Animal brained robots

Do you remember the “scribbling rat neurons“, Wetware wrote about a few weeks ago? In that project, neurons from a rat’s brain were used to control a robot arm, holding a pencil. To add a little dramatic effect, the “brain” and its “body” were on two different continents.

While this sort of thing gives some people the creeps, several people have been experimenting with similar animal brained machinery, and we’ll no doubt see plenty more. Following are a few examples.

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One of the debut articles for the new PLoS Biology magazine is “Learning to Control a BrainMachine Interface for Reaching and Grasping by Primates“. If you prefer the shorter popular science version, Wired also had an article on it this week.

In short it is about a monkey that learned to control a robotic arm using thought alone. The monkey’s brain activity is picked up by an implanted electrode. In fact the research team, led by Dr. Miguel Nicolelis at Duke University had reported this achievement some three years ago. The breakthrough is that the monkey has now learned to move the robotic arm using thought alone, while three years ago he kept moving his real arm also the way he had originally been taught to control the robot arm.

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The Potter Lab at Georgia Tech, responsible for the aforementioned robot artist has also done other similar projects, like the rat-brained robot mentioned in this Technology Review article.

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And scientists at Northwestern University, Chicago – took a part of a lamprey’s brain and connected it to a robot, making it control the robot to move towards a light source. If you ask me the lamprey actually looks less creepy this way than under normal circumstances (I will not even discuss its diet).

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The researchers doing these experiments usually refer to how it could help paralyzed patients. In a previous Wetware article, we discussed the case of quadriplegic Jim Jatich regained rudimentary control over his paralyzed arm aided by a brain interface. Breakthroughs in the field could certainly help countless paralyzed patients.

But what other use could it possibly have? Here are a few ideas:

  • Using real neural tissue as a part of computer systems: If we learn to create intelligent interfaces between wetware and hardware, biological parts could be integrated with computer systems to provide functionality that has proven hard using traditional hardware and software. Think e.g. about using the visual interpretation from an animal’s brain as a layer in a computer vision system, or the nose and odor facilities of a dog’s brain to create devices for sniffing bombs or drugs.
  • Using rats or other creatures with implants to aid search and rescue work or – less morally – as spying equipment. Implants would help both controlling them and to receive the feedback (smell, sight, sound). What the heck, I bet the military would love to have a whole army of such soldiers – armed and dangerous.
  • Using “thought recognition” to interface with our computers, instead of a keyboard, mouse or voice commands.

At which point did you say: “Ok, hold it – we’re not going down that route!”. Well, whether you like it or not, we are. We will see this sort of gadgets as research continues. Some of them will in a few decades time seem no less moral than in vitro fertilization or farming chicken for that matter.

But some of them raise somehow deeper ethical questions. An army of remote controlled animals in warfare – that doesn’t seem right (killing each other in the first place doesn’t seem right but that’s another matter). And where will it stop? Once we start fiddling with the human brain, one must be careful about the security glitches you’ve got!

Personally I’m all for carefully exploring this route – in any case it cannot be stopped, any more than the production of nuclear bombs, human cloning or biological weapons research. And this for one will at least bring about some positive things to be sure.

So the question is: Which will we see first, a human-brained robot or a robot-brained human 😉

One comment

  1. I’m all for the robotic soldier (or “Cybernetic Organism” as Ahnuld so elegantly put it).
    In fact, sending humans to war should be a crime.

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