Ever wanted to build a robot brain out of actual neurons? (Uh, don't answer that.) In a story straight out of something from Dr. Who or other science fiction tales, Kevin Warwick of the UK's University of Reading--a cyborg in his own right--has been developing electrode arrays with rat brain cells growing on them in order to control simple robots. After being placed on electrodes, embryonic rat neurons begin growing and forming branched projections called axons and dendrites, and ultimately form neural pathways between different portions of neurons.
The researchers let the rat neurons grow on the array for a week or so, and then Warwick and his team begin finding neural pathways along the mesh of rat brain cells. Using Bluetooth to connect the robot and neuron array, they can get the robot to learn to roll on its wheels and even manage to not crash into walls. This robot (maybe the only truly learning robot?) builds pathways between the neurons that receive signals from the sonar sensor that it's run into a wall and the neurons that tell the wheels to turn.
What's next for these neuron-equipped robots? Warwick and collaborators are now planning to grow a network of tens of millions of neurons on an array of electrodes, and are looking towards creating a robot brain with 100 billion neurons. After that? There's talk of using human neurons to grow a "brain in a jar", hopefully to solve more complex problems than simply not running into a wall. Tricky questions arise at this point: if you grow a brain on electrodes from human neurons, is the resulting network of neurons human?
[Via IEEE Automation]
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This story, "Robot Powered by Rat Neurons Learns to Avoid Walls" was originally published by PCWorld.