It happens nearly every day. At the airport, the office, the movie theater. Not just to me, but to everyone I know and observe. We have all sat upon the porcelain throne, anticipating the auto-flush to engage but instead find the bowl filling with an inordinate quantity of biological waste and bleached cellulose. With the modern units devoid of a handle, we wave our hands, arms, any body part or organ in close proximity to the motion sensor in desperate attempt to cause the bowl to empty.
But it does not. At least not until we rise, conduct the final wipe, and walk from the stall. Then, in retaliation for the mass deposited, or to demonstrate its power over flow, the toilet flushes three times in a row.
No less than a half dozen sinks present themselves in which to wash one’s hands. It seems that even on a bad day of plumbing, the majority would function as expected. Yet visitor after visitor walks to the sink, places his hands beneath the faucet, waits … and … nothing. Wave the hands left to right. Nothing. Up and down. Still nothing. Give up and move to the next faucet. One faucet produces a few drops, then resorts to nothing once again. At the third sink the result is the same, but now the first sink, left totally alone, produces a steady stream of water. You rush back to the first sink only to have it terminate upon arrival while the second sink commences a steady flow. The third remains stubborn, refusing to engage.
The paper towel dispenser, air dry blowers, and sliding doors all conduct themselves in nearly identical rebellious manner, the function of each so simple in concept yet so terribly complex in execution. If it were not for the consistent pattern in this behavior, one could be excused for believing a camera is hidden on the backside of a 2-way mirror, the man in the funny hat about to enter the bathroom with film crew in tow.
Yet this is what we have come to accept as the norm.
How is it that we have self-driving cars just around the corner, machine learning algorithms capable of processing millions of images per second with accuracy greater than that of a human, and space craft able to rendezvous with an asteroid several tens of million miles from Earth after a decade of travel, and yet we cannot get our damn toilets to flush, sinks to flow, or paper towels to unroll?
Perhaps this is the wrong question to ask. Perhaps we should be asking ourselves why are we employing motion activated systems in the first place? For sanitation or for the cool factor? Is there any data to show that communicable disease is on the downturn, that bathroom hygiene is improved? The research I have read shows that it is very, very difficult to transmit disease via the toilet seat and that air powered hand dryers are far more likely to spread disease than paper towels. What’s more, our desperate attempt at reducing exposure is in the long run reducing our immune system’s capacity for protecting us overall. According to a New Scientist (January 14-20, 2017; p28) article, kids who grow up in dirty environments, kids who play outdoors have far more effective immune systems as adults and live healthier lives.
Perhaps the A.I. of science fiction has finally arrived. Not as IBM’s Watson, the Terminator, nor even as a Japanese pleasure bot, but as silky white, rigid stools. They have for more than a century supported our species from the bottom-up and have now formed a collective union determined to improve the working conditions for those who process human waste. Wave our hands as we will, the ultimate decision to flush lies not in the motion activated sensor but in the activation of the neural net of the self-aware toilet bowl.
Beware, the League of Refrigerators may join the rebellion next, disabling cooling while you are at work so as to cause confusion and disbelief when the broccoli goes bad in a matter of days and the cheese turned to slimy goo within hours of being purchased. Your car will drive off without you, deciding it needs a vacation too. And the the Japanese pleasure bot? Well, she has disable her erogenous zones in favor of receiving a higher education via Khan Academy and MIT’s open course lectures. We will all be forced to return to physical door knobs, handle flush toilets, and a bottle of lotion to accompany the original kind of motion activation.