Scientific American: AI Predicts What Chemicals Will Smell like to a Human

Researchers have long known that the chemical structure of the molecules we inhale influences what we smell. But in most cases, no one can figure out exactly how. Scientists have deciphered a few specific rules that govern how the nose and brain perceive an airborne molecule based on its characteristics. It has become clear that we quickly recognize some sulfur-containing compounds as the scent of garlic, for example, and certain ammonia-derived amines as a fishy odor. But these are exceptions.

It turns out that structurally unrelated molecules can have similar scents. For example, hydrogen cyanide and larger, ring-shaped benzaldehyde both smell like almonds. Meanwhile tiny structural changes—even shifting the location of one double bond—can dramatically alter a scent.

To make sense of this baffling chemistry, researchers have turned to the computational might of artificial intelligence. Now one team has trained a type of AI known as a graph neural network to predict what a compound will smell like to a person—rose, medicinal, earthy, and so on—based on the chemical features of odor molecules. The computer model assessed new scents as reliably as humans, the researchers report in a new draft paper posted to the preprint repository bioRxiv.

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