Welcome to Should This Thing Be Smart?, a new series. Each month, Justin Peters will examine a new smart object and try to determine whether there is any good reason for its existence—and how likely it is to be used for nefarious reasons.
Item: HAPILABS 102 HAPIfork Bluetooth-Enabled Smart Fork
Price: $60.60 on Amazon
Function: The HAPIfork, per its official website, “is a connected smart fork which lets you adopt healthy eating habits.” How does it do this? Unlike most forks, the HAPIfork vibrates and lights up when it senses that its user is eating too quickly. “Slow down, you cow, and save some food for the rest of us” is the message it sends if you attempt to take more than one bite every 10 seconds. The HAPIfork also syncs to the HAPI website via Bluetooth or USB, so it can track your eating habits and theoretically help you discover patterns in the data. In a pinch, it could probably also be used to entertain a toddler.
The case for the HAPIfork: The HAPIfork is a very interesting fork! It posits that overeating and its attendant health problems are correlated to the speed with which food is consumed. When you eat quickly, the argument goes, you eat more, and you also spend less time chewing and savoring each bite. This is bad! No one is keeping score. You do not earn money by eating the most food in the shortest time unless you are a competitive eater, in which case you don’t use utensils anyway and have no need for a HAPIfork.
There’s no reason to eat as if you have a train to catch. But it’s sometimes hard to tell when you are eating too fast. Most people don’t time their meals with a stopwatch—though who knows what millennials are into these days—and dining companions are usually too polite to make buzzing noises when they see you rushing through your meal. The HAPIfork does what your tactful friends won’t, imparting its lessons subtly. Over time, presumably, the fork will train you to take a breath once in a while, and you will come to know the joys and virtues of mindful eating.
Unlike your other forks, the HAPIfork has a pedigree. The HAPIfork is “by Jacques Lépine,” a French engineer whose grandfather helped develop a polio vaccine. The grandfather of the person who invented the standard fork probably died in a cave somewhere. Advantage: HAPIfork.
The HAPIfork comes in several colors. Its inventor also comes from France, a civilized country where people take pride in enjoying their meals, which gives the fork more credibility than if its inventor had come from Silicon Valley, where people drink Soylent.
The HAPIfork is a conversation starter. “Your blue fork is buzzing. What’s up with that?” your dinner guests will say. “OH MY GOD, IT’S A BOMB!” you can say. “No, just kidding, it’s a HAPIfork.” There is lots of room for impromptu comedy with your $60 fork that is also a vibrator.
This isn’t your grandma’s fork!
The case against the HAPIfork: This is a fork for narcissists and shut-ins. Other people may feel exceedingly self-conscious using the HAPIfork. Can you imagine using the HAPIfork in a restaurant? Most people do not bring their own forks to restaurants. Jack Nicholson’s character in As Good as It Gets did, I guess, but he was a crabby loner whom no one liked. Will that be your fate if you try to use the HAPIfork in the wild? Almost assuredly so.
I also can’t really imagine using the HAPIfork for extended periods around the dinner table at home. “Oh, Dad’s using his fat fork again,” your kids will say, and their mockery will make you want to abandon the experiment. But that’s no solution, either! “Go get your fat fork, honey, you promised,” your spouse will say. Arguments will ensue. The HAPIfork may well destroy your family.
The HAPIfork cannot really compensate for willpower, or the lack thereof. If you find yourself unable to modulate your eating speed under normal circumstances, then surely you will have similar problems forcing yourself to use the same damn fork at every meal. “The No. 1 problem with the food-shaming fork is that I keep forgetting to use the food-shaming fork,” Jessica Roy wrote for New York in 2014. Even if you remember to use it, unless you buy two HAPIforks you’re going to have to wash it, or at least rinse it, after every single meal in order to have it ready for the next one. Who has the time or the inclination? I suspect that most HAPIfork buyers will use it for a week and then consign it to the back of the cutlery drawer.
The HAPIfork might not actually deliver its desired outcomes. Earlier this year, the Verge reported on a study that found that smart-fork users did not eat significantly less food than dumb-fork users.
Your grandma’s fork was good enough for your grandma, so why isn’t it good enough for you?
Security risk factor: It seems unlikely that malicious hackers will hijack your HAPIfork and hold your dinner hostage. But that’s the thing with the Internet of Things: If it can be hacked, it will be hacked, and everything can be hacked. In May, for example, an 11-year-old boy attending a security conference in The Hague surprised attendees by using his Bluetooth-connected teddy bear to access data from audience members’ own Bluetooth devices. “From terminators to teddy bears,” the boy said, “anything or any toy can be weaponized,” and this warning is worth bearing in mind as we consider whether a fork should be smart.
“I’d be less worried about someone hacking the Bluetooth and more worried about someone hacking my fork’s data,” Stacey Higginbotham, creator of the Internet of Things podcast, told me via email. “Bluetooth attacks require proximity and since the fork doesn’t have a powerful computer or connection to the internet, it’s not going to become an essential player in a DDoS attack. However, the data the fork collects may not be secure. … Would someone care if some Russian knows they are eating too fast? Likely not, but if a person uses the same password on the fork account as they do for others, that could be an issue. Also the company may collect more data than needed, which could create risks for the consumer.”
James Loving, a security researcher affiliated with MIT, voiced similar concerns. “With a product like that, the main risk is to consumer privacy,” he told me over email:
Specifically, the data the fork collects could be used for a pattern of life analysis: Knowing what time someone takes his/her meals gives a lot of information about the rest of life. When is he on vacation? When is she gone for work? However, this sort of privacy breach typically only supports other attacks, whether they're online, for example a spear phishing email, or offline, e.g., a burglary. I’d categorize that type of privacy breach as less damaging than “traditional” forms, such as the Equifax hack or a webcam being exploited, and the vast majority of harm that can be done by a compromised smart fork can be done through methods consumers have embraced, such as social media check-ins.
Is the HAPIfork more likely to be used to solve or commit a crime? Probably the latter, though this has less to do with its smartness than with the fact that sometimes people get stabbed with forks. As for solving a crime, sure, the HAPIfork might one day be good for that, assuming a world in which taking two bites of a meal in 10 seconds has been made a felony.
Should this thing be smart? While I think the HAPIfork is sort of goofy, I see no reason why it should not be smart. As smart objects go, the HAPIfork is pretty modest, which is a good thing. The HAPIfork is not looking to disrupt Big Cutlery. No one is saying you should replace all of your forks with smart forks. All it does is vibrate and store data. If you think the HAPIfork might help you lose weight or eat smarter, if you’re not so worried about someone getting access to your forking data, and if you have $60 to spare, then, sure, go get one.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.
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