What does the recently unveiled Amazon Go store have to do with several new studies detailing how flies find water or how tiny roundworms can “taste light?” The “world’s most advanced shopping technology” that links the cutting-edge Amazon Go store to its customers depends on the same vital element linking roundworms and spiders to their environments: a sensor.

Amazon recently unveiled their new high-tech brick and mortar store allowing customers to swipe the “Amazon Go app to enter the store, take the products you want, and go! No lines, no checkout.”1 Engineers were able to “weave the most advanced” technology throughout “the very fabric of a store” so any given product is added to a customer’s virtual cart when picked up and taken out of the cart if put back.

Customers don’t notice a thing. Unseen sensors throughout the store-shopping environment detect product movements and link them to customers. Amazon touts how they do it, telling us “we used computer vision, deep learning algorithms, and sensor fusion.” Their “just walk out technology” employs sensors to detect an identifier for everything a customer takes, and programming links its price to the Amazon Go app owner’s account. Public attention naturally focuses on the unhindered activities of customers, but without the sensors, the store’s operators would be blind to their product’s whereabouts…and Amazon would soon be out of business.

Sensors are also vital to organisms. The humidity detector in flies was first discovered in 2016 and neurobiologist Marco Gallio, commented on the importance of these detectors to the flies’ survival, “They are careful to not lose moisture, which could cause them to die, and they also use humidity detectors to find water.”2

Human-engineered sensors and those in organisms share several key elements. A sensor’s purpose is to discover or identify the presence of specific events or changes in its environment, and then provide a corresponding output signal into a system as a response. A sensor has an element with characteristics relating to an environmental condition, so when that condition changes, the sensor’s characteristic also changes. Connected to the characteristic-changing sensor are other elements which initiate a signal or response.

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