The Evolutionary Paradox of Our Sense of Smell
Dr. Stuart Firestein is the Chair of Columbia University's Department of Biological Sciences. His colleagues and he study the vertebrate olfactory receptor neuron as a model for investigating general principles and mechanisms of "signal transduction" — the ways in which chemicals, such as neurotransmitters, hormones, and peptides with membrane receptors, exert their influence in the brain and nervous system. He hypothesizes that the olfactory neuron is uniquely suited for these studies since it is designed specifically for the detection and discrimination of a wide variety of small organic molecules, i.e. odors.
Question: Is olfaction a more primitive or sophisticated sense?
Stuart Firestein: So olfaction is quite a remarkable sense actually. It’s often called the most primitive sense, the ability to detect chemicals in the environment and of course in biology the word primitive has a kind of a funny connotation. On the one hand you might say primitive meaning well the simplest or the most rudimentary, which is the typical meaning of the word primitive. But in biology of course because things happen over evolutionary time the more primitive something is the longer it has had to evolve and become "better," if you will, more perfected if you will. And so this idea that the olfactory sense is the most primitive may also make it in some ways that most sophisticated.
Question: How does olfaction work on a neurological level?
Stuart Firestein: The olfactory sense works by having this thin tissue lining the region of your nose way up at the top with a set of cells which are called olfactory sensory neurons. The important thing there is they are true neurons, that is brain cells. They’re like the cells in your brain inside your skull, but they’ve kind of been pushed out into the top of your nose where they have the ability now to come into contact with odors in the environment or odors in food as I just mentioned to you.
These cells have the remarkable ability to detect and discriminate among a tremendous variety and number of chemical compounds out there in the world, which we call odors. There are at least 10,000, maybe 100,000 of them. There is certainly 10,000 identified odors because this is what we can find in the catalogs of flavor and fragrance companies and these are mostly only the good odors. There is probably another 10,000 bad-smelling odors as well and then many new odors are created every day.
Most odors are small molecules. They’re what we call organic molecules in that they’re made up of carbon, but they’re relatively small. They’re volatile. They float around the air and they come up into your nose and can be trapped on the surface of these specialized neurons, olfactory sensory neurons, trapped by receptors that are on the surface of these cells. These receptors can be thought of as a kind of a lock-and-key mechanism, at least to a first approximation. If you imagine that the receptor is a lock then a key is the odor molecule and if the odor molecule has the right shape, it fits into the lock and activates the cell. It tells the cell "I’ve found something that fits my receptor and I’ll change my electrical qualities and signal the brain that I’ve found a molecule that fits." On the other hand, you might have another receptor shaped like this and this molecule won’t fit in it, but this molecule fits nicely. And so we’re able to discriminate between different odors based on their shape and other chemical properties that make them either bind to or not bind to, fit or not fit into one of these receptors or locks. What's remarkable about the olfactory system is the number of locks that we make, the number of receptors.
So in a mouse or a rodent or a dog there are nearly a thousand different types of these proteins, of these receptors on the surface of all these cells, these millions of cells in your nose. Each one of those protein receptors, each one of those locks if you will, is encoded by a gene in your genome. Even in humans we have fewer receptors, but we still have quite a large number, about 450 of them.
So let me put that in a little bit of perspective: we have about 25,000 genes that make up our whole genome. The whole plan for what we are is 25,000 genes in our genome, so that means... and that is typical of most mammals. A mouse or a rat is about the same. So in humans that means that nearly 2% of the genes in our genome are devoted to our sense of smell, devoted to making these receptors. That is about 1 out of every 50 genes. In a mouse or a rat it’s almost 5% or about 1 out of every 30 genes devoted to making receptors in your nose. So clearly there is an evolutionary commitment to the sense of smell, if you will.
Recorded September 22, 2010
Interviewed by Andrew Dermont
Olfaction may be both the most primitive and the most sophisticated of our five senses.
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Would you ever have sex with a robot?
- In 2016, "Harmony", the world's first AI sex robot was designed by a tech firm called Realbotix.
- According to 2020 survey data, more than one in five Americans (22 percent) say they would consider having sex with a robot. This is an increase from a survey conducted in 2017.
- Robots (and robotic tech) already play a vital role in speeding up manufacturing, packaging, and processing across various industries.
