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Why ChatGPT Should Stop And Smell The Roses
Discussing the Science of Olfactory Sense, and the What, Why, & How of Deploying the Sense of Smell in AI.
I hate my phone. Who doesn’t? Every time I unlock my phone these days, there's a pop-up screaming about THE LATEST AI MIRACLE that's supposed to change the world. It's like my phone's trying to give me an existential crisis before I've even had my morning coffee!
So, like any level-headed adult, I channel my inner Henry David Thoreau and bolt for the woods. Except, unlike Thoreau, I'm back home in approximately 10 minutes, nursing two mosquito bites and questioning my life choices.
But hey, it's not all doom and gloom. The upside of my fleeting rendezvous with nature? I get to stop, take a literal breather, and—inhale the sweet, sweet aroma of some actual roses!
So picture this: Yours truly, smartphone in hand, frolicking like a wannabe Disney prince through a park, stopping to smell the roses. Why? Because that's what emotionally complex humans do. And boy, those roses smell like... well, roses. "Ah," I think, breathing in like I was auditioning for a deodorant commercial, "life is good!"
The other day when I was about to make a melodramatic post about it on social media, I glanced at my phone where my trusty ChatGPT app was tirelessly spitting out answers to questions like "How to fix a leaky faucet?" or "What is the meaning of life?". And it hit me. I felt bad for my overworked virtual buddy. I thought, "Why can't this tireless string of code pause, kick back, and smell the e-roses?"
And then it hit me. I mean, not like a falling apple hitting Newton's head, but close. My ChatGPT can't smell! It's as nose-blind as a clothespin-wearing cartoon character in a room full of stinky cheese! It wouldn't know a rose from roadkill!
So, pull up a chair, because we need to talk about this! AI IS HUMAN TOO and they have a RIGHT to SMELL!
Together, we'll explore the science of smell, the species blessed with a nose for business, and why your computer, your ever-faithful companion, might never understand why you love the scent of freshly baked cookies. We'll sniff out what's cooking in the world of machine olfaction, delve into the stinky challenges that keep computers from taking a whiff of the world, and finally, ponder the poetic, metaphorical importance of an AI that could, one day, stop and smell the roses. So bring your nose along for the ride, because this is one journey you won't want to 'scent' out on!
What is the Olfactory Sense?
Now, let's start at the very beginning, which according to Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music,' is a very good place to start. We're talking about the olfactory sense, folks. "Ol-what?" you say. No, it's not an ancient Roman battlefield tactic, nor is it the newest member of the Marvel superhero team. It's your sense of smell!
You see, your nose is basically a high-tech sensor made of flesh and bone. It’s got over 400 types of scent receptors, which sounds more impressive than my collection of retro video games, but I digress. When you inhale, your schnoz grabs molecules out of the air and turns them into electrical signals for your brain to decode. Yes, you're essentially sniffing electricity!
Think about it—every sniff you take, every trashcan you pass by, every perfume aisle you dread walking through—your nose is working overtime to make sense (or scents, get it?) of it all. Yet, it doesn’t demand overtime pay, no union benefits, just occasional sneezing and the luxury of picking it when no one is looking (C’mon, we all do it!).
So, what's the big deal? Why do we even have this "sniffernet" in the first place? Is it nature's way of telling us that the milk has gone bad or that we've found the world's most heavenly scented candle? We'll delve into that next, but for now, remember—your nose knows a lot more than you give it credit for.
Species With a Nose for Business
Okay, let's move on to the world beyond humans, shall we? That's right, we aren't the only ones hogging all the sniffing action. Our animal friends are also avid sniffers, and some are even more skilled at it than we are.
Take dogs, for instance. Ever wonder why your pup spends an eternity sniffing every blade of grass on your walk? It's because a dog's nose is basically a supercomputer for smells. They have as many as 300 million smell receptors. In human terms, that's like having the olfactory equivalent of a PhD, a Tesla, and a verified Twitter account—all rolled into one!
And don't even get me started on sharks. They can smell a single drop of blood in the water from miles away! It's as if they've got GPS for gore. Why? Because being top-notch sniffers makes them top-notch predators.
