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Research into cybernetic organs has been largely focused on replacements for disabled individuals who have lost a limb. Electronic noses and tongues are designed for a radically different purpose. Humans perceive different chemicals as various tastes and odors. Many types of additives are industrially manufactured to replicate certain flavors or scents. Electronic noses and tongues are examples of the way emerging technologies are set to change the way household products are made. Electronic noses have already shown their potential to identify people more reliably than fingerprints, sniff out bombs, and even detect lung cancer on a person’s breath. They also present an opportunity for Internet users to test products before they buy them.
An electronic nose is a tool that mimics human olfactory senses. While they’re not the best for deciding whether new odors are pleasing, they can repeat test trials over and over again. Routine analysis isn’t something that’s easy for a human test subject to do. People can only write down whether they feel a new scent is pleasant to them. Internet-based odor presentation machines are in their infancy, but may some day present computer users with smelly output.
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Smell-o-vision was a home entertainment dream for many years, but researchers eventually gave up on the concept. Some consumers have even felt that it’s worthless. Most people wouldn’t actually want to sit down and smell what characters in a television show smell like. However, there are certain uses of this technology that could be quite popular. For instance, they might be used to sniff out a range of diseases. Or they could be used to check the quality of food in an effective manner. Electronic nose and odor delivery systems could even allow chefs to select ingredients without having to travel the world.
For instance, international produce distributors could take some fruit and digitize its odor into a certain type of file. Computer users would then download the file, and a peripheral device would synthesize the odor from existing chemical stores. This would be particularly useful for those who weren’t familiar with some sort of exotic plant. Unfortunately, the opportunity for misuse is quite strong as well. Trojan horse programs might cause a client computer to produce an odor that’s surprisingly unpleasant. It would be interesting to watch that play out.
Electronic tongues serve a similar purpose. Salt, sour and sweet tastes each correspond to a specific chemical makeup. The pH level of a substance, the presence of molecular polyhydroxyl groups and how many sodium ions are attached to the substance all play a part in deciding how it tastes. In fact, these would be easier to detect than olfactory sensations delivered to an electronic nose.
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On the other hand, bitter and savory tastes would be surprisingly difficult to distinguish. These tastes don’t correspond to exact chemical compounds, so they’re harder to track. Electronic tongues do have a real advantage over their smelly brethren, though. It would actually be easier to digitize taste and transmit different flavors in a file than it would be to electronically transmit different scents. Once again this would present a very interesting target for computer hackers.
Users might not even want to imagine what sort of weird tastes someone intent on misusing this technology could come up with. Restaurants would certainly like it, though. They could let people try a free sample of their product over the Internet. That offers a distinct advantage over a JPEG of a menu, but it’s doubtful that computer peripherals are going to replace cameras in the near future.
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