The First Non-Trivial Cyborg

There are all sorts of cyborgs already among us: my dad has plastic irises, my mom has a metal hip. But these are trivial. A team of researchers at the University of Reading, United Kingdom has produced the first non-trivial cyborg, a robot controlled entirely by neural circuitry (“A ‘Frankenrobot’ with a Biological Brain,” Agence France-Presse, 13 August 2008):

… Gordon has a brain composed of 50,000 to 100,000 active neurons. Once removed from rat foetuses and disentangled from each other with an enzyme bath, the specialised nerve cells are laid out in a nutrient-rich medium across an eight-by-eight centimetre (five-by-five inch) array of 60 electrodes.

This “multi-electrode array” (MEA) serves as the interface between living tissue and machine, with the brain sending electrical impulses to drive the wheels of the robots, and receiving impulses delivered by sensors reacting to the environment. Because the brain is living tissue, it must be housed in a special temperature-controlled unit — it communicates with its “body” via a Bluetooth radio link. The robot has no additional control from a human or computer.

From the very start, the neurons get busy. “Within about 24 hours, they start sending out feelers to each other and making connections,” said Warwick. “Within a week we get some spontaneous firings and brain-like activity” similar to what happens in a normal rat — or human — brain, he added. But without external stimulation, the brain will wither and die within a couple of months.

“Now we are looking at how best to teach it to behave in certain ways,” explained Warwick. To some extent, Gordon learns by itself. When it hits a wall, for example, it gets an electrical stimulation from the robot’s sensors. As it confronts similar situations, it learns by habit. To help this process along, the researchers also use different chemicals to reinforce or inhibit the neural pathways that light up during particular actions.

Gordon, in fact, has multiple personalities — several MEA “brains” that the scientists can dock into the robot. “It’s quite funny — you get differences between the brains,” said Warwick. “This one is a bit boisterous and active, while we know another is not going to do what we want it to.” [reparagraphed]

See also Marks, Paul, “Rise of the Rat-Brained Robots,” New Scientist, 13 August 2008, pp. 22-23.

One of the possibilities mentioned without being entirely explicit about it is that these small brain models will hasten the pace of discovery in brain research. One of the obstacles of neurology is the sheer scale of the problem. With options like this, neurology becomes considerably more experimental then observational. And it potentially unleashes the hacker ethic on the problem: the challenge of creation can be a powerful addition to that of unalloyed comprehension. One wonders when the first trained rather than remote-controlled BattleBot will make its debut or when Survival Research Labs will get in on the act.

Its also worth noting that the lead scientist on the project is Kevin Warwick of Project Cyborg and that they will be writing up some results in the Journal of Neural Engineering. Can you believe that such a journal even exists? Following on this, neural engineering will be a growth field.

Enough of the messianism, time for the snark.

1991, Terminator II: Judgment Day, Linda Hamilton

They just should have made it look more like a T-800 than Wall-E. But when you see research like this ya gotta wonder if these people have ever watched any of the Terminator films. And I guess the Wall-E-like exterior is necessary for the next round of grants. And if you make it look like a T-800 then some Linda Hamilton / Ted Kaczynski type is going to show up at your door with an AK-47 and a grenade belt across her chest. On the other hand, if I could concoct a plan whereby Linda Hamilton would show up at my door with a grenade belt strapped across her chest that would be awesome.