Smart Chopsticks Test Food's Edibility
Sensors in the implements detect the oil's temperature and its fitness for consumption, with the findings displayed on a smartphone app.
July 26, 2011 --
If you were to step into this Apple store in Kunming, China, you'd probably find what you'd expect to see at any other similar outlet around the world: a collection of iPhones, iPads, iPods and matching accessories. What makes this particular shopping experience unique? It's not an Apple store at all; it's a knock-off. A couple of other Apple imitators have been spotted in other areas of China. The store has become symbolic of how pervasive piracy and copyright infringement is in China. According to a report (PDF) released by the U.S. International Trade Commission, intellectual property infringements conducted by businesses in China resulted in the loss of $48.2 billion in "sales, royalties and licensing fees" for U.S. companies -- and 2.1 million U.S. jobs. And it's not just Chinese citizens buying counterfeit goods. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a total of $124 million worth of counterfeit goods was seized in 2010, two-thirds of which came from China.
If a counterfeit Apple store isn't enough, take a look at the Meizu M8 mobile phone, a virtual clone of Apple's iPhone. The design is almost identical with the same black outer shell and home button of Apple's phone. Even the interface copies Apple's operating system. Entire markets in China can be devoted to selling counterfeit electronics. As the New York Times reports from one such shopping district in Shenzhen, China: "Just as Chinese companies are trying to move up the value chain of manufacturing, from producing toys and garments to making computers and electric cars, so too are counterfeiters."
A few counterfeit Apple stores may seem like a major intellectual property infringement. But when it comes to violating copyright law, no single imitation is quite as big as Shijingshan Amusement Park in Beijing, China. Like Disneyland, the park's centerpiece is essentially a clone of Cinderella's Castle. A giant silver dome on the park's grounds is nearly identical to Epcot's Spaceship Earth. In fact, Shijingshan's characters are almost exact carbon copies of Disney's Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, as well as others, such as Bugs Bunny and Shrek, that belong to entirely separate media franchises. Although the park opened in 1986, the similarities between Shijingshan and Disneyland only came to the attention of Disney's lawyers in 2007.
Many Harry Potter fans bid farewell to their hero after seeing the final installment of the series, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows: Part 2," in theaters. Chinese fans were just as eager to see the movie and read the final chapter in Harry's saga. Although most die-hard Harry Potter admirers have read all the books on top of seeing the movies, chances are there may be a few titles they skipped along the way. Ever heard of "Harry Potter and Leopard Walk Up to Dragon?" How about the classic "Harry Potter and the Big Funnel?" Or maybe "Harry Potter and the Chinese Overseas Students at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry?" Most Western audiences probably aren't familiar with these titles. And for one good reason: They're all knock-offs. (Click here for excerpts of all of Harry's roughly translated adventures.)
Chinese manufacturers in the business of counterfeiting produce all kinds of knock-offs and bootlegs from shoes and fashion accessories to DVDs and electronics. But when they start to dabble in food, the results can be dangerous. Although the United States is no stranger to bootleg liquor, in China it's a multi-billion dollar industry. One racket alone in China's Shaoxing city in Zhejiang province had amassed the equivalent of $305 million from counterfeit liquor sales. Operators use real bottles of brand-name and luxury alcohol distributors and fill them with a cheap replacement, according to the state-sponsored English language newspaper China Daily. The ingredients that counterfeiters use are often unsafe. In this photo, a patient recovers from poisoning after consuming counterfeit liquor laced with formaldehyde.
Of all the things to imitate, whoever would counterfeit fish food? Apparently, "renegade businessmen" in the Wudi region of China had just that idea in 2007. A pet food manufacturer slipped a cheap industrial chemical into fish food to cut costs, as detailed in a report by the New York Times. Eventually, as they sought a cheaper formula for their product, the fish food became more toxic, fish started to die, and the company earned a bad reputation. Fish weren't the only ones affected by tainted food. In 2007, more than 60 million cans of cat and dog food were recalled after more than a dozen pets died due to the introduction of a contaminated ingredient.
Prior to the boom that shaped China into the global economic superpower it is today, many Chinese citizens were largely unfamiliar with the U.S. economy. In 1980, this note was passed off by a criminal to a merchant conned into believing the shoddily scrawled sketch was a U.S. dollar note with a value of $250. Most people familiar with U.S. currency would have known that none of our notes carry crudely drawn outlines of knife-wielding naked women. Nor are any of them made of fabric. And good luck trying to figure out which president that is.
Although counterfeits are common in the art world, China has a unique industry in which great works of art are mass produced by imitators -- albeit skilled imitators. Dafen, a single village in Southern China, produces about five million oil paintings annually, most of which are copies of masterpieces, according to a 2006 report by Der Spiegel. Oil paintings from this village are so common that the painters have been dubbed the "McDonalds of the art world." The point of the sale isn't to deceive buyers into thinking they're getting the genuine article (most of the time, anyway). But rather the idea is to give the buyer a copy of a portrait or landscape in the original medium with which it was created.
This final slide shows what happens when imitation in China sparks a real innovation. In this photo, aircraft perform an artificial precipitation enhancement mission. In other words, these planes are actually seeding clouds to create precipitation. Technicians also fire rockets loaded with chemicals like silver iodide to create rain. According to China Daily, the People's Republic "has been tinkering with artificial rainmaking for decades, using it frequently in the drought-plagued north."
From recycled cooking oil to fox meat and chemicals, a litany of food scandals have turned Chinese diners' stomachs, but a new "smart chopsticks" concept by Internet search giant Baidu could put the answer in their hands.
The device, which the firm says can tell consumers whether the food in front of them is safe to eat, was born of an April Fool's video, a spokesman said Thursday.
Baidu at the time had "no serious intention of actually pursuing this," the spokesman told AFP of the stunt it released earlier this year. "But it generated a lot of excitement both internally and externally."
The latest stage of development was revealed this week, with a new video released by the company showing a user placing the electronic chopsticks in three different cups of cooking oil. Sensors in the implements detect the oil's temperature and its fitness for consumption, with the findings displayed on a smartphone app.
The chopsticks flash a red light when cooking oil has a higher than 25 percent level of TPMs, or total polar materials, an indicator of freshness, the spokesman said.
Poor food safety is a major concern in China, with one of the country's worst food scandals seeing the industrial chemical melamine illegally added to dairy products in 2008, killing six children and making 300,000 people ill.
"Gutter oil" is a particular concern -- cooking oil illegally made by reprocessing waste oil or by dredging up leftovers from restaurants and marketing it as new.
Health authorities last year launched a crackdown on the use and manufacture of such oil, with more than 100 people arrested and 20 imprisoned -- two of them for life -- as part of the campaign.
It was not clear whether the "smart chopsticks" would go into commercial production. The company has only made a limited run of prototypes, the spokesman said, and no release date or price has been set.
China's social media users lauded the company's innovation Thursday, but lamented the need for the device in the first place.
"Is it really a good thing that they invented these?" wrote one user. "Can we still enjoy our food?"
"If I carried these chopsticks around with me everywhere, I think I'd die of hunger," wrote another.