Warming up to the fridge of the future is not so easy

April 04, 1999|By Rob Kasper

I READ ABOUT THE refrigerator of the future and began to worry. A news story out of Sweden told of a prototype, unveiled recently by Electrolux, that supposedly tells you what's inside the fridge without having to open the door. The fridge "knows" what's inside by reading bar codes, like the machines used at supermarket checkout stands. This fridge also can supposedly warn users if they are running low on any foods, like milk.

Like most reports on the future, the smart-fridge prediction left me shaking my head with doubt. I was skeptical that a fridge, even a smart one, could keep pace with our household's primal eating patterns. We go through about 5 gallons of milk a week. Our fridge is the primary feeding ground for two teen-age males who are constantly foraging for food.

One of their choice snacks is a bowl filled with mounds of cereal and oceans of milk. These bowls of cereal are wolfed down at breakfast, after lunch, up to 30 minutes before supper, and in a few cases -- when the evening meal isn't filling -- after supper. At the end of the day, soiled cereal bowls often are stacked, like cord wood, on the kitchen counter. So when the milk supply dries up at our house, not only does it mean that a beverage is missing, it also means that a favorite weapon used to keep hungry teen-agers pacified has been lost.

I reckoned that if the refrigerator of the future was going to issue a warning about an impending milk shortage, it would have to be bright enough to recognize that this was a crisis situation.

The appropriate warning, I felt, would be a loud noise -- something akin to the beeping sounds delivery trucks make when they back up -- accompanied by an electronic message flashing on the front of the fridge reading, "DANGER! MILK SUPPLY LOW! NATIVES LIKELY TO BECOME RESTLESS!

Another worry I have about the fridge of the future is how it would handle the fractious milk wars raging in our household. Our house is divided into three camps -- whole milk, reduced fat and 1 percent -- each contending that his favorite type of milk should be the household beverage of choice. The older teen-ager pushes for 2 percent milk, his younger brother is loyal to 1 percent, and I lobby for whole milk.

As a result, the top shelf in our fridge has three different types of milk in different gallon containers, each fighting for space in the front. This makes me wonder what would happen when the smart fridge peered into itself and found only one type of milk. Would it warn the other factions that they were tapped out? Or could it be convinced to take sides in the dispute, to sound alarms only when whole milk -- the one true milk -- was in danger of running dry?

But my major worry about the fridge of the future is that it represents a threat to my job security. Now, like a lot of guys with families, one of my main duties is to bring home the milk.

It is rewarding work. When you walk in the door carrying gallons of milk, you are greeted warmly, hailed as someone who has saved the cereal eaters from starvation.

I have been so well-trained that now, whenever I find myself in a grocery store, I automatically buy a gallon of milk, sometimes two, often three.

If these so-called smart refrigerators with their milk warning systems showed up in kitchens of America, they could wipe out the need for milk fetchers. The smart fridge threatens to make guys like me obsolete. And so I am against it.

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