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“Electronic Nose” Will Assist in Fight Against Cancer


Why does someone need a personal adaptometer? What exactly is an “electronic nose”? How do technology parks work? About these and many other topics tells  Cand. Sc. {Physics and Mathematics}, inventor of the “electronic nose”, an analytical device able to recognize patterns, Mr. Mikhail Yablokov.


2045: Mikhail Yurievich, do you think it’s possible to build an artificial human body by 2045? Or at least increase its capabilities using appendant devices connected to the physical body?

Mikhail Yablokov: This idea is not new. Actual mechanical robots appeared hundreds of years ago—ingenious machines that played musical instruments. In Japan, which is the leader in robotics, robot housekeepers are already being made. A few devices are supposed to be released on the market soon. A lot, in principle, can be done. We just have to determine why this is necessary.


2045: We’re talking about extending life span.

M.Y.: What is the body, if we break it down by function? First of all, it’s life support: nutrition, breathing, reproduction. Secondly, it’s a transportation system, i.e. legs. Thirdly, it’s executive devices, or actuators. These are the basic parts of the control system. The brain gives a command to, for instance, the hand, and the hand must fulfill it.

And finally, most important, the control center—the brain. Naturally, you can’t have control without gathering information about the outside world; this function is fulfilled by the sense organs—the data-input organs.

The sense organs, as information-gathering systems, are reproduced individually one way or another. There are microphones, video cameras, the “electronic nose”, the “electronic tongue”.

There are technological devices that replace our inner organs—ones that provide artificial lung function, an artificial heart, devices that provide artificial blood circulation. A lot has been done in terms of individual parts.

But the most important thing is missing—the system. A systematic approach means that you cannot consider human beings in isolation from their environment. They are always in contact with it. And one of the main problems of survival lies in the fact that humans adapt badly to that environment.


Russia 2045: And that’s why we die so young?

M.Y.: The body should not overextend itself beyond the range of adaptive capabilities it has—or, at least, not for long. When it overextends itself, the system flounders, resources are depleted, and a person dies before his time.

A systematic approach follows the logic that you have to tune the body’s adaptive mechanisms, to train them, to regulate them. For example, you have to cut off entry of harmful substances to the body at the right time. Or you have to warn a person that the concentration of harmful substances in the blood could soon exceed acceptable levels.


2045: And do that for every area . . .

M.Y.: I believe it very important to make the system portable, naturally, like a “helper to man”. It will include artificial sense organs: a sense of smell more sensitive than what a person has, which will give warning about poisonous substances in the air; an artificial tongue, which will detect an excess of harmful substances in water and food; a radiation sensor. After all, human beings have not been equipped by evolution with the ability to sense background radiation. You have to know all that in order to prevent your inner organs from becoming overburdened by environmental pollution. In addition, using sensors built into your clothes, you would be able to control a person’s motor activity, and a device would be able to give warning of a lack of sufficient movement, or if there’s too much movement for some period of time. It would be very interesting to make such an artificial system.


2045: We talked with many psychophysiologists, including with Mr. Alexander Yakovlevich Kaplan, and he expressed the very interesting idea that the brain is equipped to live a long time: The cells don’t split, errors don’t accumulate . . .

M.Y.: And he speculated that if you provide that system artificial tools, if you control the sense organs through a neurointerface, then a “brain in a jar,” combined physically with a mobile robot or controlling one remotely, is capable of living for 200-300 years. And then, the problem of the artificial body is seen from a slightly different angle.

Yes, the idea that the brain is irreplaceable but that you can make an artificial body has been around a long time. This idea has been developed by science fiction writers, for instance in the film “Robocop”, in which the brain of a murdered policeman was transferred to a robot, and the robot-policeman became practically invulnerable and defeated all the “bad guys”.

