Chopsticks of the Future?


By Zach Schepis

Photo courtesy of Orin Zebest.

Today, “smart” has become synonymous with innovative. Even to something as ancient, and as seemingly simple, as chopsticks can become “smart.”

Baidu, a Chinese equivalent to Google, held its annual world conference last month, where they showcased a variety of technological oddities that strayed from their usual conventions. Among the Baidu Eye (a potential rival to Google Glass) CEO Robin Li introduced the Baidu Kuaisou–the “smart” chopstick.

So what exactly are “smart chopsticks?”

These electronic utensils can detect the safety of any particular food they are immersed in. Sensors within the chopsticks read the food’s temperature, PH levels, and even caloric count. The results are then displayed digitally on a smartphone app designed specifically for Kuaisou users.

The chopsticks flash a red light when the substance has a reading of 25 percent or more of the total polar materials–which is an indicator of freshness. A blue LED at the top of the sticks allow for onsite readings.

A Baidu representative admitted that there were never any serious intentions to actually pursue the product. The idea began as a quirky April Fool’s joke that imagined a futuristic pair of chopsticks with the ability to detect the ingredients in any meal. Ironically, the idea actually developed into its physical form.

Jian, a chef for Chu’s Gourmet Restaurant in Brooklyn, considers the fundamental essence of traditional chopsticks.

“You appreciate the simplicity, the silence, and connection to the meal,” Jian describes. “These new sticks sound like they would change that.”

Jian, who has been a chef for over fifteen years, isn’t the only one skeptical about the funky new culinary advent. Traditional Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, Korean, and Vietnamese cultures have been utilizing the age-old utensils for ages, and introducing a new invention like “smart” sticks may actually disturb the patterns of consuming their respective cuisines.

Young Aki Hachiro agrees. The 17-year-old cashier has only been working at the Queens restaurant Khao Gang for a year, but his family has versed him thoroughly in the ways of Japanese etiquette.

He explains to BTR that when it comes to dining with chopsticks, each culture practices their own special set of rituals.

In Hachiro’s culture, for instance, the Japanese will never transfer food from one’s own chopsticks to another’s since this is reserved for the passing of bones during funeral rites.

They should also never be crossed on a tabletop, as it symbolizes death.

Hachiro summarizes the design of different Asian chopsticks.

“The Chinese usually make them the longest with flat tips, the Koreans with a length somewhere in-between, and the Japanese with short pointed ones,” he lists.

“Taking away those characteristics for new technology undermines an entire past.”

The Chinese began using the first versions of chopsticks as early as 1200 BC. Scientists discovered bronze sets of them buried in tombs at the fabled ruins of Yin, the Henan province that provided the first documented artifacts of Chinese writing.

Nearly 1,000 years later, chopsticks spread throughout the Asian continent and were adopted by many. A sudden population surge in China led to a decrease in available resources, forcing people to develop cost-saving habits, like cutting their food into smaller pieces requiring less cooking fuel. Chopsticks thus became the tool of choice to eat this food.

Confucius also played a large role in encouraging their widespread use. The philosopher was a vegetarian, and believed sharp utensils at the dinner table would arouse uncomfortable feelings of the slaughterhouse in the eaters present. He also believed that their sharpness suggested tragedies of war and unnecessary violence towards others.

In terms of more current perspectives, BTR inquired Yi Zhe Wu, a 24-year-old graphic artist. Though he’s lived in Brooklyn for almost five years, he comes from China’s Sichuan Province.

Wu is well acquainted with both the history of traditional chopstick use and Baidu’s announcement of their new product. His preference? Smart sticks.

“What many people don’t realize,” he tells BTR, “is just how much this invention will save people from the massive amounts of contaminated oil floating around my country right now.”

In China there is currently a growing demand for cooking oil, a product that’s quickly becoming a relic of wealth from a bygone era. One of the country’s worst food scandals hit in 2008, which involved a poisoning of dairy products responsible for killing six children and hospitalizing 300,000 more. As a result, “gutter oil” has become the new food safety concern.

“Gutter oil” is cooked illegally via a reproduction of waste dredged up by restaurants and private individuals looking to sell it as new. Gutter oil is in no way fit for human consumption, and poses serious health risks to those who consume it.

Authorities last year arrested over 100 people for the manufacturing of the oil and locked up 20. Wu thinks that Baidu’s new invention could help combat this serious problem.

Baidu is extremely busy (and far away) and declined to comment on their new product. So far the Baidu Kuaisou still has yet to complete final stages of development, though talk of commercial production is surfacing.

Whether or not it’s “right” for these smart sticks to exist in the first place, Baidu remains bent upon their cause. According to Li, they will eventually be advanced enough to inform the eater where any given water, oil, or food originates. Perhaps Baidu Kuaisou will be a key player in a future that’s smarter and healthier, albeit less traditional.