Saturday, June 11, 2011

On the digitizing of taste.

Modern computers have come a long way since their early mathematical calculator days,and their usage has made our lives a very pleasant experience.Using a computing device and an internet connection,we can do things that would have been considered impossible only a few decades ago,such as have a 'real',eye to eye conversation with another person on the other side of the earth. With the use of robotic arms,it is even possible to physically manipulate objects acorss the globe. We are now in a world that is becoming smaller,thanks to the advent of high speed computing,and high speed internet. Yet,there are certain aspects of our living experience that we have not yet attempted to 'replicate' virtually,one of the most important of them being our gustatory sense ,more commonly known as the sense of taste.

One's sense of taste may not seem to be a very important part of our life experience(Atleast,not as important as one's visual/ocular sense),but that definitely is not true. Our sense of taste can act as a comforting element,can be an antidepressant,and when acting along with its closely related cousing,the sense of smell,can trigger memories of long ago.Taste can also help us identify harmful chemicals,and identify the differences between two similar looking substances etc. Thus,digitising of taste would have a lot of potential uses,if realized.

One way that this can possibly be done is by considering the four basic (or five,depending on which part of the world you're from) tastes -Sweetness,Bitterness,Saltiness and Sourness (And Umami) as 'primary' tastes,with diffferent rations giving different composite tastes,not unlike how different combinations of the different primary colours give rise to the other colours.One potential problem with this prospect is the vast number of combinations possible.With only three primary colours,the total number of colours identifiable on a computer is 16,777,216,and the number of composite tastes would obviously be much greater than this number. Also,the effect of food's texture on taste would not have been considered then,though it is an important consideration(Ground potatoes taste different than sliced potatoes,for example).The second major challenge that exists is the construction of relevant transducers-What use does the digitising of tastes have,if one is not able to actually tap them in the real world ? The conversion of the 'taste' of an object into digital signals itself can possibly be overcome by emulating the way that the human body itself does it - Maybe by constructing an artifical tongue and associated set of nerves.The complimentary system though ,would be much more complex to realize.In a presentation that a associate and me gave on this topic 4 years ago,when in college(The presentation proceeded quite bitterly ,no pun intended),we speculated the usage of directly interfacing with the
taster's nervous system,but obviously this has its own risks,and is definitely not a simplistic system.

If one were to construct a taste-digitizer system,it would only be a matter of time before personal computing systems such as Macs,PCs and smartphones incorporated one within them.Restaurants and food companies would even be able to put up the 'tastes' of their products online,for people to relish and compare with the competitior's products.People would be able to try new and exotic cuisines from the comfort of their homes,and cookery shows would acquire a whole new dimension.I even envision a smartphone app that would probbaly show you how different combinations of different ingredients would taste like.It would also be able to bring people 'closer',in all new ways.Of course,apart from these uses,it owuld have potential uses in law enforcement corporations etc to identify drugs,and to identify if a certain product is contaminated etc.

I'm very excited at the prospects that the future holds,and hope to see the evolution of such a system sometime soon. Let us all look forward to what the future brings with it.

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