But if we speak about extending the life span of the “old body,” then you need to make the “helper for adaptation” that I’m talking about. A person in the very same conditions will be able to live significantly longer. It’s paradoxical, but the development of civilization and the easing of people’s lives are leading to a shortening of people’s life spans when life’s benefits are enjoyed in excess. Excessive, overabundant comfort leads to a weakening of adaptive mechanisms. And, at the extreme, also to atrophy of the non-operating organs. Many underwork the brain, have stopped working with their hands and begun walking very little. You have to work all the organs a particular amount, and you absolutely must switch on your brain. The ideal is for there to be no underworking of any part and no overworking—you need control systems, load indicators, information recording, feedback. All these recommendations for adaptation should be personalized, of course. What a person once felt intuitively is now being lost, and you have to learn it. And in this area, I think, such a device could help—an adaptron, or, say, an adequatron.


2045: Could that become a step toward creating an artificial body?

M.Y.: Absolutely!


2045: What’s more, a step that is most easily achievable.

M.Y.: It’s not exactly easy to achieve, of course, but it is realistic given the current technological base. You can make such a system that will include the “electronic nose” as well, which is basically what interests me most.


2045: I know that similar technologies are used for diagnosing illnesses by analyzing the way the body smells. I would think that such a “nose” will also help monitor an internal environment.

M.Y.: Yes, of course! For example, you can identify lung cancer by analyzing a person’s breath. Three hundred thousand people die from cancer annually, many more than are killed in auto accidents. And lung cancer is difficult to diagnose. The “electronic nose” should help in this area.


2045: How will it work?

M.Y.: The basis of the “electronic nose” is a set of sensors. Different kinds of sensors. That is, they give a distinct response to a single substance. To another substance they give yet another distinct response, but this time a different one. These responses like human finger-marks. Responses to pure substances are recorded in the memory of the device in advance. Then, the task of the pattern-recognition computer program is to detect these responses among continuously incoming signals at the device’s input terminal. In this way, the “electronic nose” identifies only those smells that it is trained to identify. The more distinct sensors in the device, the larger the number of smells you can train the device to identify.

You can train the “electronic nose” to identify the smells of illnesses, such as that of lung cancer. In order to do that, you record the smells of those sick with cancer and a database is formed. Then, during a regular medical checkup, people breathe into an “electronic nose”. This is a lot simpler than photofluorography. And obviously it’s easier to cure cancer if you discover it at an early stage.

Ideally, the “electronic nose” will be no larger than a digital camera. But the system will have to be periodically retrained. How often depends on the sensors. After accumulating a large number of scent patterns of different substances in a database, I think we will be able to analyze the nature of the smell. We don’t know very much in this area either. After all, Hahnemann—the founder of homeopathy—treated certain illnesses by having the patient simply sniff a given medicine.

The same principle of recording and processing multiparameter information as in the “electronic nose” can be used in designing an “electronic creative assistant”, for example. The human intellect works on the basis of associations, and associations arise from an array of outside impressions. And it is precisely an array—not just sounds, light, or smells, but all of them together.


2045: It would be very interesting to do that.

M.Y.: I promote a systematic approach. An artificial human should, from the beginning, have a system that can adequately respond to its environment.

A machine that generates emotions! It can be man’s assistant. For instance, the emotional connection to the outside world of those with autism is impaired. But imagine that there is an electronic helper that can display different facial expressions on a screen, or that can even say something in an emotionally expressive voice.

I think that in creating an artificial human, the area of emotion must be added to that of robotics technology, which predominates currently.

In fact, this idea is comprehensive, and it’s circulating.


2045: By the way, a new issue of Time magazine came out on February 21. The cover reads, “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal”. Very interesting coincidence.

M.Y.: Of course, creating an artificial human and extending human life span really is a good idea. In order to extend human life, you have to have enhanced feedback. Over the course of evolution, human beings have lost the ability to respond adequately to their environment. Compared to animals, humans have significantly worse taste receptors and senses of smell and hearing. It’s already time that we create some kind of alarm that will warn people of the danger.


