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US boffins puff off 'living nose on a chip' tech

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American boffins have revealed that they are working to perfect a new technology in which "living olfactory cells" would be placed on electronic chips, offering an accurate sense of smell as an option for portable devices.

The catchily named "cell-based sensors on a chip" technology is funded by the US National Science Foundation, the Department of Homeland Security and the Defense Intelligence Agency and is being developed by researchers at the University of Maryland. The backers are mainly interested in kit that can detect explosives, but the researchers reckon there would be many other applications.

"We bring the capability to monitor many different cells in parallel on these chips," said Pamela Abshire, a top Maryland chip-conk expert. "You could say we’re applying Moore’s Law of exponentially increasing computer processing capability to cell biology."

Apparently the new aroma-sampling tech would be able to tell if food had gone bad; or even precisely identify cheeses and wines, with an accuracy rivalling that of a professional wine bore or cheese aficionado. The converged smartphone of tomorrow might be held over a wine, and then flash up an appropriate response. ("Mmm, the '98 has a positively arrogant bouquet. Notes of Ham & Mushroom Ginsters overlaid on a rich background of chocolate and turnip.")

This would seem to suggest a truly remarkable level of potential olfactory accuracy. A University statement even says the kit could perform "like a bloodhound hot on the trail of a scent". The smartphone of tomorrow could be used not merely to confound sommeliers: you might also be able to show your phone a discarded sock or other item of clothing, and then use it to hunt the garment's owner remorselessly through the woods.

Indeed, it would surely be only a matter of time before biometrics applications came into force - especially with the Homeland Security people involved. The feared German secret police pong-print database is of course well-known; but limited in that every individual BO dossier has to be maintained in a vial or similar, and can be used only with clumsy, inconsistent and slobbery dog-borne sensor packages.

Abshire and her colleagues - one of whom, pleasingly, is named Smela - seem to be offering an option which would require no pooper scoopers or dog-biscuits. Even better, it could be used with databases and networks. Even the most vigilant hoodie, wise to the perils of facial-recognition cameras, fingerprints, fibres, DNA traces etc would be vulnerable to this. Minging malefactors could be sniffed out and tracked by a network of polizei pong-print scanners.

Another worrying question which arises from the soulless-living-nose-on-a-chip research is this: where do the Maryland diginostril boffins plan to get their "living olfactory cells"?

When planning to keep a living brain eternally alive in a bubbling transparent jar - perhaps in order to place it in charge of a gigantic horribly beweaponed robot tank, a powerful body crudely fashioned out of mixed human and animal parts, etc - the answer is simple. One simply sends one's hunchbacked assistant to mount an after-hours raid on the local Brain Depository, taking care to adhere to tradition and select an organ formerly owned by a homicidal maniac.

But surely the idea of a handy vault of noses in jars, chiller cabinets or whatever is just silly. Still, perhaps in France, the olfactory tissues of famed cheese experts, wine snobs etc might conceivably be digitally preserved for posterity if this technology takes off. Owners of famed noses would then be able to licence themselves out to smartphone owners, and would no doubt soon find Russian download sites cutting into their earnings with bootleg cloned pongware.

Deep waters indeed. Read more about it from the University of Maryland here

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