Is It Malbec or Merlot? Ask an E-Tongue

Like a movie star who slips away for a few years and then returns to snag an Oscar, a wine-tasting robot grabbed the spotlight again when it made the 2008 Guinness World Records as the world's first robot sommelier.

The 2-year old, 2-foot-tall, blue-and-white talking android can identify about two dozen blends and varietals by grape and region, and -- in a childlike voice -- describe them in terms like "buttery" or "full-bodied."

Electronic tongues and noses -- arrays of chemical sensors that generate "signature" patterns when exposed to specific liquids and aromas -- have been sipping and sniffing their way through our food and drink for close to 20 years, sometimes doing a better job than their more volatile human counterparts. And as the technology advances, what passes our lips is more and more likely to be rated and graded not by humans but by machines.

First unveiled in the summer of 2006 as a joint project between NEC System Technologies and Mie University in Japan, the robot sommelier, with its big eyes and bow tie and outstretched arm ready to zap a wine, is no doubt the cutest and catchiest electromechanical taster to emerge from a lab. But it's one of many gadgets around attempting to mimic the human nose and tongue.

Not that the robot actually "tastes" the wine. Instead, it blasts an infrared sensor at the wine and by analyzing the wavelengths of absorbed light, can decipher its composition and structure. Like a flesh-and-blood sommelier, it can recommend wines a customer might like by comparing the spectral "fingerprints" of different wines to the preferred wine.

It can do the same thing for various meats, cheeses and breads, and deliver what is likely unwanted health advice based on the sugar or fat composition of the foods it's testing.

"The e-nose and e-tongue work well in situations where there is an established, known taste profile of something tasty, and the food manufacturers just want to make sure it stays a certain way," says Alan Gelperin, a neuroscientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. "You're not asking the machine to make some subtle distinction about whether it's wonderful or not wonderful. You're just asking the machine, is this the same as the one you tasted a week or a year ago?"

Research centers all across the world have scrambled to design ever-more sophisticated e-tongues or e-noses.

Concerned about its slagging tea industry, India plans to start monitoring tea quality with an e-nose developed at the Center for Development of Advanced Computing in Bangalore. Early results, according to a report in the Hindu, show a close correspondence between the machine's quality-rating scores and those of the professional tea tasters, who sip, inhale and roll the tea on their tongues.

Researchers at St. Petersburg State University in Russia built an electronic tongue that can differentiate between natural and artificial mineral waters, brands of coffee and soft drinks containing different sweeteners, and the results correlated with what a professional taste panel found.

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