Soon, computer chips that can smell Nigerian neuroscientist

Nigerian neuroscientist Oshiorenoya Agabi may have found a way to solve one of life’s puzzling dilemmas: how to make air travel pleasant again.

What if you could skip tedious airport security lines, while a special device able to sniff out explosives works silently in the background?

This is only one of the possible uses of what Mr. Agabi says is the world’s first neurotechnology device developed by his Silicon Valley-based start-up Koniku. The device was unveiled at the TEDGlobal conference in Tanzania on Sunday.

While those in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) are working furiously to create machines that can mimic the brain, or — like tech entrepreneur Elon Musk — implant computers in our brains, Mr. Agabi has found a way to merge lab-grown neurons with electronic circuitry.

Soon, computer chips that can smell
Soon, computer chips that can smell

As many grapple with the finite processing power of silicon, the 38-year-old said he had looked to the brain which is “the most powerful processor the universe has ever seen”.

To simulate the power of just 204 brain neurons would require a supercomputer, he said.

“Instead of copying a neuron, why not just take the biological cell itself and use it as it is? That thought is radical. The consequence of this is mind-boggling,” he said.

So he and a team of geneticists, physicists, bio-engineers, molecular biologists and others set about doing just that, focusing on the problems that were particularly hard for silicon devices to solve.

This includes detecting volatile chemicals and explosives or even illnesses such as cancer.

Mr. Agabi said the Koniku Kore device is “a world first” device that can breathe in and smell the air. He said “major brands”, including those in the travel industry, had signed up and the start-up’s current revenues of $8 million were expected to leap to $30 million by 2018.

Soon, computer chips that can smell
Soon, computer chips that can smell

Keeping neurons alive

One of the main challenges was finding a way to keep the neurons alive, a secret Mr. Agabi did not wish to expand on, saying only they could be kept alive for two years in a lab environment and two months in the device.

As AI improves in leaps and bounds, scientists are succeeding in making machines more like our brains, able to learn and understand their surroundings: a prospect that is terrifying for many. Mr. Musk, who has repeatedly warned about the perils of AI making humans obsolete, is working on a new project to implant “neural lace” brain-interface technology to prevent humans becoming like a “house cat” to potential machine masters.

However, Mr. Agabi, who grew up in Lagos where he helped his mother sell food on the streets, believes the future of AI lies in making machines more alive.

He believes his company could build a cognitive humanoid system based on synthetic living neurons in the next five to seven years.

Mr. Agabi did a bachelors degree in theoretical physics in Lagos before taking an interest in neuroscience and bio-engineering for his PhD in London.

“We want to build a brain of biological neurons — an autonomous system that has intelligence. We do not want to build a human brain.”

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