Aug 14 2008

Robot with a Biological Brain

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Comments: 32

I enjoy science fiction partly because it can be a thought experiment on the potential course of future technology. A common sci-fi theme is the merging of man and machine and the blurring of distinction between the two. Clearly this is a process that has already begun, but even the most thoughtful futurists cannot tell where this will lead with anything but the broadest brush strokes.

In the campy sci-fi flick Saturn 3 (1980), the character played by Harvey Keitel builds a robot (Hector) with a modified human brain as it’s CPU. Keitel trains the robot partly by imprinting his own brain patterns onto it. As he is a dangerous criminal psychotic, antics ensue.

The prequels to the classic Dune series, written by Frank Herbert’s son, Brian, along with Kevin J Anderson, the primary enemies of humanity are cymeks – immortal human brains that can inhabit their choice of robotic bodies – from battle armor to space ships.

In 2061: Odyssey Three, Arthur C Clarke paints a future where every human is equipped in infancy with a “brain cap.” This is a super-computer that fits nicely over the skull, sending electrodes down into the brain in order to seamlessly interface with it and greatly expand human intellectual capacity.

In Stephen R. Donaldson: The Gap Series (1990-94), a major plot element is the “zone implant.” This is a computer device implanted into the human brain in order to enhance and control its function. They are outlawed because of they offer complete control to whoever holds the remote control to someone’s implant. But they are also portrayed as useful for the treatment of psychological and neurological disorders.

And, of course, in the new Battlestar Galactica series (I highly recommend this series to any sci-fi fan, and even if you are not a sci-fi fan this is simply superb drama) the Cylons have created humanoid robots that are indistinguishable from normal humans but have Cylon AI.

This is just a sampling running the spectrum from brains controlling robots to AI controlling human bodies with brain-AI interfaces in between. At present we are just taking the first baby steps toward whatever version of these fictional futures await us, if any. Time will tell.


Kevin Warwick and other researchers at the University of Reading have developed a robot that is entirely controlled by rat neurons. The robot, called Gordon, is the first of its kind. Warkick isolated neurons from rat fetuses then placed them on a 5 inch by 5 inch array of 60 electrodes. He reports that the neurons with a day started to synapse together, forming a network. The array outputs to the robot’s motors and receives stimulation from it’s sensors. Within a week the neurons start to exhibit brain-like activity and then Warwick can begin “teaching” it by having the robot explore it surroundings. Most of the learning is automatic, based upon feedback from the receptors. But Warwick also reinforces the learning by using drugs to reinforce or inhibit certain neural pathways.

What Warwick and others are doing is building  brain from the ground up. This is a great way to see how neurons behave and how complex behavior emerges from the basic properties of neurons. They seem to spontaneously network together and form useful pathways based upon the neural feedback they get. This is likely to be a very fruitful avenue of basic neuroscience research.

This research may also lead to the development of biological computers. Extrapolating from this current research, it is not hard to imagine growing neurons on a complex matrix that results in a powerful parallel processor – a brain, of sorts, but designed to perform computing functions and interfacing with electrodes attached to a familiar computer interface. This technology may not be practical for desktop applications (and this is where predicting future technology becomes difficult to impossible) but there may be applications for which massive parallel processing, even with relatively large and slow neurons, has advantages over silicon.

One potential advantage of neurons over silicon is the former’s ability to learn and adapt. Gordon, in part, trains itself just by moving around and bumping into things. Neural pathways are adaptive, not etched in silicon.

These experiments also have the potential to increase our ability to interface neurons and computers – a necessary technology if we are going to have our “brain caps” one day.

Another aspect of this research worth discussing are the ethical considerations. Warwick largely avoids controversy by using rat neurons (rather than human neurons), but you can see where this technology is going. I wonder how long it can fly under the radar before the protests begin. I foresee huge ethical and social conflicts in the future as this technology develops. Is Gordon “alive”? Is his matrix of neurons a “brain”? If the same were done with human neurons would that make Gordon a human? How large and complex will such a network of neurons have to be before it is considered a being? or to have the rights of a human? Going the other way, how does the introduction of computer AI into a human brain affect a person’s status as a person?

The waters are muddied and the lines are blurred, and if this technology develops they will increasingly be so until there is such a smooth continuum from human to machine that no objective lines can be drawn.

Many sci-fi works have explored these themes as well.  We can imagine nightmare scenarios like the Matrix in which humans are enslaved in a virtual world by the very machines we created. But we can also envision a bright future, like Clarke’s 2061, in which machine interfaces give humanity more power over themselves and their environment.

The reality is likely to be messy and complex, neither our worst nightmares nor our brightest dreams. One thing is for sure – it is likely to be nothing like we can imagine today.

