Is AI Threatening the Role of the Perfumer?

Machine learning has infiltrated nearly every aspect of consumer living, and the world of olfaction is no exception. But how does the cold, hard, data-fueled approach of AI stack up against the romantic, emotionally intertwined world of handmade scent?

The last industrial revolution of perfumery came about in the early 1900s with the discovery of synthetic aroma molecules, and AI is now increasingly on the uptake, bearing the potential of the fragrance industry’s digital revolution equivalent. Forced to shift all retail operations completely online seemingly overnight, perfumery has awoken to a dire need to overhaul its digital presence, but extending this to the production realm remains more nuanced.

Givaudan recently acquired AI tech company Myrissi, which has created “a patented AI technology capable of translating fragrance into color, patterns and images, relevant to the consumer as well as predicting the end consumer’s emotional response.” Givaudan hopes to apply this program to aid its visual storytelling amidst the increasing growth of e-commerce trade in the notoriously difficult to optically or scripturally capture world of olfaction. Givaudan had previously launched Carto, its own AI tool that suggests initial formulas to the perfumer in order to strengthen the performance of the end product. It was utilized in the creation of Etat Libre d’Orange’s She Was An Anomaly fragrance, created by perfumer Daniela Andrier.

Competitor Firmenich used ScentMove neurotechnology, which applies fMRI brain scans of a test subject smelling different fragrances to create more nuanced emotional connections and contexts through its products. “To drive emotion through scent, one solution does not fit all. By applying our proprietary scientific and consumer research, we can help customers create stronger emotional impact, with contextualized solutions that reflect country and category preferences,” says President of Global Perfumery Ilaria Resta.

“AI is now systematically empowering our perfumers to achieve their very best creations by identifying potential solutions across a complex combination of parameters, including olfaction, format, dosage, safety and sustainability.”

In November 2020, the manufacturer had already unveiled AI-created laundry care fragrances—a liquid detergent with yuzu and fruity floral scent options, a gourmand fabric spray, and citrus powder detergent (all tailored towards preferences of the Chinese fragrance consumer market). “AI is now systematically empowering our perfumers to achieve their very best creations by identifying potential solutions across a complex combination of parameters, including olfaction, format, dosage, safety and sustainability,” states Resta. The fragrance manufacturer is tapping into the power of AI for “augmented creation, prediction and optimization to provide bespoke sensorial experiences faster and more efficiently than ever before,” according to SVP of Creation and Development in Global Perfumery at Firmenich Odile Pelissier.

IBM’s Philyra had concocted fragrances for the Brazilian market thanks to a recent collaboration with Symrise. The two fragrances Egeo on Me and Egeo on You were created on behalf of O Boticário, the second-largest Brazilian beauty company, and specifically created with millennial consumer audience data. “Philyra does more than serve up inspiration—it can design entirely new fragrance formulas by exploring the entire landscape of fragrance to discover the ‘white spaces’ in the global fragrance market,” IBM research scientist Dr. Richard Goodwin explains to The Face. Master perfumers are still working alongside the machine to give the formula the final tweaks, but with personalization in product offering being a key market growth factor, and the machine’s ability to scan hundreds of thousands of formulas and thousands of raw materials in mere seconds, AI-driven customization does have its efficiency merits.

While mass-market options tailored towards pleasing the masses may be a no-brainer application for AI’s data-driven approach, the individual stories, experiences, and narratives driving other fragrance concepts cannot be replicated by a machine. Unless that machine can live, feel, and experience the world just like a human being, that is. Google Brain’s research team may have taught an AI to smell, but it has yet to parallel our own noses. As a human species we have 70% shared olfactory receptors (meaning those parts of our smelling abilities are the same), but 30% are unique to the individual. Perfumery may technically come down to formula, but it should (ideally) not be formulaic, for there are creative deviations from the norm that only the human hand can administer, and that’s what keeps the genre exhilarating. “Without the human, all you get is a blend. If you told a machine you like blue, red, and pink, and then you asked the machine [for a painting], you would never get a Mondrian,” exclaims perfumer Francis Kurkdjian. So far from fearing automation, perfumers should see it as a chance to elevate their craft, to dream even bolder (olfactory) dreams.

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