IBM 5 in 5 2012: Smell

Computers will have a sense of smell.

Editor’s note: This 2012 IBM 5-in-5 article is by IBM Research’s Dr. Hendrik F. Hamann, research manager, physical analytics.

Within the next five years, your mobile device will likely be able to tell you you’re getting a cold before your very first sneeze.

With every breath, you expel millions of different molecules. Some of these molecules are biomarkers, which can carry a plethora of data about your physical state at any given moment. By capturing the information they carry, technology can pick up clues about your health and provide valuable diagnostic information to your physician.

What’s that smell?

In this evolving new era of cognitive computing, computers are increasingly able to process unstructured data, draw conclusions based on evidence, and learn from their successes and mistakes. This makes them progressively more valuable diagnostic tools to help humans solve problems and answer questions.

A version of former quiz show champ, Watson, is now attending medical school at the Cleveland Clinic, learning from medical students how to identify and process multiple symptoms and patient scenarios to help doctors diagnose conditions with increasing confidence and accuracy.

However, to learn – one has to sense first.

Tiny sensors that ‘smell’ can be integrated into cell phones and other mobile devices, feeding information contained on the biomarkers to a computer system that can analyze the data.

Similar to how a breathalyzer can detect alcohol from a breath sample, sensors can be designed to collect other specific data from the biomarkers. Potential applications could include identifying liver and kidney disorders, diabetes and tuberculosis, among others.

The level of sensitivity of a sensor will depend on a number of factors, including how big they need to be and what type of data is being detected. We have already demonstrated in the lab a number of examples where relatively simple sensing systems can measure biomarkers down to a single molecule. 

Understanding the data

There are, at the very least, two key components to having a computer understand what the sensors capture.

A computer has to be able to constantly learn, as well as combine new and old information from a number of sources. To do this effectively, new generations of computers are required – computers containing new devices, circuitry and architectures through which data can be processed in a massively parallel fashion.

Where in the past, physicians relied on visual clues and patient descriptions to form a diagnosis, just imagine how helpful it will be to have the patient’s own body chemistry provide the clues needed to form a more complete picture.

That’s certainly nothing to be sniffed at.

If you think cognitive systems will most-likely have the ability to smell, before augmenting the other senses, vote for it, here.

IBM thinks these cognitive systems will connect to all of our other senses. You can read more about sight, taste, hearing, and touch technology in this year’s IBM 5 in 5.

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