A Day in the Lives of Some Very Smart Packages

The date is April 1. The location is a typical home. It could be almost anywhere. The time is 4:30 A.M., too early for the family occupying the home to be awake. It is not too early for the “smart” packages in the refrigerator, cupboards, and pantry to have started their long day. Some packages have been awake since midnight performing their jobs.

The package of fresh milk in the refrigerator has been experiencing an especially trying time. At the stroke of midnight, the colorful graphics and text on the package all changed to a black coating with red letters stating “DO NOT USE.” Midnight was the end of the tenth day since the dairy had packaged the milk. “This is the end of me,” sobbed the milk package. “I will be in the trash as soon as someone opens the refrigerator door and sees my terrible warning message.”

A package of opened salami slices in the back of the refrigerator did not have much sympathy for the milk container. “At least you came to a quick end,” it said. “I have been languishing in a corner here for days. Nobody in the house wants to eat the remaining slices in my package. Can you blame them? That warning I must broadcast certainly has strong wording.” The package was referring to the statement a small chip embedded in it transmitted every time someone held it: “Warning! This product contains high fat and cholesterol levels that may cause you to exceed your acceptable level of these substances.”

Many packages in the various locations of the kitchen were inventorying themselves to determine whether their levels were reaching re-order points. By 6:00 A.M. each day, all the packages in the house had to transmit a report of their status to the main computer system used by the household. The computer required this information to generate an updated grocery list for whoever was going shopping. Many packages were communicating with each other to see if they met the requirements of the recipes the household previously indicated it would prepare for the next few days. The bread packages and peanut butter containers always experienced a flurry of activity during the inventory process. What else would one expect from a household that had two teenage boys?

The package of chicken breasts was in a very pensive state: A power outage had occurred during the night for 90 minutes, causing the refrigerator temperature to increase a few degrees. The package was busy calculating whether the contents were still suitable for human consumption. If not, the package would need to indicate this change.

All the smart packages were especially excited on this day. April 1 was the date on which ANSEM made its yearly selection for membership in the organization. ANSEM is the society for smart packages that are smarter than the general, run-of-the-mill packages. Selection to membership was a great honor to which all smart packages aspired each year. The package of chocolate candies was certain that it would achieve membership. It was so smart, it could identify the diabetic mother in the household from her fingerprints whenever she touched that package. Registering of her fingerprints on the package caused an audible message to emanate from a chip in the package warning her of the possible danger of consuming excessive sugar.

Is this an April Fools' story? It depends on the year in which it happens. Today, it is an April Fools' story. Perhaps it will be an April Fools' story for the next year or two. Five or ten years into the future, it undoubtedly will be true. Smart packages will perform all sorts of tasks such as those outlined above in this fictitious account. The eventual goal of smart packages will be to become smarter than the humans who purchase and use them.

David J. Bentley Jr. is a recognized industry expert in polymers, laminations, and coatings with more than 30 years of experience in R&D and technical service.
Contact him at dbentley@unm.edu.


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