Baidu's 'smart' chopsticks take stab at food safety

Tech giant says prototype can warn diners if food made with 'gutter oil'

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 September, 2014, 8:17pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 September, 2014, 12:05pm

They're thin, smart and possibly a weapon in the war for food quality control on the mainland.

Search engine Baidu yesterday unveiled a prototype of a pair of smart chopsticks that the company said could detect "gutter oil" and warn users if the food was unsafe to eat. Gutter oil is illegally reprocessed cooking oil that can contain cancer-causing compounds.

Baidu's billionaire founder, Robin Li, introduced the chopsticks and the company's answer to Google Glass at Baidu's annual developers' conference in Beijing. "We released the concept of smart chopsticks in April, and many people asked me if they could get a pair. We didn't have the product ready then, but we have it today," Li said. "This is a new way to sense the world."

Kaiser Kuo, the technology firm's spokesman, said the battery-powered chopsticks were fitted with sensors that could assess the acidity and temperature of oil. The sensors could also test for certain compounds to tell if a meal had been made with recycled cooking oil.

Baidu has not decided whether to commercialise the product, but test results have been positive, he said.

"The light will flash red if the TPM (Total Polar Materials) level in oil is above 25 per cent, indicating that the oil has been re-used beyond a level deemed safe, " he said.

A blue light indicates that the chopsticks' tips are detecting some other reading, for example, pH levels in water.

The current version of the chopsticks does not test salinity levels, though Kuo said it was a feature they might add to the device later.

The Beijing-based company also offered a look at the BaiduEye, a camera-equipped device that wraps around the side of a user's head and beams information about items to the user's smartphone.

"You can use voice commands, or gesture commands - like expanding to zoom, or circling an object in your field of vision with your finger," Kuo said. "You can identify plants, or find products - so far, handbags and articles of clothing - on e-commerce sites."

Unlike Google Glass, BaiduEye does not have a display. "We found that screens impair vision and tire your eyes easily," Kuo said.

Li said he expected voice and picture-based search to exceed text-based queries within five years.

Google Glass, which went on sale in the United States in May for US$1,500, displays a thumbnail-size transparent screen over a user's right eye, enabling users to conduct searches, read email and check maps using voice commands and gestures.