Saturday, June 30, 2018

Stand Corrected on Smelling Robots

It’s already happening, in Edinburgh: Robot noses are taking our jobs – doctor’s jobs, that is. We already know that dogs can tell when you’re sick just by the way you smell. And maybe less of us know that dogs can smell the place on your body where the sickness comes from, like if you have some kind of cancer hiding inside you. Alexendra Horowitz went into great detail about that kind of magic in her book on dogs’ smell.

It’s different now, however, because these aren’t dogs but computers. To get a bit more specific, it’s a gas-sniffing machine (called a GC-MS spectrophotometer, gulp, the de facto artificial smelling machine) combined with a special kind of ‘computer’ called a neural network.

If you’ve ever read my book or my blog or you’ve not been under a rock for the past 5 years, you’ve heard of neural nets. They are these magical new* ways of computing that created Google’s DeepDream and AlphaGo and every other headline where a computer did something we never thought a computer could do (like to dream and make art, yes). And now they smell.

But not really; we’ll get to that. First, it’s important to point out that this news comes from Nvidia, who makes GPU chips, which are not CPU chips. The computers we use, and have used forever, run on CPU chips – that’s the way it’s always been. Then the part of the computer that does the graphics, a GPU, started to do more and more of the computing (CPU).  We heard about GPUs first in regards to video games, but then because of Bitcoin because they use tons of interconnected GPUs to do their mining (and yes all those gamers got pissed because the price of GPUs exploded in tandem with the cryptocurrency bubble).

GPUs do more than provide smooth, clear graphics for your video games or authenticated cryptocurrency for your third world country blackmarket terrorist druglord network. They make a computer more like a brain, and hence the term artificial neural network.

Brains are all interconnected – neurons and axons, hub and spoke. Neural nets, with their GPU-neurons, approximate a brain better NOT because of a better algorithm software, but a better hardware. And with all this, we’re seeing artificial intelligence explode – I hate to say it – but it’s happening just like Ray Kurzweil said it would.

So after beating a human at Go, after successfully debating a human on the benefits to humanity of space travel, after creating its own language that humans can’t even understand, after detecting health abnormalities in patients’ xrays better than doctors, and after being able to play paper rock scissors so well that it can predict what we will throw before we throw it and hence beat us every single time – the damn thing now smells. (The paper rock scissors example is simply processing speed – the system sees our hands about to make a shape, and counters so fast that to us it seems like it happened ‘at the same time.’)

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. First thing to note is that this thing is not smelling. It’s been trained to recognize a very small subset of molecules related to cancer.  Whereas humans can detect any volatile organic molecule (rough definition), this thing can only detect what we’ve trained it to detect.**  And this is not the first time a system has been trained to smell – it happens a lot with bomb sniffing, for example, and artificially augmented bomb sniffing remote control cicadas are also real. Anyway, next is where I have to geek the F out: the part of us that smells IS a neural net.

Granted, our whole brain is like a neural net (yes, hence the use of the words ‘neural net’). But the part of our brain that specifically processes, or organizes the electrical signals from molecular contact and turns them into electrical signals for perception, is a pyramid-structure network (it’s called the piriform cortex for that reason, but it’s also known as the olfactory cortex) where hundreds of receptors are whittled down to a few signal fibers. And if you’ve ever seen a picture of a neural net, well, it’s the same thing.

This is one of the underlying themes in my book, and one of the reasons I was compelled to write it. Our sense of smell, the most under-studied of all the senses, is actually more like the most advanced technology there is right now, that being artificial intelligent brain-like systems. I like to call them intelligentities (which is gender neutral btw, and also neutral on some other thing we aren’t even upset about yet, where we make a biased distinction between humans and computers).

Although it seems like we’re making serious progress in this area, I still assert that studying olfaction is an ideal way to optimize these kinds of systems. Until then, you can rest assured that although these things can already do basically everything better than you, they still can’t smell.  (And many of us will have to wonder – is that a bad thing? I.e., will humans in the distant future, once we have the option, will they still want to smell?)

*Marvin Minsky et al were talking about neural nets in the early 80’s but the hardware wasn’t there yet to make them sing.

**Artificial Intelligence can only do what we train it to do. And this is a major part of the inherent biases that show up in these programs, and the reason we need to do a better job of choosing their training programs and then testing these programs to see if they discriminate and against who. Search up this phrase to find out more – ‘man is to computer programmer as woman is to homemaker.’

Image source: Olfactory Bulb (aka non-artificial neural network)

Article source:
June 2018,


Thursday, June 28, 2018

Memory Transplant You Say

Just when you thought old-age had you beat. Now you can remember where you put your keys forever. Turns out we have memory in our RNA and we can transplant that RNA somewhere else if we want. Like in your home-brain memory storage device of the 22nd century. Every day you update your device with actual molecules from your own body. You know, just in case you lose them, you’ll have a backup.

Really, we’re looking at snails, and a learned physiological response coded into their RNA. They get shocked and then the defense system in their bodies remembers that, and they tense up longer than if they hadn’t been shocked, and then that memory is literally transplanted in another snail, via RNA, and that other snail will react in the same way with a longer defensive contraction response. So it’s like you give the snails PTSD and then pass it on to whoever you want.

