Nigerian neuroscientist Oshiorenoya Agabi has created a computer chip based on mice neurons that could recognise the smell of explosives.
The device could be implanted into the brain of future robots, which could be trained to recognise danger via odours, replacing traditional airport security.
The Koniku Kore device is a ‘world first’ that is able to breath in and smell air, meaning it could detect volatile chemicals and explosives or even illnesses such as cancer.
This means in the future passengers could skip tedious airport security lines, while the special device sniffs out explosives silently in the background.
While those in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) are working furiously to create machines that can mimic the brain, or – like tech entrepreneur Elon Musk – implant computers in our brains, one researcher has found a way to merge lab-grown neurons with electronic circuitry.
Mr. Agabi says his supercomputer – the pictures of which cannot yet be publicly revealed – could simulate the power of 204 brain neurons.
As many grapple with the finite processing power of silicon, the 38-year-old said he had looked to the brain which is ‘the most powerful processor the universe has ever seen.
‘Instead of copying a neuron, why not just take the biological cell itself and use it as it is? That thought is radical. The consequence of this is mind-boggling,’ he said.
So he and a team of geneticists, physicists, bio-engineers, molecular biologists and others set about doing just that, focusing on the problems that were particularly hard for silicon devices to solve.
The device was developed by his Silicon Valley-based start-up Koniku and unveiled at the TEDGlobal conference in Tanzania on Sunday.
He said ‘major brands’, including those in the travel industry, had signed up and the start-up’s current revenues of $8 million (£6.2 million) were expected to leap to $30 million (£23 million) by 2018.
One of the main challenges was finding a way to keep the neurons alive, a secret Mr Agabi did not wish to expand on, saying only they could be kept alive for two years in a lab environment and two months in the device.
As AI improves in leaps and bounds, scientists are trying to make and succeeding in making machines more like our brains, able to learn and understand their surroundings: a prospect that is terrifying for many.
Musk, who has repeatedly warned about the perils of AI making humans obsolete, is working on a new project to implant ‘neural lace’ brain-interface technology to prevent humans becoming like a ‘house cat’ to potential machine masters.
However, Mr Agabi, who grew up in Lagos where he helped his mother sell food on the streets, believes the future of AI lies in making machines more alive.
He believes his company could build a cognitive humanoid system based on synthetic living neurons in the next five to seven years.
‘It’s not science fiction,’ he told AFP.
‘We want to build a brain of biological neurons – an autonomous system that has intelligence. We do not want to build a human brain.’
Mr Agabi did a bachelors degree in theoretical physics in Lagos before taking an interest in neuroscience and bio-engineering for his PhD in London.
He spoke at the opening session of the four-day TEDGlobal conference, putting African ideas, innovation and creativity in the spotlight with a variety of speakers who each get an 18-minute window to get across their message of choice.
TED – originally known as Technology, Entertainment and Design – has built a global following for its online videos of inspiring talks devoted to ‘ideas worth spreading.’
The annual international version is taking place in Africa for the first time in a decade with a new crop of ‘TED Fellows’ from the continent to take to the stage.
‘This gathering couldn’t come a moment too soon,’ said TEDGlobal co-curator Emeka Okafor.
‘Africa has experienced spectacular economic, demographic and creative growth, but both opportunity and danger are rising at an exponential rate. Our conference will gather the idea catalysts, problem-solvers and change-makers already hard at work here charting Africa’s own path to modernity.’