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UNESCO has declared the third Thursday of November World Philosophy Day. The United Nations (of which UNESCO is part) has designated November 19 as World Toilet Day. This week, World Toilet Day and World Philosophy Day fell on the same day. Evidently, this prompted me to philosophize about toilets.

The corona crisis triggered the worldwide hoarding of toilet paper. So, the University of Groningen launched a video series entitled ‘Philosophy and Corona’: Among other things, philosophers analyzed in a number of short films the role of experts in a democracy. But the hoarding of toilet paper was also subjected to interpretation, along with some insights from game theory. Philosophy undeniably leads to new perspectives on familiar and ostensibly banal matters.

‘Wastewater surveillance’

In sewage, ‘wastewater surveillance’ is used to investigate how diseases spread. In the Netherlands, for instance, regional results are publicly available and updated every week. If we bring ‘smart toilets’ into our homes in the future, it will be possible to detect disease markers in urine and stools more quickly. In order to trace data back to individuals, the smart toilet identifies people via fingerprints when they flush. The data could be sent directly to healthcare providers and added to personal electronic health records.

Of course, unless the smart toilet would also include other identifiable information, it will be easy to fool the technology, as another person could flush the toilet. To tackle this problem, researchers and developers at Stanford University have included other recognition systems: Anal recognition. As it turns out, anal prints are just as unique and identifiable as fingerprints, so that means there will be a camera in the toilet bowl.

Pressure on healthcare systems

The development of the smart toilet is still in its infancy. It will only gain added value if it is evidence-based. A smart toilet may seem attractive in times of a global pandemic (to get quick diagnoses), but it can also lead to unnecessary concerns and additional diagnostic tests, which in turn entail high costs that put pressure on healthcare systems.

And here, obviously, questions concerning privacy can be asked as well. What happens to the data? This question may seem far-fetched at the moment, but the smart toilet may one day become part of standard bathroom equipment. Big Brother might also be watching you in the smallest room. Are you already getting a little uncomfortable?

Over deze column

In a weekly column, written alternately by Wendy van Ierschot, Eveline van Zeeland, Eugene Franken, Jan Wouters, Katleen Gabriels, Mary Fiers, and Hans Helsloot, Innovation Origins tries to find out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally supplemented with guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions for the problems of our time. So tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous articles.

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About the author

Author profile picture Katleen Gabriels is a moral philosopher specializing in computer ethics at Maastricht University. She conducts research into the relationships between morality and computer technologies.