Wednesday, July 13, 2016

On Interdisciplinary Studies

To study the “language of smell” is to thread together the studies of many other fields. As a subject, the language of smell can spread into territories from proprioception to civil engineering. Regarding contemporary problems, the study of language and olfaction together can instigate new insight into fields like artificial intelligence, and even prompt questions about what it means to be human in the face of a technologically immersive world.

The olfactory bulb is a model neural network, and one that has scientists stumped still today. Despite having reverse-engineered vision, hearing, and even tactile sensation, nobody knows how to artificially code olfaction. After the brain tendrils in your nose are activated, the next stop at the olfactory bulb turns those signals into a buffet of information to be processed by the limbic system and rendered into an olfactory experience. That interchange at the olfactory bulb is still shrouded in mystery, but its neuronal architecture very closely resembles the layered networks used in artificial intelligence and machine learning today. (These are also called deep learning networks.)

As these forms of artificial intelligence become more pervasive, we are forced to reckon with what it means to be human vs machine. Already, with the need for non-gendered intelligentities (note Microsoft’s recent chatbot, which twitter turned into the dregs of society within 24 hours, was a “teenage girl,” not to say that it wouldn’t have been more successful if it was non-gendered, just that I was surprised when she was debuted that she was a definitive “she”), with advances in artificial reality simulation, in neural-interfaced prosthetic bodyparts and biocomputing insectobots, we are daily being asked which parts of “being alive” we want to keep, and which ones we want to offload to our [eventual overlords , jk].

To investigate both what it means to smell something, and how we communicate that experience, is to dive deep into the human, beyond the thinking parts and into the limbic, the emotional, animal parts.  These parts are so far inside our phylogenetic history that it’s hard to bring them to light in an age of so much knowingness and clarity. And to articulate these parts requires something less of a science and more of an art, which is exactly where the language of smell falls on the spectrum of functionality. (No wonder stuff like this gets no funding…see below.)

From a recent article on interdisciplinary research, an echo :

"One of the biggest advantages of interdisciplinary research is that it can generate new ways of looking at existing problems," said Professor Bromham, from the ANU Research School of Biology.

Notes:, July 2016

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