You may have read the title and think that this artificial intelligence thing is getting out of hand. Despite what it may seem, we have been living with AIs that make life much easier for us for longer than we think, without knowing it. Since when do you use Google? Have you asked Alexa what the weather has been? These are just a few examples of AIs, which, while still impressive, are far from belonging to the world of “Blade Runner”.
With the democratization of tools like Midjourney or ChatGPT, AIs have become very popular because many of us were unaware of how far their potential could go. We have always liked to dream of futuristic and dystopian worlds, with super-intelligent robots capable of everything and more. However, everything stops being so much fun when reality surpasses fiction.
This is the case of Osmo, a subsidiary of Google Research that has set out to take artificial intelligence one step further. Alex Wiltschko, PhD in neurobiology and specialist in olfactory neuroscience, has developed complex software that is capable of predicting the odors of molecules. Yes, just as you hear it (or read it, rather).
Osmo is the name of his startup, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the United States. Financed, among others, by Lux Capital and Google Ventures, the company aspires to create new scents that will be part of our daily lives (shampoos, candles, creams, etc).
The difficult livelihood of the odor industry
The fragrance industry is one of the most buoyant industries in existence today and is valued at approximately $30 billion. Although it is not as well known as other industries, scents are so integrated into our lives that we don’t even stop to think about them. However, nothing is immune to the effects of the crisis and global pollution.
In the case of odors, this is particularly aggravating. The supply of flowers is increasingly endangered by climate change and the existence of some species has already been threatened. While companies are already able to reproduce some odors artificially, there are still many where this is not possible. Wiltschko, CEO of Osmo, explains that there is “a huge opportunity to create safe, sustainable and renewable ingredients that do not require living organisms“.
To do this, the company wants to equip computers with smell and digitize odors. The sense of smell is not yet as studied as other senses, partly because it is also one of the most complex. The Osmo team worked tirelessly to recreate what is now a map of odors, which would then be used to classify them at the molecular level. During this process, an artificial intelligence was required to carry out this task.
For the AI to do its job well, it was supplied with data on up to 5,000 odor molecules. From this, it recreated a hierarchy of odors based on their characteristics. However, they still have a long way to go, full of unknowns: will they be safe, will they pollute more or less than the current system?
On the other hand, the company has not yet addressed how they would go about bringing smells to the digital world. In fact Wiltschko himself is aware of this and believes it will be several years before we see tangible results.