Thursday, April 14, 2005

Things To Do With Good Olfactory Sensors

I was, yesterday, listening to an interesting talk on what we could do with good olfactory sensors (odor sensors). Lots of the intended applications were in medical care (for instance, noninvasive monitoring of the elderly: has he or she taken a shower? Turned on the stove? Eaten? Is there old food in the fridge? and so on). Cheaper, and respecting of people's privacy, but I think one factor is missing: many elderly people really need the social interaction (of visits from care personell) as well.

But the most interesting imagined application, in my view, was only mentioned briefly: a sensor (system) for detecting allergens. With allergy going rampant in large parts of the civilized world at the same time as the consumption of pre-processed food is rising sharply (that is, food that may contain lots of trace elements that may not be declared) and genetic engineering leads to inclusion of genes from one species into another species (not so much of a problem for allergic people yet, but it may well become), allergies are becoming both a cost problem and a health problem. Especially for the allergic individual whose life may depend on the tiny tiny text "may contain traces of nuts" at the bottom of the package.

Now imagine that you have a portable, sensitive device that can (reliably) tell you if the food you just bought (or, maybe even, you are contemplating to buy) contains the allergen that will make you ill. [Come to think of it, this device already exists in some Science Fiction literature... very useful for exploration and colonization of other planets]

That would be a considerable increase in life quality, wouldn't it? As long as it would be reasonably affordable, there would also be rather many potential customers. Since the allergens in many cases already are known it needn't be complicated. Of course, the sensor systems are not quite there yet - but they most probably will in the future.

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