Living Robot Has Biological Brain

The rat brain robots created by a team of scientists at the University of Reading are apparently not done learning. In a real sense, it is a living robot.

The robot has an actual, living brain consisting of rat neurons. The cells are removed from rat fetuses and then disentangled from each other with an enzyme bath. Finally, the cells are spread over a multi-electrode array (MEA) bathed in a nutrient-rich medium. Impulses from its robotic part are received; the neurons organize themselves and fire electrical signals back. This feedback loop has been sufficient to allow the rat neurons to drive Gordon, a small robot.

(Gordon, a rat neuron-controlled robot video)

To me, the most interesting recent development is the creation of new sensor input devices to the robot. “We are looking to increase the range of sensory input potentially with infrared and other signals,” says Kevin Warwick, a professor of cybernetics and one of the principle designers of the project.

This really brings up some science fictional possibilities. What would it be like for a living brain to be able to see X-ray sources in the sky? What about a brain that was able to make sense of the data derived from a a company's complete financial records? Talk about a head for business.

What if you connected a blank, manufactured brain to an fMRI and let it look at the data streaming forth from a person's brain under defined stimulus? Would it know where you have been? Or maybe what kind of person you are?

This kind of combination of living tissue with a mechanical or sensory portion reminds me strongly of such devices as Philip K. Dick's swibble from his 1955 story Service Call.

The directing neurological tissue that forms the basis of the swibble is alive, certainly, in the sense that it grows, thinks, feeds, excretes waste. Yes, it's definitely alive. But the swibble, as a functioning whole, is a manufactured item. The organic tissue is inserted in the master tank and then sealed.
(Read more about PKD's swibble)

Fans of Cordwainer Smith will (rightly) chide me if I fail to mention the Laminated Mouse Brain Computer from his 1962 classic Think Blue, Count Two. And don't forget the 'head cheese' cultured brains from Peter Watts' 1999 novel Starfish (if you're looking for up-to-the-minute sf, pick up the paperback - don't let the date fool you).

In Dick's story, swibbles needed to be protected from parasites, but I don't think that he wrote about the demise of the organism/device. Warwick's rat brains grow old in a few months and gradually lose their power to acquire new pathways. There are limits to living robots, after all.

If you haven't read it, this story of a manufactured living brain forms an interesting counterpoint to this previous story of a project in which researchers recreate the neurons and synapses as circuits of transistors and capacitors to create a "chip brain."

Read more at SEED Magazine. Choose from among 134 sf technologies and ideas from Philip K. Dick's books.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 3/29/2009)

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