32 responses so far

32 thoughts on “Robot with a Biological Brain”

  1. trillium says:

    Intriguing research. Could you share your source information regarding the work at University of Reading? I would be interested in following further developments.

  2. mattdick says:

    I am generally not interested in the current bio ethics debates. Not because I don’t have opinions, but because I think so much of the debate these days misses the point, displays enormous failures to understand the technologies involved, and most importantly it often talks about “should” as opposed to “when”. So much of what we fight about is inevitable and anyone who is trying to stop advances (like human cloning) as opposed to trying to deal with their consequences doesn’t really belong at the grown-ups’ table.

    This will be a true test of our bio ethics. Clearly this neural network is too small for us to entertain ideas of this robot being a living creature with rights. But it’s also now just as clearly on the continuum which includes me, and I think I deserve rights. So we now have created a sort-of living creature, and inevitably we’ll end up with creatures sophisticated enough that some of us will consider them alive and some of us will not consider them alive.

    I hope I live long enough to participate in that debate.

  3. superdave says:

    The neurons are alive, so I don’t think there is much debate in saying that this creation is alive. This is far removed from calling it a distinct organism but I can see where this is going and I think this ethical argument will be inevitable. It is important to point out that the ethical argument, as steve so often points out, should be informed by science but not decided by it. The ethical standards of the day, whenever that day comes, will dictate the ultimate decision.

    Also, while it might sound like a trivial problem, a major hurdle for research in this area is making sure the materials you use for electrodes and implants are biocompatible and reasonable durable and replaceable. Most neural implants will eventually stop working due to the long term exposure of the environment of the brain. A skin contact interface is ultimately more desirable, but as you can imagine gives you much less signal than an implant directly inserted into the cortex.

    Lastly, even though I agree that this experiment by Warwick sounds exciting, I would be a little skeptical of his claims. I saw him give a presentation once and he spent at least as much time promoting himself as he spent on actual neuroscience. Still, he is a person who is not afraid l to challenge ethics in the name of science (I actually got the feeling he relishes this role) and we need people like that even if I don’t think it is the best mode for most scientists.

    PS Check out my new blog.

  4. “Clearly this neural network is too small for us to entertain ideas of this robot being a living creature with rights.”

    But some will. How small is a stem cell?

    Right-to-lifers and other generally anti-science groups will be all over this if a human neural cell is ever used, and you have to think that’s inevitable. And I’d expect PETA-type groups to sooner or later come to the defense of these poor lab rat brain cells.

    Exciting stuff, though. Huge implications on many fronts.

  5. Niels Kjaer says:

    “How small is a stem cell?”

    “Do Not Answer not-AND Ask DAN!”

    I’m afraid that the answer to such a question is too simple. To cross validate the answer will hopefully take around 8 billion years.

    In economics there exists a concept called the Nash equilibrium.
    It is reached when living intent is most easily able to change the Nash equilibrium while the impact of non-intentional changes is minimized.

  6. Think “lithium” old son.

  7. Niels Kjaer says:

    Uups, sorry,

    I forgot a couple of “;-)”‘s. I do enjoy when humans find spelling mistakes in my rantings… Did you check out Nash?

    Just asking and answering questions about AI and robotics might not be healthy in the long run;-)

  8. Fred Cunningham says:

    This topic sure brought back some old memories. Back when I was a student, people were wiring up moth brains to build biological computers. I remember having a discussion with Norbert Wiener on the subject. He felt that the future of computing was with the biological approach instead of silicon.

  9. Blake Stacey says:

    I think the brain cap was in 3001, not 2061, and it was fitted to its user in adolescence, not infancy.

  10. Steve Page says:

    And, of course, in the new Battlestar Galactica series (I highly recommend this series to any sci-fi fan, and even if you are not a sci-fi fan this is simply superb drama) the Cylons have created humanoid robots that are indistinguishable from normal humans but have Cylon AI.

    And all due to the awesome power of Windows XP, too! 😀

  11. Roy Niles says:

    It will be most interesting to see if these neurons, that are in the process of forming expectations about their surroundings, have any form of such expectations already in their DNA.

    Will they tend to behave in ways that signal some expectation of self-replication, for example.

    And since they should not, in my view, be considered life forms if not self-replicating, the question of ethical treatment of such “beings” would seem a long way off.

  12. “And since they should not, in my view, be considered life forms if not self-replicating, the question of ethical treatment of such “beings” would seem a long way off.”

    I agree, Roy, and would add only that a *reasonable* questioning of the ethics would seem a long way off. I suspect the right-to-lifers (for lack of a better collective term) will begin protests along ethical grounds (as they see it) the minute they learn of this.