From homemade dildos to Harmony, the AI sex robot<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="3f7451615568e74c6a839f04329c9902"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/-cN8sJz50Ng?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><em>"...amid an economic crisis, with restaurants and retailers closing their doors and larger companies laying off and furloughing employees, the sex tech industry is booming."</em><br></p><p>A Bustle <a href="https://www.bustle.com/wellness/the-sex-tech-industry-is-booming-amid-economic-crisis-22819801" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">article</a> published in April 2020, weeks after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, explored the drastic boost in the sex tech industry. According to the research, <a href="https://www.dameproducts.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Dame Products</a> (a popular sex toy retailer) experienced a 30 percent increase in sales between the months of February to April, and popular sexual wellness brand <a href="https://unboundbabes.com/?utm_source=%7Bsource%7D&utm_medium=%7Bmedium%7D&utm_keyword=unbound%20babes&utm_matchtype=e&device=c&utm_campaign=%7Bcampaign%7D&utm_adgroup=%7Badgroup%7D&gclid=CjwKCAjw1v_0BRAkEiwALFkj5qYbdEwANUjCdRkCeVZ2HZzHjcGmpYbsOXYcMcNneLc2nySvrbaalBoChEsQAvD_BwE" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Unbound</a> reported selling twice as many toys as normal in this period.</p><p>While the new coronavirus was crashing the economy in other ways, the sex tech industry was one of the few that actually saw improvements, likely due to people all over the world being advised, encouraged, and in some instances forced to stay at home.</p><p>Something similar happened in 2008, <a href="https://www.villagevoice.com/2010/08/23/the-great-recession-is-a-turn-on-for-the-sex-toy-industry/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">during the recession</a>: the sex toy industry was one of the only industries at the time that didn't gravely suffer. </p><p><strong>The evolution of sex tech from stone dildos to artificial intelligence.</strong></p><p><a href="https://sofiagray.com/what-is-the-history-of-sex-toys-from-stone-to-silicone-and-beyond/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The history of sex toys</a> is quite interesting. A 28,000-year-old siltstone dildo was uncovered in Germany in 2005. Luxury bronze dildos have also been found in China that are at least 2,000 years old.</p><p>Aside from various materials being shaped into dildos, there has always been an interest in how to advance sex technology, even before it involved actual technology at all.</p><ul><li>The 1700s: Steam-powered vibrators (such as the Manipulator).</li><li>The 1800s—1900s: The invention of the first electric vibrator (the Pulsoson) and "beauty tools" being used for sexual satisfaction (such as the Polar Cub massager)</li><li>The 1920s—1940s: The introduction of hand-held massagers (the Andis Vibrator) and compact devices (such as the Oster Stim-U-Lax)</li><li>The 1940s—1960s: Japan introduced the "Cadillac of Vibrators" (The Hitachi Magic Wand), which eventually made it's way to America.</li><li>1965: The invention of silicone, which most modern sex toys are made of.</li><li>The 1980s—1990s: The invention of the rabbit-style vibrator, made more popular with one of the first showings of a sex toy on television ("Sex and the City"). </li><li>The 2000s: Visual porn website Pornhub launched and sex toys became increasingly popular. Erotic literature also became more common and popular, with "50 Shades of Grey" and others like it. </li><li>The 2010s and beyond: Sex toys and technology start to blend, and the world's first internet-controlled sex toy was launched in 2010 by Lovense.</li></ul><p>In 2016, "Harmony", <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-cN8sJz50Ng" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the world's first AI sex robot</a> was designed by a tech firm called Realbotix. </p>
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Credit: Willyam Bradberry on Shutterstock<p>In 2020, more than one in five Americans (22 percent) say they would consider having sex with a robot. <a href="https://today.yougov.com/topics/science/articles-reports/2020/03/19/2020-both-men-and-women-are-more-likely-consider-h" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">YouGov conducted a study</a> in February 2020 that compared results from a similar study from 2017.<br></p><p>According to the results, 6 percent more people in 2020 are comfortable with the idea of having sex with a robot than in 2017.</p><p>YouGov points out that the increase in consideration is particularly significant among American adults between the ages of 18-34 years old. Additionally, how people feel about having sex with a robot has also changed. In 2020, 27 percent of Americans said they would consider it cheating if they had a partner who had sex with a robot during the relationship, compared to the 32 percent reported in 2017.</p><p><strong>"If you had a partner who had sex with a robot, would you consider it cheating?"</strong></p><p>The results from this interesting study also reveal that many people (42 percent) believe having sex with a robot is safer than having sex with a human stranger.</p><p>Robots (and robotic tech) already play a vital role in speeding up manufacturing, packaging, and processing across various industries. From television shows to real-life applications, artificial intelligence is becoming more and more popular in all areas of human life.</p><p>According to YouGov, "a <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-07-12/amazon-plans-high-end-echo-ramps-up-work-on-alexa-home-robot" target="_blank">Bloomberg</a> report outlining Amazon's plans for an Alexa-powered robot that follows and helps you around the home may redefine how these machines service humans in the near future." </p>
A strange weakness in the Earth's protective magnetic field is growing and possibly splitting, shows data.
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