WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
The convergence of biological intelligence with robotics will be an area of increasing interest in the future.
It’s not something you do every day, put a worms brain into a Lego robot… but then again you’re probably not a scientist. This is the promise of a new field of emerging technology called Neurobiotics. According to everyone in the know the brain is really little more than a collection of electrical signals, and if we can learn to catalogue those then, in theory, you could upload someone’s mind into a computer, allowing them to live forever as a digital form of consciousness, just like in the Johnny Depp film Transcendence.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking, memory transfer? That’s impossible! Well, think again, dearest reader, the first successful memory transfer experiment actually took place a few weeks ago when scientists transferred memories between two snails. Yes, it’s fun, and very random, being a scientist, and yes, sorry but we’re still a far cry from being able to do the same with human minds…
Anyway back to the story. Last week a team of international researchers announced a breakthrough when they successfully managed to upload the brain of our good old lab buddy the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans, or C. elegans, who also recently helped scientists elsewhere establish that memories are passed down more than fourteen generations, into a robot.
C. elegansis a type of little nematode that has been extensively studied by scientists – we know all their genes and their nervous system has been analysed many times. Since 2014 a collective called the OpenWorm project have been busy mapping all the connections between the worm’s 302 neurons and managed to simulate them in software, reports the Smithsonian.
The ultimate goal of the project was to completely replicate C. elegans as a virtual organism and as an amazing starting point they managed to simulate its brain, and then upload it into a simple Lego robot.
This Lego robot has all the equivalent limited body parts that C. elegans has – a sonar sensor that acts as a nose, and motors that replace the worm’s motor neurons on each side of its body. Amazingly, without any instruction being programmed into the robot, the C. elegans virtual brain controlled and moved the Lego robot.
Lucy Black wrote for I Programmer: “It is claimed that the robot behaved in ways that are similar to observed C. elegans. Stimulation of the nose stopped forward motion. Touching the anterior and posterior touch sensors made the robot move forward and back accordingly. Stimulating the food sensor made the robot move forward.”
This video of the Lego-Worm-Robot thing was released by Timothy Busbice, a founder of OpenWorm, showing it moving, stopping and then travelling backwards.
Of course, the brain simulation still isn’t exact. For one, the researchers had to simplify the process that triggers an artificial neuron to fire. But the fact that this robot can move, can stop before it bumps into something and reverse using nothing more than a network of connections that mimic a worm’s brain, is pretty incredible.
The OpenWorm projects mission now is to help C. elegans evolve into arguably the world’s first digital lifeform, and in an ode to C. elegans scientists are now similarly trying to map all the connections in the human brain, something called the connectome. So far they’ve managed to simulate 10 percent of it in a Japanese supercomputer called the Riken K, and recently a team of scientists from Europe published their work on a new “revolutionary algorithm” that, when run on the world’s first exascale supercomputer platforms, which are estimated to come online in the next year or so months, will help them simulate the entire human brain.
Today it’s a worm brain in a Lego robot, tomorrow… yours?
Even if we’re not uploading our brains into computers, just being able to simulate a human brain would help to revolutionise Artificial Intelligence (AI) and computing, and if, or when, we do get to the point when we can all upload our minds into a random Lego robot where it can co-habit with a digital worm, then the opportunities will be nothing short of mind-blowing.