Do I smell a rat (er, mouse) in TSA’s future?
I hope so.
Israel21C recently reported on new technology that might someday replace invasive pat-downs and body scans TSA treats us to at the airport:
Israeli startup Bioexplorers has developed a new and unique way to sniff out terrorists – literally. After years of research, company CEO Eran Lumbroso tells ISRAEL21c, Bioexplorers has hit upon a foolproof, non-invasive and easy method to detect contraband in purses, luggage and even cargo – using mice.
Like dogs, mice have an excellent sense of smell and they’re relatively easy to train. As much as it pains to me admit it, mice offer some advantages. Their small size means they’re cheaper and easier to keep than dogs are, and because they don’t need human handlers, mice also won’t be sensitive to their prejudices.
The proposed system will combine low tech mice with high-tech training and screening equipment. The target to be screened will move through a passageway equipped with fans that extract the air surrounding the target and deliver it to chambers containing several mice. Each mouse is trained to respond to a single odor. When a mouse detects the target odor it moves into a second chamber and sets off an alarm.
Bioexplorers’ system is interesting because not only could it allow for less invasive screening than existing measures but, as an improvement over existing canine detection methods, it could also give screeners the ability to determine exactly which odorants have been detected.
Initial tests are promising.
[Bioexplorers] has conducted several tests at sites in Israel to ensure that the sensors work in real situations, including at Tel Aviv’s Azrieli Mall. More than 1,000 people passed through a Bioexplorers sensor – some having been given “suspicious” objects and substances to hold – and the mice made the right call every time, says Lumbroso.
The company says they can train mice in just two weeks using a patented Skinnerian computer program. Mice will be expected to work four hour shifts with eight hour rest periods and each mouse’s career is anticipated to last about two years.
It’s an interesting idea and there may be additional uses for the tiny detectors. Bioexplorers’ representatives say they’re also working on systems designed for medical use.
They may be able to detect drugs and explosives at minute concentrations, but the mouse’s nose may be too refined for use in the wine industry. The io9 forums report that researchers at Japan’s Hiroshima University conducted an experiment in 2008 to see if they could teach mice to tell different kinds of wine apart. The experiment was successful so the group decided to take the idea a step further and see if they could teach mice to tell different brands of red wine apart.
The results were interesting.
Only two of the ten mice tested displayed the ability to consistently tell the red wines apart. Six others performed on a what appeared to be a purely random basis.
But the final pair of connoisseur mice could not be persuaded to respond the target wine. These mice were consistently drawn to a specific non-reward wine indicating that they preferred the smell of this wine to the food rewards offered by the alternate choice.
I’m not terribly surprised to hear that well-fed laboratory mice will sometimes prefer an alluring scent over certain food rewards. Smell plays a huge part in the social and intellectual life of a mouse. A good smell, or an interesting one, may provide the kind of intellectual stimulation that could be more lacking in a laboratory mouse’s life than food is.
And while mice may replace dogs in situations where a static location like an airport or freight terminal needs to be screened for a wide array of compounds, I suspect that dogs will continue to be the detector of choice in field situations for some time to come.