanese have stepped up the toilet game, incorporating heated seats, app functionality, and Bach string quartets into the experience. But these are chic accouterments to an otherwise set porcelain blueprint.

That changed with a new study out of Stanford.

Going to see a doctor about a horse

An image and diagram showing where the smart toilet's pressure sensor and stool camera are located.

(Source: Nature Biomedical Engineering)

Stanford researchers have completed a pilot study of their new "smart toilet" technology. The technology monitors user health through a suite of gadgets that evaluate urine and stool, well, samples.

The researchers published their findings in Nature Biomedical Engineering earlier this month.

"Our concept dates back well over 15 years," Sanjiv Gambhir, professor of radiology at Stanford and the study's senior author, said in a release. "When I'd bring it up, people would sort of laugh because it seemed like an interesting idea, but also a bit odd."

In truth, the researchers haven't designed a new toilet. They've outfitted a classic porcelain seat with an assortment of automated sensors and cameras to record the powder room happenings.

"It's sort of like buying a bidet add-on that can be mounted right into your existing toilet," Gambhir said. "And like a bidet, it has little extensions that can carry out different purposes."

The smart toilet uses pressure and motion sensors to track the frequency and duration of a user's restroom visits. A set of cameras then capture the deposits on video, while algorithms process the imagery to distinguish between healthy bowel movements and those showing signs of disease.

Urine is analyzed through urodynamics, which looks at the flow, rate, and magnitude of the stream. The stool is analyzed with the Bristol stool scale, which reviews consistency.

The toilet is also equipped with a urinalysis stick. This "dipstick test" can analyze urine for acidity, protein levels, white blood cell count, blood contamination, and other biomarkers.

The algorithms then compile the data for a preliminary diagnosis and send them directly to a health care provider's record-keeping system. These data could recognize the early signs for a host of diseases, such as kidney failure, irritable bowel syndrome, and colorectal cancer, much sooner than with traditional doctor visits.

And a major advantage to such a biometric device, Gambhir points out, is that it can't be duped by human interference or lack of commitment. Because everyone poops, it provides continuous health monitoring.

"The thing about a smart toilet, though, is that unlike wearables, you can't take it off," he said. "Everyone uses the bathroom—there's really no avoiding it—and that enhances its value as a disease-detecting device."

Yes, but does it have butt-recognition technology?

A mascot for the 2014 "Toilet!? Human Waste and Earth's Future" exhibition in Tokyo.

(Photo: Keith Tsuji/Getty Images)

Obviously! There wouldn't be much point otherwise.

Since a house toilet will be used by a variety of people, Gambhir and his team had to devise a way for the technology to keep medical profiles distinct. They first added a fingerprint scanner to the flushing lever, and while it remains in the final design, they soon realized it wasn't enough. After all, if someone forgets to flush and another person flushes for them? Or the toilet has an automatic flush? That's valuable data down the drain.

So Gambhir and his team did the logical thing: They added a camera to the smart toilet that scans a user's anus to ensure health data is matched to the proper derriere.

Turns out a person's anal creases are as unique to them as the whorls on their fingerprints. That's because the pattern and number of creases are genetically determined, meaning only identical twins will have the same "analprint."

To assuage privacy concerns, the team secures all data transmission with end-to-end encryption that is HIPAA-compliant. Another approach is to use an infrared camera or low-intensity laser scanner, which allows the algorithm to produce an ID but does not produce a conventional image.

Interestingly, the idea of identifying people based on their analprint was not original to the team. According to study author Seung-min Park, the idea was borrowed from painter Salvador Dali, who studied anal creases for his unconventional erotic art.

Waste not

We've come a long way since the hydraulic sewage system of the ancient Indus Valley civilizations.

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

All told, 21 participants used the smart toilet during the pilot run. For the next study, Gambhir and his team are hoping to increase number of participants, add new stool analysis features, and improve existing ones.

"The smart toilet is the perfect way to harness a source of data that's typically ignored – and the user doesn't have to do anything differently," Gambhir said.

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A close up of Bathynomus raksasa

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Volcanoes to power bitcoin mining in El Salvador

The first nation to make bitcoin legal tender will use geothermal energy to mine it.

Credit: Aaron Thomas via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

In June 2021, El Salvador became the first nation in the world to make bitcoin legal tender. Soon after, President Nayib Bukele instructed a state-owned power company to provide bitcoin mining facilities with cheap, clean energy — harnessed from the country's volcanoes.

The challenge: Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency, a digital form of money and a payment system. Crypto has several advantages over physical dollars and cents — it's incredibly difficult to counterfeit, and transactions are more secure — but it also has a major downside.

Crypto transactions are recorded and new coins are added into circulation through a process called mining.

Crypto mining involves computers solving incredibly difficult mathematical puzzles. It is also incredibly energy-intensive — Cambridge University researchers estimate that bitcoin mining alone consumes more electricity every year than Argentina.

Most of that electricity is generated by carbon-emitting fossil fuels. As it stands, bitcoin mining produces an estimated 36.95 megatons of CO2 annually.

A world first: On June 9, El Salvador became the first nation to make bitcoin legal tender, meaning businesses have to accept it as payment and citizens can use it to pay taxes.

Less than a day later, Bukele tweeted that he'd instructed a state-owned geothermal electric company to put together a plan to provide bitcoin mining facilities with "very cheap, 100% clean, 100% renewable, 0 emissions energy."

Geothermal electricity is produced by capturing heat from the Earth itself. In El Salvador, that heat comes from volcanoes, and an estimated two-thirds of their energy potential is currently untapped.

Why it matters: El Salvador's decision to make bitcoin legal tender could be a win for both the crypto and the nation itself.

"(W)hat it does for bitcoin is further legitimizes its status as a potential reserve asset for sovereign and super sovereign entities," Greg King, CEO of crypto asset management firm Osprey Funds, told CBS News of the legislation.

Meanwhile, El Salvador is one of the poorest nations in North America, and bitcoin miners — the people who own and operate the computers doing the mining — receive bitcoins as a reward for their efforts.

"This is going to evolve fast!"
NAYIB BUKELE

If El Salvador begins operating bitcoin mining facilities powered by clean, cheap geothermal energy, it could become a global hub for mining — and receive a much-needed economic boost in the process.

The next steps: It remains to be seen whether Salvadorans will fully embrace bitcoin — which is notoriously volatile — or continue business-as-usual with the nation's other legal tender, the U.S. dollar.

Only time will tell if Bukele's plan for volcano-powered bitcoin mining facilities comes to fruition, too — but based on the speed of things so far, we won't have to wait long to find out.

Less than three hours after tweeting about the idea, Bukele followed up with another tweet claiming that the nation's geothermal energy company had already dug a new well and was designing a "mining hub" around it.

"This is going to evolve fast!" the president promised.

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How Pfizer and BioNTech made history with their vaccine
Sponsored by Pfizer
  • Wondering how Pfizer and partner BioNTech developed a COVID-19 vaccine in record time without compromising safety? Dr Bill Gruber, SVP of Pfizer Vaccine Clinical Research and Development, explains the process from start to finish.
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  • The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine has not been approved or licensed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but has been authorized for emergency use by FDA under an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) to prevent COVID-19 for use in individuals 12 years of age and older. The emergency use of this product is only authorized for the duration of the emergency declaration unless ended sooner. See Fact Sheet: cvdvaccine-us.com/recipients.

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