Thursday, September 4, 2014

Technology Enables Living with a Problem, Rather than Solving It

Apparently inspired by Google, the Chinese search company Baidu is now branching into innovating products. According to a report on the BBC News Web site, one of the first steps in that direction has been the announcement of a new electronic implementation of "smart" chopsticks. Stripping away the hype, this amounts to building sensors into a chopstick. In the first release the sensors do not detect very much, temperature and sodium content are the two properties names specifically in the article. The long-range plan, however, is that a single chopstick should be endowed with enough sensors to let you know whether or not your food is safe to eat.

China seems to share with the United States a common predicament regarding food safety. This amounts to the extent to which any regulatory authorities that are created almost immediately find themselves in an arms race with the food processing industry. It is as if the latter has decided that it is more profitable to evade regulation, rather than commit to obeying it. Thus we now have a technology whose long-term goal is to compensate for the fact that regulators are always on the losing side of this battle.

Needless to say, it is unlikely that this new technology will be cheap. Indeed, we shall probably see soon enough a direct correlation between "smart" and "expensive." At some point, probably in the near future, only the rich will be protected from the foibles of the food processing industry. However, ours being a democratic society, the poor will still have a choice: be smart enough to eat what is safe without the assistance of technology or die of food poisoning.

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