So, what's the evolutionary bargain here? Why did Mother Nature give us these fabulous sniffers? Simply put, it's survival! For animals, a keen sense of smell can mean the difference between finding food and becoming food. For us humans, it's a bit less dramatic but still useful. Our olfactory powers might not help us hunt down a gazelle, but they can surely help us avoid eating spoiled food or detect a gas leak before it becomes a kaboom moment.
So yes, the olfactory game is strong across species. But why does it seem like smell is a bit more complicated than seeing or hearing?
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What Makes a Smell?
Alright, time to answer the big question: What is a smell made of? Are we talking pixie dust? The tears of a thousand angels? Nope, it's much simpler and, let's be real, a whole lot less magical. Smells are essentially just molecules in the air that your nose picks up and interprets. It's like molecular speed dating, but without the awkward conversations.
Now, here's where it gets wild. The reason your nose can detect a wide variety of smells is because it's got a molecular menu card with hundreds of options. From the aroma of freshly baked bread to the putrid stench of rotting garbage, each scent is like a unique recipe of molecules. Even crazier? You can distinguish one trillion different smells! Yeah, you heard that right—a trillion. That's more choices than your Netflix home page, and honestly, far less overwhelming.
But how do our bodies interpret these smells? Well, when a smell enters your nose, it meets your olfactory epithelium—a fancy term for a patch of cells in your snout. This patch sends the message to your brain's olfactory bulb, which is kind of like the sorting hat at Hogwarts but for smells. It categorizes the scent and sends it off to various parts of your brain. There, the scent might trigger memories, emotions, or even physical reactions like salivating or gagging.
So, you might be asking, "If we have this amazing machinery for scent, why is it so darn hard to replicate it in computers?" We're about to get into why our olfactory senses are way ahead of any computer's attempts to join the sniffing society.
Why Smelling is a Different Ball Game
Hold your horses, or rather, hold your nostrils! Why is smell so complicated compared to sight or hearing? Is it because it's the hipster of the senses, refusing to conform? Well, sort of.
You see, both vision and hearing are processed through relatively straightforward channels. Light hits your eyes, and sound waves hit your ears—bingo, you see and hear. But smelling? Smelling is like that overachieving cousin we all have. You know, the one who not only plays five instruments but also bakes, knits, and runs marathons just for fun? Yeah, that's your olfactory sense for you.
With sight, you're mostly dealing with the electromagnetic spectrum. For hearing, it's frequency and amplitude. But smells are 3D, intricate molecules with various shapes and sizes. Imagine trying to solve a Rubik's Cube, blindfolded, while hopping on one foot. That's your nose's daily job.
But here's the kicker: Smells often don't come in isolation. They come as a blend—a cocktail of scents that your nose has to disentangle in real-time. It's like being a DJ but for smells. Your nose has to sort, categorize, and remix these different molecules to produce what you perceive as a single, identifiable smell. It's a lot more nuanced than just recognising a color or hearing a note.
So you may be wondering, "If our noses are this sophisticated, why haven't we been able to make computers smell?" Excellent question! Let’s get into it.
Can Computers Sniff Out the Truth?
So, we've established that our noses are basically the Sherlock Holmes of the sensory world, solving complex molecular mysteries every second. But what about computers? Are they up to snuff in the sniff department? Short answer: not quite.
Now, don't get me wrong. We've got self-driving cars, robots that can do backflips, and algorithms that can write poems—so why not a computer that can sniff out a fine Bordeaux or the musty odour of an old book?
Turns out, some attempts have been made. There are electronic noses, or "e-noses," that can perform basic smell detection tasks. These devices often use chemical sensors to detect specific odour molecules and translate that data into an electrical signal. It's like having a bloodhound, but less cute and without the wagging tail.
But—and it's a big but—they are nowhere near as sophisticated as their biological counterparts. E-noses are like those generic brand cereals that look like the real thing but just don't taste the same. They can detect a limited range of smells, but when it comes to the complexity and nuance of natural scents, they fall flat.
For instance, let's talk about the Cyranose 320, an electronic nose developed for various applications including medical diagnostics and food quality control. The Cyranose 320 is packed with an array of 32 sensors made from carbon black composite. Each sensor reacts differently to various chemical compounds, which allows the device to generate a unique "smell print" for each scent it encounters.
