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Phones will soon be able to smell

By Julie Clothier for CNN

Bell Labs' tunable liquid lens will act as an electronic cornea.






Technology (general)

(CNN) -- An "electric nose" that can distinguish the personal scent of an individual may begin to replace four-digit pin numbers and secret passwords within the next decade.

Smell is among a number of electronic senses being developed at Bell Labs in New Jersey, the research arm of the U.S. firm Lucent Technologies.

David Bishop, vice president of nanotechnology research for Bell Labs, told CNN that he predicted in the next decade cell phones would have the ability to smell, see and hear in a similar way to a human.

The aim of creating the senses is to make telephone conversations more realistic, and to increase security.

"We're creating a set of technology that makes you feel like you don't have to get on a plane and travel 3,000 miles to be there. We want to convey the sense of being there and all that it means," he said.

"Basically, what we are doing with nanotechnology is building sensors that read more like a human."

Nanotechnology is the science of the very small, where machines and materials are built at the molecular level, and key components are measured in nanometers, or one-billionth of a meter.

"If you think about the amount of progress that has been made in high-speed networks, it's mind-blowing. We've made enormous progress in the speed of the networks but the interfaces we use are still the same," he said, citing the keyboard and telephone as examples of interfaces that had not changed significantly in about a 100 years.

He predicted that within the next one or two years, microphones double the diameter of a human hair would be installed in mobile phones.

These would be ultra sensitive, and would be able to tune in to sound from different directions, but have the ability to block out background noise not relevant to the conversation.

A "liquid eye" lens would be installed in phones in as little as three or four years, Bishop said.

This would enable the phone to detect when the person on the other end of the telephone was paying full attention to the conversation, and whether the speaker needed to modify what was being said to hold their attention.

It would respond much in the same was a human eye, moving if something caught its attention, he said.

In a decade's time, Bishop predicted an "electronic nose" would be able to detect the pheromones that make up individuals' scent, and could even be used as a "hacker-proof" security system, replacing pin numbers and passwords.

"It's the perfect security system. If we could emulate the sense of smell of a shark or a dog, they have such exquisite senses of smell."

Once each sense was mastered, the next phase would be to get them to work together, just as human senses do, to allow more natural communication between two people who are not in the same room, Bishop said.

"In the 10-year timescale, there will be lots of interfaces in cell phones that will be much more biological-like. The technology will be more powerful and more useful. It's the next phase of technology."

Earlier this month, Bell Labs president Jeong Kim told reporters in South Korea that nanotechnology would be responsible for enormous advances in computer technology.

"If nanotechnology maintains its current pace of development, it will give birth to a computer that has the information processing capacity equivalent to every human brain combined by 2060," he was quoted as saying in a local newspaper.

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