Yesterday my wife Deb and I had lunch at one of our favorite Chinese restaurants, and afterwards we’re given the typical fortune cookies that come with the bill. Jokingly I broke open the first one and asked, “I wonder if it’d be possible to create a real fortune sometime in the future and put it into these cookies?”

Naturally Deb gave me the standard “not again” look that I often get when asking weird questions like this.

I quickly countered with, “If someone were to combine information from smartphones and a few Internet of Things devices and tied it into an anticipatory computing algorithm, it might be possible to spit out some meaningful predictions.” 

Just when she was about to change the subject because she saw that I was about to enter brainstorming mode and she wanted no part of it, I added, “Maybe I should have gotten a fortune cookie that predicted I was about to invent the ultimate fortune cookie!”

It was at this point that she made the hand gesture that she wanted to strangle herself. That was her way of saying it may be a good idea but she had too much workload to entertain some random thoughts that would distract her from the all important task of balancing our checkbooks once we got back to the office.

It occurred to me that she would have thought differently if she’d gotten a fortune cookie telling her that balancing the checkbook was far less important than helping me with my idea, but I decided there are times when silence is the better course of action.

Those of you who know Deb will find it amazing that she and I could actually have a one-minute conversation without her saying anything, but I can remember one other time.

And so it was that I became sucked into the world of fortune cookies as I attempted to move this ancient delicacy into the digital age.

First a disclaimer. This is not an attempt to reinvent the fortune cookie industry (yes it is), or rid the world of badly written fortunes (all fortune cookie writers must have failed kindergarten), or even an excuse for me to eat more of them (I’m on my 2nd bag now). Rather, my goal is to show how the coming digital age will permeate even century old industries like fortune cookies (no it won’t) (yes it will). 

If only I had a cookie that could end all these arguments! Anyway, here are some thoughts on creating the ultimate fortune cookie.

First a Little Background 

The true origin of the fortune cookie has been disputed several times in the courts, but they first showed up in the late 1800s and came from Kyoto, Japan, not China.

Up until World War II, fortune cookies were known as “fortune tea cakes,” reflecting their Japanese origins of being served in the tea gardens.

The industry changed dramatically with the invention of the automated fortune cookie machine. Some claim it started with the folding machine invented by Shuck Yee in Oakland in 1973, but others have traced its true origins to the 1964 invention of Edward Louie of San Francisco’s Lotus Fortune Cookie Company. Louie invented a machine that automatically inserted the paper fortunes into the golden wafers as they came off the griddle. 

Today there are roughly 3 billion fortune cookies made each year, with the vast majority of them served in the U.S. The largest manufacturer is Wonton Foods, headquartered in Brooklyn, New York. They produce over 4.5 million fortune cookies per day. Another large manufacturer is Peking Noodle based in the Los Angeles area.

Anticipatory Computing

To better grasp my logic here, it’s best to understand the fast-emerging field of anticipatory computing.

We are entering a world that is filled with connected devices. In this world, when we need information, we will no longer have to resort to typing a query or asking a question. Instead, we will allow our devices and apps to pay attention continuously to the things we read and write, the places we visit, and the things we say and hear. 

By interpreting these contextual signals, our apps and devices will become much better at finding the information we need, in some cases, before we even know enough to ask. 

An early example of anticipatory computing is an app called MindMeld that listens to group conversations and anticipates what will be talked about next by pulling up documents, photos, and videos to add to the conversation.

The Fortune Cookie Test

Creating the ultimate fortune cookie is no small task, and there are virtually millions of ways to get it wrong. For this reason I’ve taken the liberty of creating a few of the parameters that will help guide people’s thinking.

  1. A fortune with less than 24-hour event horizon.
  2. Correlates three or more seemingly unrelated data points in the life of the person receiving it.
  3. Recommends a single course of action and predicts meaningful results.
  4. Can be demonstrated to be at least 80% accurate.
  5. Advises the recipient to do something he or she would not have previously considered.

The Ultimate Fortune Cookie Scenario

So let’s pull it all together with this scenario.

You enter the famous Tao Fusion restaurant with great anticipation. You are joined by a group of friends because tapping into your “friend network” often produces better fortunes.

The waiter hands you a smart menu that automatically changes the menu items to only select items that you like and things that fall within your diet.

As you order your food and enjoy the meal, the anticipatory computing system is cross-referencing appointments, places you’ve been, projects you’ve been working on, relationships, emails, and telephone conversations. The end result is a meaningful fortune printed on a small piece of paper and sent to the cookie machine.

The cookie machine consists of a 3D food printer that instantly syncs up with your preferred flavors and dietary requirements and prints a perfect cookie around the all-important fortune.

During this process, no people are aware of any of the details throughout the process, nor have any of them seen your fortune. Your privacy is still perfectly intact.

At the end of your meal, the waiter brings out a finely decorated plate with the cookie as the centerpiece. Your name has been carefully printed along the edge in lightly colored confectionery cream so there is no mistaking whose cookie it is.

Once you open the cookie and read the fortune, it immediately causes a series of events to unfold, giving direction to your ideas, giving answers to your uncertainties, and giving motion to seemingly unmovable situations.

This one seemingly innocent fortune cookie has changed your life in profound ways.

Eight Examples

While I’m surely missing many of the possibilities, I thought it would be helpful to give you a few examples of the kind of fortunes you might receive.

  1. If you call Frank, the CFO at Acme computing tomorrow, you will be able to solve the valuation dispute you’re having with the Mango Tiberius Corporation. He’ll be free for one hour starting at 11:00 am.
  2. On your next date with Sharon, if you ask her about the product shipment failure under her previous boss, Charles, you’ll be able to understand her reluctance to form an intimate relationship.
  3. The Nissan Altima you’re considering buying has brake problems that the seller hasn’t told you about. Be wary of purchasing this vehicle.
  4. Before you vote in tomorrow’s election, please understand the attack ads against Joe Wilson are highly distorted, but his claims of fiscal responsibility are also exaggerated. A vote for Betsy Green is more in line with your values.
  5. Arthur is about to propose to you. But before you agree to marry him, you should ask him why he left his last four jobs after less than a year.
  6. Your son Jonathan is having difficulty with his new job but doesn’t want to tell you about it. A simple phone call from you would help him immensely.
  7. Your washing machine will fail sometime within the next three months. Best to put aside money for a new one.
  8. You will receive a call tomorrow from the Greenland Corporation offering you a different position than what you’d applied for, and also for less money. If you emphasize your marketing background you’ll be able to get the job you want.

As you read through each of these examples, some will seem more plausible than others. Please feel free to offer more examples or comments about the ones above in the comment section below.

Creating the ultimate smart fortune cookie

Final Thoughts

“Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.”
- Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich.

In much the same way we can predict the weather less than 24 hours in the future with ever increasing accuracy, anticipatory computing will be able to predict near-term personal events with far greater precision.

Any restaurant serving this kind of fortune cookie would instantly have people standing in line to get in.

However the fortune cookie is really just a tool, which we can all relate to, for giving us a tiny glimpse of the world ahead.

The combination of old school products and digital age thinking will unleash far more opportunities than ever before in history. 

But I only know that because I paid attention to my fortune cookie yesterday, what it represented, not what was inside it. I suggest you do the same.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything

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