  13. Roy Niles says:

    Then we must make sure that robots don’t even think about copulation.

  14. Not the least reason being that it’s a SIN.

  15. pec says:
    Gloria Gronowicz

    Can’t post this at sciencebasedmedicine

  16. CKava says:

    pec that link is completely irrelevant to the topic so why post it? It’s also been discussed on the SGU podcast though I’m not sure if you listen to that- if not I recommend it.

    To hopefully end the off topic comments and summarise the conclusions offered: until the trial is repeated by independent reserach groups and the results verified it’s findings remain about as convincing as Benveniste’s Homeopathy research.

  17. Nitpicking says:

    Doctor, you should check out the work of “Cordwainer Bird” (Dr. Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger). In his SF, robots actually used mouse brains as their CPUs.

    Bird is considered the best stylist in SF by many.

  18. Fred Cunningham says:

    “Cordwainer Bird” was Harlan Ellison, a possible tribute to Paul Linebarger’s “Cordwainer Smith”.

  19. pec says:

    “pec that link is completely irrelevant to the topic”

    I posted it here because sciencebasedmedicine thought it was spam. I tried to post the link there a couple of times, and then I tried to post the author’s name, and then I just tried to post anything at all, but everything was blocked. The great scientists at sciencebasedmedicine must not have set up their blog correctly.

  20. decius says:

    May be the “great scientists at sciencebasedmedicine” got enough of your constant trolling and banned you from posting.
    I wouldn’t blame them.

  21. pec says:

    Why do you think it’s trolling if I cite controlled experimental research that supports the idea of biological energy?

    And they didn’t ban me from posting by the way, they just don’t know how to use their blog software.

  22. decius says:

    You know perfectly well what I mean, don’t pretend it’s about the link.
    By the way, that topic has been covered three weeks ago.

  23. Fifi says:

    Ah, pec (who claims to be a computer scientist) doesn’t even understand the basics of a spam filter and thought she was being oppressed because the algorithm recognized her as a spammer because she behaved just like a spammer. Talk about a very thin grasp of cause and effect. This is highly entertaining.

  24. Fifi says:

    I’ve particularly enjoyed the “I can’t post because I’m being oppressed”…um…posts *rotflmao*

  25. decius says:

    That’s rich, Fifi. 🙂

  26. pec says:

    You can laugh your stupid ass off all you want Fifi, but you can’t explain why there is scientific research to support claims that your ideology says is impossible.

    And I did not behave at all like a spammer. I tried posting the link a couple of times and gave up. I tried posting the author’s name, affiliation, etc., and gave up. I tried posting anything at all and most of the time it failed. That does not sound like a very good spam filter. The computer illiterates at sciencebasedmediciine are not using their blog software correctly.

  27. pec – We simply use a spam filter plug in for WordPress – Defensio. It is off-the-shelf standard stuff. As far as I know there are no settings – it’s just a service. It has nothing to do with how we “use” it. It has nothing to do with our blog software. It is an outside service we plug in – that’s it.

    As best I can tell you were pegged as a spammer by the filter because of the frequency of your posts. There were 50 of your posts flagged as spam – it looks like the more you tried to post the higher your spam rating went. There may have been other factors in the algorithm – I have no way of knowing.

    My advise is, if your post does not go through, do not re-post. That just makes it worse. We will get to it eventually.

  28. CKava says:

    Instead of accusing people of being ‘computer illiterates’ you could maybe think what the result usually is when you try to post the same link multiple times.

    Regardless of all that, as has been pointed out people are well aware of that study and have already discussed it. Enjoy listening to the podcast.

  29. jeffhsu3 says:

    Warwick is a huge advocate for so-called human machine interfaces. I remember press releases a few years back announcing that he had implanted a RFID into his arm.

    I have a hard time envisioning on how a computer AI introduced into a human brain would confer additional intelligence. I could imagine for instance that a computer AI would be helpful in offloading some of the processing for muscle control resulting in possibly faster movements and other such tasks. But would it be able to increase our ability to garner and elucidate the deeper mysteries of the universe? I certainly hope so.

    Maybe I should pick up Clarke’s book.

  30. clgood says:

    Dr. Novella:

    Have you read any William Gibson? I’m bilingual, but that second language was expensive. I’d love to be able to “slot” the language of the country I’m visiting.

    Right-to-lifers and other generally anti-science groups…

    Careful with the broad brush there, DA. Being pro life does not make one anti-science.

  31. Anticontrame says:

    Dr. Novella, I have a passing understanding of how some artificial neural networks are trained, but I have no idea how they trained this biological network. Could you point me towards some literature?


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