The Doctor Will Sniff You Now

Lina Zeldovich in Nautilus:

It’s 2050 and you’re due for your monthly physical exam. Times have changed, so you no longer have to endure an orifices check, a needle in your vein, and a week of waiting for your blood test results. Instead, the nurse welcomes you with, “The doctor will sniff you now,” and takes you into an airtight chamber wired up to a massive computer. As you rest, the volatile molecules you exhale or emit from your body and skin slowly drift into the complex artificial intelligence apparatus, colloquially known as Deep Nose. Behind the scene, Deep Nose’s massive electronic brain starts crunching through the molecules, comparing them to its enormous olfactory database. Once it’s got a noseful, the AI matches your odors to the medical conditions that cause them and generates a printout of your health. Your human doctor goes over the results with you and plans your treatment or adjusts your meds.

That’s how Alexei Koulakov, a researcher at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, who studies how the human olfactory system works, envisions one possible future of our healthcare. A physicist turned neuroscientist, Koulakov is working to understand how humans perceive odors and to classify millions of volatile molecules by their “smellable” properties. He plans to catalogue the existing smells into a comprehensive artificial intelligence network. Once built, Deep Nose will be able to identify the odors of a person or any other olfactory bouquet of interest—for medical or other reasons. “It will be a chip that can diagnose or identify you,” Koulakov says. Scent uniquely identifies a person or merchandise, so Deep Nose can also help at the border patrol, sniffing travelers, cargo, or explosives. “Instead of presenting passports at the airport, you would just present yourself.” And doctor’s visits would become a breeze—literally.

More here.