Turing's Nose - Was That Scent Real Or Artificial?

How can you tell if a scent, or a smell, is the real deal, the actual odor - or some sort of artificially produced artifact? Is it possible to create a device that could fool the human nose? David Harel at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel has developed a kind of Turing test for artificial olfaction

Harel has developed a kind of Turing test for artificial olfaction that helps to explore the issues this problem raises.

Harel outlines the more complex process that is required to reproduce smells. It consists of three parts. The first he calls a “sniffer”—a device that transforms an input odor into a digital signature. The second is the “whiffer”—a device containing a range of fixed odors that can be mixed and released in carefully measured quantities and concentrations.

The third part of this system is perhaps the most important. This is the interface between the sniffer and whiffer. “[This] analyzes the signature coming from the sniffer and instructs the whiffer as to how it should mix its pallet odorants to produce an output odor that is perceived by a human to be as close as possible to the original input,” explains Harel.

...Harel’s idea is to ask a human to distinguish smells produced by the artificial olfactory machine from real ones.

The method is straightforward and cleverly designed to avoid any verbal characterizations. Harel says audio and video can give the tester a sense of immersion. So the method would involve a tester watching a video of the place where the smell had been gathered and then deciding whether the associated smell is real or artificial.

Science fiction fans have already seen uses for a bioelectronic nose. An electronic nose, or sniffer robot was featured in the 1985 movie Runaway, written and directed by Michael Crichton.


(Sniffer robot from the movie Runaway)

The mechanical hound from Ray Bradbury's 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 was also able to detect scents by setting the "ticking combinations of the [hound's] olfactory system".

Don't forget the scent-organ from Aldous Huxley's 1932 novel Brave New World, which produced convincing, familiar smells:

The scent-organ was playing a delightfully refreshing Herbal Capriccio - rippling arpeggios of thyme and lavender, of rosemary, basil, myrtle, tarragon; a series of daring modulations through the spice keys into ambergris; and a slow return through sandalwood, camphor, cedar, and newmown hay...
(Read more about Huxley's scent-organ)

Regular Technovelgy readers are, as always, right on the cutting edge and are already familiar with the idea that an Odor 'Map' May Lead To Digitized Smells, which highlights some of Dr. Harel's previous work from 2008.

Via a really cool and well-written article at MIT's Technology Review.

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