Neurophilosophy (and Engadget) have some nice coverage of a cool new development – a robot with a purely-biological brain. The team (the Cybernetics Intelligence Research Group at the University of Reading) took neural tissue from developing rat neocortex and placed it in a culture filled with tiny electrodes that could both receive and send signals from the neural tissue. The coolest part about this, though, is that there is nothing in between the electrodes and the robot (except a bluetooth wireless transmitter/receiver). The nerve cells are directly controlling the robot’s movements, and the sensors on the robot are giving direct feedback to the tissue. This is awesome. And scary. But mostly, it’s very interesting. Check out the video on Neurophilosophy for some footage of the robot in action, it’s really quite cool.
However, we have to be careful in our interpretation of what’s happening here. The scientists/engineers interviewed in the video are throwing around the terms “learning” and “memory”, but there’s a chance that the robotic movements we’re seeing are just the noise in the system. This is a simple brain slice grown in culture, it doesn’t necessarily include any of the more complex bits of the brain responsible for dopamine release in response to reward or in creating long-term memories by the same mechanism that an intact mammalian brain does. However, if the researchers can show that even this ‘brain’ picks up statistical regularities in its input/output firings and reconfigures itself in significant, reproducable ways, they’re definitely on to something big.
To be clear, I think this work is awesome, and genuinely look forward to seeing what else comes out of this research. It would be great if this group (or Jeff Hawkins’ Redwood Neuroscience Institute) created a similar system, but with very different inputs. For example, as mentioned in Hawkins’ book On Intelligence (by far my favorite book on neuroscience), the inputs to the microelectrode array could be weather patterns or stock market data – the neural tissue won’t know the difference. And if the tissue can pull out the statistical regularities from the few sensors on this robot, I’m sure it could do the same w/ weather or economic patterns.
Well I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords. Soon, they’ll be using their super-predictive meteorological and economic powers to creatively destroy the human race. Bad disaster movie on the way? One can only hope.