2045: An alarm most likely won’t be enough—a more complex form of feedback is needed . . .

M.Y.: Everyone should have a personal device—an adaptometer. It will take in a comprehensive set of information about a person’s environment and remember any effects had. And the user will be able to examine the “memory” at his convenience, and thereby to analyze his behavior and his surroundings. This device will account for the particulars of a person’s health.

It may account for the particulars of his psyche as well. It’s possible that an adaptometer will be able to configure people, to adjust their interaction with the environment, their emotions. For instance, the device identifies, through a variety of indicators, that you are becoming aggressive and warns you. And you understand that you need to stop or you will soon ruin your relations with the people around you.

I would even call the personal adaptometer a prototype of an artificial human.


2045: If you imagine a future in which everyone could receive an artificial body, then it’s obvious that in the first part of a person’s life, he must live in the body he has. And through a neurointerface, he will be able to control a second, mechanical body, see through it, listen through it. It seems to me that such an experience will prepare him properly.

M.Y.: Of course. This is a process of teaching the thing that will replace you later on. You need to teach it. And the teaching process is a long one, as is well known.


2045: What do you think needs to be done in order to attract attention to the project of creating an artificial body?

M.Y.: We need a flag, a banner! We need a global strategic goal. In the past, everything came down to the idea of creating a weapon for wiping each other out. Now, we have to make a helper for man that will help a person be what he was intended to be—a creator. A person who is a creator. We haven’t been able to make a creator yet. This is a very noble and global aim. How do we make man closer to becoming a creator?


2045: Give him new capabilities.

M.Y.: New capabilities to create. What is a creator exactly? It is a person that senses everything and is capable of adequately apprehending the entire world. The key word is “adequacy”, by which I mean that a person can “properly”, optimally react.

“To every sound/your response in the empty air/you suddenly deliver”. That’s Alexander Pushkin, the poem “Echo”.

Animals always behave adequately—observe their behavior. They’re always watching all around, keeping track of what’s going on in the outside world. That’s their life—to maximally adapt to the surrounding world. The overall goal is to increase this level of adequacy.


2045: We want to create an interdisciplinary center that will bring together scientists from different fields to work on creating an artificial human body. Do you think it’s a realistic goal to open such a center, and how do you envision it being setup?

M.Y.: Of course it’s realistic! Look at China, which is undergoing some of the most torrid growth of any country in the world. They have technology parks affiliated with universities that are completely outfitted and have technical departments. They have all the equipment necessary for work there—“clean containment rooms”, workshops with modern equipment, service departments. They have arranged delivery of reagents and materials.

You can’t just rent an office, put computers in it, put people at the computers and call it a day. That won’t do. I think that you need a technology park. There should be hotels nearby, an athletics facility. All of this would preferably be in the forest, but not far from some kind of research town, given that in order to maintain the functioning of modern equipment you need full-time qualified engineering staff. Given the multidisciplinary nature of the project, you need to attract a very diverse range of specialists. They could work on a rotational basis, with stints of different lengths—say, anywhere from two weeks to several months. You also need an active team and a constant flow of creative thought, because when an idea comes to a person, he needs to discuss it with colleagues, not to wait, say, a month until a conference. That thought he had could “go bad”—after all, ideas go bad just the same as food does. “Science is a social activity”, as the famous theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson once said.


2045: You mean cross-fertilization of ideas?

M.Y.: Creative work is a group process. We need to construct an environment that will foster creative work.

Mikhail Y.
Ph.D. in Physical and Mathematical Sciences, Senior Researcher of the Heat-Resistant Thermoplastics Laboratory at ISPM (Russian Academy of Sciences), creator of nanosensor neurologic ‘Electronic nose’ system

‘When creating an artificial human, we need to add an emotional trend to the predominant robotics one. It’s an all-inclusive idea, and it’s in the air...’

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