Maybe you’ll be able to buy that at the market one day; suffering for sale. I hear echoes of Slavoj Zizeck explaining to us that choosing Tom’s sneakers because they are good for the planet is our way of feeling better about participating in a system that oppresses lots of people in the process. So if you’d like to feel better about being a jerk, you can just upload the memory of being harassed and see what it’s like, become empathetic and be less of a jerk.

The real news is that we are making some progress in knowing how memory, such an ephemeral thing, comes from our physical bodies.

May 2018, BBC News

Image source:

Monday, June 18, 2018

When Your Car Smells Like

If anyone has been to New York Penn Station in the past year, particularly the New Jersey Transit portion, you've smelled the overwhelming maple syrup streaming through the space.

That's a coolant problem. Coolant, or the sweet-smelling ethylene glycol, is getting out of the loop it's supposed to stay inside of, and because it's hot (made so as it tries to cool a hot motor) it evaporates and heads for your nose holes. And most people will just think, hmmm, what is that.

Now you know. And if your car smells like maple syrup, same thing. Get your radiator checked out. Don't forget, however, that Sotolon is the molecule that makes this smell, and it can also be found in Fenugreek, a spice often used in Indian food. It can also be found at the end of a packed bowl, also known as the smell of a "cashed bowl."

I took the picture above from an article on the Popular Mechanics site where they go on to list a few more odor-clues to car problems. I'm keeping this as reminder for myself, as I just had to deal with a bad radiator.

So they go on to metion the rest:
1. (Maple syrup - bad radiator)
2. Gym socks - too much condensation in the A/C vents grows mold in there
3. Sulfur - manual transmission gear lube leak
4. Gasoline - fuel system problem
5. Rotten eggs - bad catalytic converter
6. Burnt paper - clutch
7. Burning oil - leaky crankshaft
8. Burnt carpet - brakepads

Now since I'm not a mechanic, I'll let you go back to their site to see what to do about all this. In the meantime, don't forget to stop and smell the roses once in a while, it's a good way to catch problems before they get worse. (I have yet to mention the coolant problem to anyone at Penn Station.)

image source - Popular Mechanics

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Olfactory Comfort

Today I'm looking at a certification program for buildings, to ensure they have a nice vibe on the inside. It's called the WELL Certification.

And this isn't just about indoor air quality, but the quality of the overall environment in an indoor space. That includes lots of things, such as light levels, quality of light, daylight access, acoustics like whether sounds are sharp and bounce around or if they are dampened and absorbed by the space, and much more. What I found extra in this is the attention to odors in the environment

This WELL Certification regimen, which looks to ensure an overall healthy work environment, which I will assume to mean psychological health in addition to physical health, lists Olfactory Comfort as one of its standards.

According to their program, this can be achieved by reducing the transmission of strong smells and odors within the building - "source separation" they call it. Keep the bathroom air or the cafeteria air separate from the rest of the air, that's what it means. You could install self-closing doors.

All restrooms, janitorial closets, kitchens, cafeterias and pantries should be designed in a way to prevent strong odors from migrating to workspaces. These are the techniques they list for separating spaces.
Achieving Olfactory Comfort:
  • Negative pressurization
  • Use interstitial rooms and vestibules
  • Hallways
  • Self-closing doors
Word of the day - this is called pneumatic isolation, where the air in the rooms are isolated from each other. (pneumatic = Greek - "wind" or "breathing")

Indoor air quality in its essence is about keeping an adequate amount of fresh air inside (and keeping out, of course, toxic things like carbon monoxide or mold). One way to measure for fresh air is to look for carbon dioxide - we breathe carbon dioxide, and there is a lot if it in a room, that means the room hasn't been given enough fresh air to offset all the breathing humans in it.

And that means the indoor air quality will go down, as well as the overall indoor environmental quality. And one of the main reasons why we judge this as having less quality is just as much aesthetic as it is chemistry.

Carbon monoxide in the wrong amount can kill you, for sure, and we don't want any of that. Even low levels of mold and slightly elevated dust levels can be bothersome to people with weak respiratory systems.

But what sneaks under the radar are the little things that over time eat away at your productivity as a worker, and those can be simply aesthetic - bad lighting, bad acoustics, and the baddest of these, metabolic gases emitted by humans.*

Yup. We convert food to energy all day; we metabolize. And some of the by-products of that metabolism are not solids or liquids, but gases. And they smell, and there's something unsettling about smelling the intimate insides of a person who is not a part of your familial social circle. Something about that is bothersome, and it takes away tiny bits of our productivity over the days and years.

WELL is setting a precedent for the future of indoor environmental quality by adding olfaction to their roster of techniques. Hopefully, as we all spend more and more time indoors, they aren't the only ones looking at this.

*Granted, some lighting can be so bad that it hurts your eyes, and some acoustics too, and some things that smell can be a sign that it's bad for you, but smells do not in themselves hurt you (and many gases that can hurt you do not smell at all).