Cyborg Rats!


by Tim Moran

Regular readers know that robotics are a favorite topic here. This robot tale, however, is especially cool.

Let's begin with Kevin Warwick, a cybernetics researcher at the University of Reading, in the U.K. According to SingularityHub.com, Reading "was once a cyborg...he has used his mind to control a robotic hand, he has sent his thoughts across the Atlantic and clenched a mechanical fist, and he has even felt, in his own neurons, the signals from his wife's nerves. . . In 2002 a 100 electrode array was wired into the nervous system of his arm so that he could remotely control an artificial hand."

Recently, the ex-cyborg "has been working on creating neural networks that can control machines. He and his team have taken the brain cells from rats, cultured them, and used them as the guidance control circuit for simple wheeled robots."

Warwick and his team have developed a way for a tiny, wheeled robot to be controlled by the neurons from a rat's brain. Its sensors collect data that is transmitted to the rat's brain by Bluetooth. The brain then sends commands back to the robot's wheels.

The claim is--and I have no reason not believe it--that this is "the first robot in the world to be controlled entirely by living tissue." In other words, this is an animal cyborg.

These videos of the project are amazingly cool, especially the second one.

Apparently the videos are a few years old--Warwick has not released any new ones in a while--and the "skills of these rat-robot hybrids are very basic. Mainly the neuron control helps the robot to avoid walls." However, Warwick has pointed out that these cyborgs are apt to become more advanced quite quickly.

The voiceover on one of the videos notes that the brains only last about three months, and that when new brains are used, the robot's behavior clearly changes. Spooky, eh? As if different rat brains tell the robot to do different things.

Warwick says these cyborgs are going to become more advanced, probably sooner rather than later. "Current cultures of neurons have about 100,000 cells, but only a small fraction are actually involved in controlling the robot circuits. . . . Eventually, we'll have a cultured system that is roughly the size of the simplest of mammalian brains." And that's the point at which the robot will be able to do more than not roll into a wall.

Let's hope, at least, that they don't begin to spread computer viruses.