What happens when a man is merged with a computer or a robot? This is the question that Professor Kevin Warwick and his team at the department of Cybernetics, University of Reading in the UK have been trying to answer for a number of years.
There are many ways to look at this problem. There is the longer term prospect of freeing the mind from the limitations of the brain by uploading it in digital form, potentially onto a computer and/or robotic substrate (see the h+ interview with Dr. Bruce Katz, Will We Eventually Upload Our Minds?). There is also a shorter term prospect at a much more limited scale — a robot controlled by human brain cells could soon be wandering around Professor Warwick’s UK labs.
Professor Warwick (who incidentally has a device implanted in his left arm that enables his nervous system to be connected to a computer) and his colleague Ben Whalley from the School of Pharmacy recently created a robot that is controlled by cultured rat neurons. The next step in their research is to use a human neuron cell line, a type of “wetware.”
As reported in New Scientist, some 300,000 rat neurons grown in a nutrient broth and producing spikes of electrical activity were connected to the output of a small robot’s distance sensors. The neurons proved capable of steering the robot around an enclosure. Here’s the New Scientist video of the robot courtesy of the University of Reading:
This research is the first step in examining how memories create neurological structures in the brain, and how the brain stores specific pieces of data. The researchers hope that this will lead to a better understanding of diseases and disorders that affect the brain such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, stroke, and brain injury.
Warwick comments, "This new research is tremendously exciting as firstly the biological brain controls its own moving robot body, and secondly it will enable us to investigate how the brain learns and memorizes its experiences. This research will move our understanding forward of how brains work, and could have a profound effect on many areas of science and medicine."
Warwick, Whalley, and colleagues don’t need specific ethical approval from the University or the UK government.to move forward with the human neuron cell line as soon as they are ready. The cultures are available on the open market and "the ethical side of sourcing is done by the company from whom they are purchased,” according to Whalley.
The use of the term “wetware” has been around since the mid-1950s. In the recent academic literature, it refers to cells (that are “wet”) built out of molecular circuits that perform logical operations, as electronic devices do, but with unique properties. Mathematician and science fiction writer Rudy Rucker used the term as the title of his 1988 cyberpunk novel, and later defined it in the book Mondo 2000: A User’s Guide to the New Edge (edited by some fellow named R.U. Sirius) as the “physical DNA in a cell.” Rucker now refers to physical DNA in a 2007 blog entry as “lower level” wetware, with higher-level wetware defined as, “The arrangement of a body’s cells –- and the all-important tangling of the cortical neurons…”
According to a University of Reading press release, the “wetware” biological brain used by the UK robot is made up of cultured neurons that are placed onto a multi-electrode array (MEA). The MEA is a dish with approximately 60 electrodes that pick up the electrical signals generated by the cells.
Biologically-generated signals drive the movement of the robot.
The biologically-generated signals drive the movement of the robot. Every time the robot nears an object, the electrodes generate signals to stimulate the brain. In response, the brain’s output is used to drive the wheels of the robot left and right so that it avoids hitting objects. The robot has no additional control from a human or a computer –- its sole means of control is from its own brain. Dr. Whalley comments, "One of the fundamental questions that scientists are facing today is how we link the activity of individual neurons with the complex behaviors that we see in whole organisms. This project gives us a really unique opportunity to look at something which may exhibit complex behaviors, but still remain closely tied to the activity of individual neurons. Hopefully we can use that to go some of the way to answer some of these very fundamental questions."
While this isn’t exactly merging a man with a computer, it is merging some significant human carbon-based “wetware” (in Rucker’s 2007 definition of the term) with some sophisticated silicon-based circuitry in robotic form. Does this mean that whole brain implants into cyborg bodies are in our future