A pair of hi-tech chopsticks might seem like a gimmicky contraption, but such a device has a legitimate use in China, which is why Chinese search company Baidu introduced its own prototype for a pair of smart chopsticks that can detect spoiled food.
At its annual Baidu World technology conference on Wednesday, the Chinese equivalent to Google unveiled a number of new devices that veer away from the company's software business, most interesting of which is the Baidu Kuaisou, a pair of smart chopsticks equipped with sensors that can detect certain levels of contamination in cooking oil, a commodity that is consistently in demand in China, where oil is seen as a symbol of wealth in bygone eras, and can be connected to the user's smartphone via an app that displays the results.
Originally introduced as an April fool's joke about a pair of chopsticks that could detect the ingredients in any dish, the actual device isn't as sophisticated but it can detect if the oil used for cooking is good oil.
"There was no serious intention of pursuing it as a product, but it generated quite a bit of buzz," says a Baidu representative. "We thought generally it's kind of quirky and timely considering concerns about food safety in China."
A video demonstration for the chopsticks show the device being dipped into a glass filled with olive oil, another with regular cooking oil and another in so-called gutter oil, or oil that has been recycled and resold masquerading as legitimate oil. The video shows the Baidu Kuaisou app giving a positive reading after being dipped in the olive oil and the regular cooking oil, but the chopsticks show a negative reading after being swirled in gutter oil.
Baidu CEO Robin Li says the chopsticks can detect the freshness of cooking oil by measuring indicators such as its pH level, peroxide value and temperature.
"In the future, via Baidu Kuaisou, you'll be able to know the origin of oil and water and other foods - whether they've gone bad and what sort of nutrition they contain," says Li.
China's food industry has had more than its fair share of food scandals, from virus-infected strawberries to meat painted with inedible pigments to make it look more appetizing. Recently, McDonald's and KFC had to pull out meat items from their menus after reports surfaced that the fast-food chains were using rotten meat from a Chinese supplier.
Zhong Nanshan, a health expert who discovered the SARS virus in 2003, says that up to 14 million tons of gutter oil were produced in China last year, with 3.5 million of these making it to dinner tables. And with huge demand driving up the cost of edible oil, it's not uncommon for restaurants to pinch pennies and use contaminated oil bought from the black market.
Baidu is not yet making the smart chopsticks available to the public and made it clear the device introduced on Wednesday was still a prototype.