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Posted: March 24, 2014

The futurist: Creating the ultimate fortune cookie

People would stand in line for one

Thomas Frey

My wife Deb and I recently 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 second 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.

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Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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