Your dog has a superpower. It’s trendy to talk about having a superpower. The difference is, the humans who talk about it don’t really have superpowers. But dogs do. According to Wired Magazine’s website: “In the past several years, it has become increasingly clear that smell, in the right snout, can be a kind of superpower.”
The article is mostly about how annoyed this scientist is that the dogs beat his robots at detecting prostate cancer. And lots of other cancers as well as diabetic episodes, emotional states, and so, so much more. Dogs ace this. Humans stink at it.
The researcher, Andreas Mershin, is trying to create an accurate robot nose. Artificial olfaction. Why not? Artificial intelligences can already see and hear pretty well. But olfaction is our least-understood sense, and humans have, until recently, paid little attention to how it works or how to measure a smell.
Humans have spent tens of millions of dollars on attempts to create artificial noses to detect disease, ordnance, contraband, and more. Generally, each device is targeting a single scent. Yet, even when the device, under ideal conditions, can eke out a passable accuracy rate … the nose-bots fail miserably in real-world conditions. And their best performance is laughably inferior to that of a trained canine.
Dogs’ superpower is not only due to their extremely sensitive noses — they have tens of millions more receptors for smell than, say, a lowly human. The keys lie in their phenomenal abilities to distinguish individual elements of a scent and to identify even infinitesimally small quantities of a substance by detecting its scent. So far, the mechanical or robot noses don’t do that nearly as well, and they get confused more easily by other scents that occur along with the targeted scent.
A nose-bot might some day be able to beat a dog at detecting a specific scent. But the day that the bot can — as a dog can — learn to reliably identify more than one scent, in a variety of conditions, is very far and millions of dollars in the future.