Intel: Our Loihi chips learned to smell hazardous chemicals

The chips are "neuromorphic" and mimic the components of brain cells.

Intel said its Loihi chips have learned and recognized 10 odors. The technology could help detect smells associated with disease, explosives and environmental gases.

Intel chips with special brainlike characteristics have learned to smell, the microprocessor maker said Monday. The Loihi chips learned to detect specific odors in one attempt, even in the presence of other smells. The technology could be used to detect odors humans create when they have certain diseases, or smells associated with explosives, drugs or environmental gases, Intel said.

The findings were released in a paper Monday that Intel published in collaboration with scientists at Cornell University. The chips use artificial intelligence to learn to sense the odor and then identify it again when re-exposed.

"We are developing neural algorithms on Loihi that mimic what happens in your brain when you smell something," Nabil Imam, senior research scientist in Intel's Neuromorphic Computing Lab, said in a statement, adding that the work "demonstrates Loihi's potential to provide important sensing capabilities that could benefit various industries."

Loihi chips contain digital proxies for the key components of real neurons. That includes axons, which neurons use to communicate with each other, as well as the synapses that send messages along to other neurons and the dendrites that receive the messages. The systems have already proved useful for simulating the way skin perceives touch, moving a prosthetic leg and the less scientific but still significant task of playing foosball, according to Intel. 

The chips have also been combined into a larger array called Pohoiki Beach to create more-powerful brainlike computers.

To learn to identify odors, Loihi chips relied on an algorithm "derived from the architecture and dynamics of the brain's olfactory circuits," Intel said.

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