Thursday, 14 August 2008

The Cyborgs are coming

Rat brain controls robots

There are just too many issues brought up by this experiment. Basically, researchers have taken neural cells from a rat foetus and connected them to a robot that navigates via sonar so they can be used to control its movements with the ultimate aim of simulating loss of memory in the neurones in an attempt to study the mechanisms of Alzheimer's disease.

Got all that?

Several questions are raised in this report, for me at least. Since when is it so straightforward to connect brain cells to machines? How do rat neurones know how to interpret sonar signals? Isn't it impressive enough to have made a bio-mechanical hybrid without justifying it by using it for Alzheimer's research?

All that. Actually, several aspects are explained in the article/video. But they do say they intend to disrupt the neuronal links that form (yes, the neurones are actually learning stuff via this experiment, that's the point). They "plan to disrupt the memories in a bid to recreate the gradual loss of mental faculties seen in diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's". Maybe I'm being dense, but I'm not sure how useful this recreation will be, as the actual cause of memory and functioning breakdown in these diseases is caused by neurones dying off, and the cause of this is yet to be 100% confirmed for either disease. Also, the neurones underlying these diseases rarely, if ever, go through a phase where they're removed from the body, kept alive via artificial means and used to control a sonar equipped robot. Any results obtained from these experiments will be tricky to generalise.

But it's impressive Science nonetheless, albeit the sort that gets the general public all twitchy. Taking the brains out of foetal rats, building what it effectively a cyborg, this sort of thing tends to unnerve people.

I was quite unnerved myself when they demonstrated monkeys using robotic arms. The science was very impressive, that didn't bother me, it was the fact that monkeys tend to be aggressive, vicious little sods, so giving them control over super-strong robot arms is just asking for trouble. Seeing as they're lab animals, I imagine the first thing they'd do is escape. And who's going to be the first person who suffers a fractured skull after being hit by a monkey turd flung at supersonic speeds?

I guess it's only a matter of time before we can get working mechanical implants in humans. Then who knows what'll happen? The 2012 Olympics might be a lot more interesting than we expect.


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4 comments:

Benjamin said...

you may be able to shed some light on this but I heard that the brain can learn to interpret any electrical signal sent to it. I heard of an experiment in which people had iron filings embedded in their fingers and the nerves grew around them. when the hand was passed through a magnetic field it induced an electric current in the iron filings which was picked up by the nervous system and carried to the brain. The patientest then had a sixth sense of magnetic field detection. By the way? Have you heard of the singularity?

dave_hullo said...

I guess they can't start by taking neurons already affected by Alzheimer's disease and attach them to a robotic learning device. It would be quite depressing to see the robot sit for three hours, forget why it was there and then wet itself and cry. I used to do Alzheimer's research, I'm aloud to be horrible.

Dean Burnett, BSc, PhD (circa Nov 2008) said...

Benjamin-
Is the singularity the point where technology becomes advanced enough so it can design itself to the point where humans won't have any idea how it works anymore? Or the centre of a black hole? I've heard of both.
The neurones in the fingertips are sensitive to preassure, so if people had iron filings embedded and neurones grew around them, then magnetic fields would pull on the filings, and this would exert pressure. This could be argued as a sensitivity to magnetic fields, I suppose, but it's indirect.
Don't know if that ever happened, but if it did, God help the poor volunteers if they ever need an MRI scan.

Dave -

Dirty boy naughty now!

Benjamin said...

"A" singularity is a mathematical term for a point where a function becomes undefinable. It occurs when graphs assimtope so it's applied to black holes because the density assimtopes towards infinity and was given to the idea that AI has the potential to run away with it's self exponentially. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_singularity

I find it personally fascinating and inevitable.

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