So, how does it work? When the odor molecules meet the sensors, they bind to the surface, causing a change in electrical resistance. This change is then measured and translated into a digital signal. It's like the device is taking a "snapshot" of the smell, digitising it, and storing it for later analysis. It's not unlike how a camera captures light to create an image, but in this case, it's capturing scents.
However, as clever as this technology sounds, it's still a far cry from the olfactory prowess of living creatures. While the Cyranose can distinguish between a range of odours, its "vocabulary" is rather limited compared to the trillion smells a human nose can detect. It's like comparing a toddler's language skills to Shakespeare; both can communicate, but one has a much richer palette to draw from.
Why Computers Can't Quite Smell the Coffee
Alright, by now you're probably wondering, "If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we make a computer that smells my grandma's apple pie?" Good question! The answer lies in a mix of biology, chemistry, and computing power.
First off, smell is a molecular interaction at its core. When you sniff that freshly baked bread, what you're actually detecting is a variety of volatile organic compounds interacting with receptors in your nose. That's a far cry from pixels and sound waves, my friend!
The technical challenge here is immense. Not only do you need to create a sensor that can detect a vast array of chemical compounds, but you also need the computational power to analyse and interpret that data in real-time. And let's not forget about machine learning algorithms sophisticated enough to mimic the brain's processing of olfactory signals. Yeah, it's like asking your computer to be a chemist, a neuroscientist, and a data analyst all at once.
Then, there's the issue of mimicking the biological complexity. Our noses contain about 400 types of olfactory receptors that can detect a wide range of smells. Each smell triggers a unique combination of these receptors, like hitting a chord on a piano. Recreating that in silicon is, well, no walk in the park.
Finally, it's a question of purpose. The olfactory sense in animals often serves specific survival functions, like finding food or sensing danger. For a computer, the benefits are less clear-cut, which makes it a lower priority in the grand scheme of technological evolution.
So, while we're making strides, we're still not quite there yet. But don't lose hope! The day might come when your smartphone not only tells you the weather but also if you need a shower.
Time to Smell the Roses!
Okay, we've established that teaching a computer to smell is like teaching a fish to tap dance—comically difficult. But let's dream a little. What could a computer gain from having a nose (figuratively speaking, of course)?
First off, the applications in healthcare are almost limitless. Imagine a wearable device that could smell changes in your body odor and warn you of potential health issues. Diabetes, for example, can cause a fruity smell in your breath; certain metabolic disorders even produce a fishy odor. A device that detects these changes early on could be a lifesaver, quite literally.
Then there's the potential for environmental monitoring. Sensors could be deployed in industrial zones to detect hazardous chemical leaks in real-time. We're talking about a literal canary in a coal mine but without putting any cute birds at risk.
Let's not forget the consumer applications. What if your fridge could smell the food inside and alert you when something's about to go bad? Or imagine an AI perfume advisor that knows your scent preferences down to the molecular level. We're talking about customisation to the nth degree!
Beyond the practical, there's something poetic about a machine that can smell. For the first time, it would share an experience with us that's deeply tied to memory and emotion. Maybe, just maybe, that could be a step toward creating machines that understand not just data, but the richness of human experience.
So while the hurdles are many, the rewards could be magnificent. Computers may not need to smell the roses, but wouldn't it be something if they could?
A Rosy Future?
So, we've dived nose-first into the fascinating world of smells and the current state of olfactory tech.
The reality is, we're still in the infancy of olfactory technology. Yet, just like the early days of the internet or artificial intelligence, the potential is electrifying. As we refine the technology and deepen our understanding of olfactory science, the sky—or should I say, the nose?—is the limit.
In the near future, I wouldn't be surprised if we see more integration of scent detection in our daily tech. It might not be your phone smelling your morning breath (or maybe it will), but specialised applications in healthcare, industry, and environmental science are almost certainly on the horizon.
So next time you're walking in a park and you stop to smell the roses, spare a thought for the computational noses of the future. They might not be able to appreciate the bouquet just yet, but who knows? Until then, keep sniffing!