Thursday, August 14, 2008

Robot Controlled By Rat Neurons

In some of the weirder news I've read lately, New Scientist Tech is reporting on a set of experiments being conducted at the University of Reading in the UK that involve using rat neurons to control a specialized robot. The neurons—about 300,000 of them—are in a nutrient-and-antibiotic bath in a control unit that controls the robot wirelessly via Bluetooth.

Because these are living cells, scientists are unable to program the robot. Instead, they are working on training it by sending electrical signals into the neurons in response to certain actions the robot takes. For example, an ultrasonic sensor on the robot can detect walls and other obstacles, and the brain cells receive an electrical input to let them know the wall is there. So far, they have "taught" the brain to avoid obstacles with about 80 percent reliability (another researcher at Georgia Tech has taught his robot to avoid obstacles with 90 percent reliability).

The results of this research could be interesting, in terms of re-training brains damaged by accidents, strokes, or diseases and allowing people who are currently disabled to live more active lives.

But could it also lead to rat brain-controlled robots taking over the world? That seems unlikely, but if it ever happens we can just give the robots mad cow (rat?) disease or Alzheimer's.

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