Thursday, October 14, 2010

Are Cyborgs Now Real: The Rat-Brain Robot

Is it possible to get brain cells from a rat to control simple wheeled robots? A team of researchers at the University of Reading has been working on getting neural networks to control machines, and created an actual cyborg.

The scientists extracted brain cells from the rats, cultured them, and then used them as a guidance control circuit. Electrical impulses go in, and the responses that come out then drive the device's wheels. The cells are living. They can form new connections, meaning that the robots can learn.

The rat-bots currently just skitter around the floor, just like a rat would, with the neurons helping them to avoid walls. The team claims that the obstacle avoidance shows improvement over time, but one creepy facet of the research is that different rat brains behave differently. As each set of brain cells only lasts three months, several brains have been used and each exhibits different behavior patterns to the others.

While none of the robot-cyborgs look like The Terminator yet, there’s the possibility that some point in the future the scientists will create a cultured set of brain cells that rival the size of simple mammalian brains. At what point will these robots become "alive", let alone "intelligent?"