“Everybody poops,” Ara Katz, co-founder and co-CEO of the microbial sciences company Seed, told Digital Trends. “But for how much we all poop, it’s strange how little we talk about it.”
Katz raises a good point. In a world where our devices gather an ever-increasing number of data points detailing everything from our average daily steps taken to our minute-by-minute heart rate, we’ve become a world of data junkies. But there’s still something uniquely uncomfortable about the idea of sharing bowel movement information. Okay, so no-one necessarily wants to live in a world in which poop is as widely discussed as last night’s football game or the latest presidential tweet. However, our refusal to treat feces with the respect it deserves could be a major problem waiting to be solved.
“Our poop is a direct output of the gut and can reveal important insights about our overall health — from how well we’re digesting food to whether we’re experiencing symptoms that could indicate more serious problems,” Katz continued. “Everything from the shape, size, texture, consistency, and frequency can tell you a lot about what’s going on inside.”
Katz wants to people to share more about their poop. Literally. Like, the way that social media companies want you to share photos of your breakfast or your holiday snaps. Seed this week announced a partnership with “augmented gastroenterology” startup Auggi with the goal of revolutionizing the science of gut health. And, to do it, it wants you to send in pictures of, well, the kids you just dropped off at the pool.
Moving science forward
“Citizen science empowers anyone and everyone to participate in moving science forward,” Katz said. “With our #giveashit campaign, we are building the world’s first — and largest — poop image database to train an A.I., Auggi,. to change the future of gut health. At the same time, we’re destigmatizing taboos around poop and celebrating it for what it is: an important source of data about our health that we essentially flush away every day.”
The idea is that, by building the world’s largest ever virtual poop pile, artificial intelligence algorithms can be harnessed to come up classifiers to shine new light on digestive conditions like constipation, diarrhea, and more. It does this by looking at stool samples and, using techniques such as computer vision-based image recognition, comparing them to what it is called the Bristol Stool Scale, a diagnostic system that sorts excretion into one of seven categories. Type one, for example, describes feces that is made up of “separate hard lumps, like nuts.” Type four is, “like a sausage or snake, smooth and soft.” Type seven, meanwhile, is “watery, no solid pieces, entirely liquid.”
Classifying poop in this way has previously been the job of doctors or researchers. It is, needless to say, slow, tedious, and probably not the kind of glamorous activity likely to be immortalized in a TV medical drama any time soon. Fortunately, it’s exactly the kind of thing an A.I. can do well. (Even if “they made me look at endless poop pictures” sounds like one of several possible justifications Skynet might one day use for the coming machine takeover.)
“One of the most important symptoms when it comes to conditions like irritable bowel syndrome is to understand how stool consistency changes over time,” David Hachuel, Auggi co-founder and CEO, told Digital Trends. “However, measuring such stool characteristics is currently done subjectively by patients themselves. From the very beginning we thought that modern computer vision and deep learning techniques could provide a solution to this problem and we trained a proof-of-concept algorithm.”
Look at poop, change the world
Until now, the A.I. has been training on some 30,000 models of poop, made using the kids’ modelling toy Play-Doh. But clay is no match for the real thing — which is why the crowdsourcing request has been made. To get involved, would-be poop sharers can head to seed.com/poop on their mobile device and upload an image. Should you be one of those Digital Trends readers not currently reading this article on the toilet, you can also let the folks behind the project “know when you typically poop and we will send you an email reminder,” Hachuel said.
Remember to remove the photos from your handset’s photo roll afterwards.
Right now, the project is still in its data-gathering phase. But once the A.I. has been perfected that’s when Auggi’s algorithms will really start to make a difference. For one thing, the algorithms will be made available, open source, to the academic research community at no cost. This could be useful for researchers who are developing novel therapies.
The folks behind the project additionally hope that it will one day be possible for its A.I. algorithms to be able to predict patients’ gut symptoms and make intelligent health-based recommendations as a result. Similar technology is already being used by researchers to identify rare genetic diseases by analyzing selfies. Could the tech soon be used to give you advice when you snap a quick photo of your toilet bowl’s contents before flushing? It might sound gross, but it could have potentially major positive health implications down the line.
Just remember to remove the photos from your handset’s photo roll afterwards. No-one wants to have to explain those pictures the next time some innocent bystander asks to scroll through your vacation pics.