Friday, December 9, 2005

"Talk to me Goose, talk to me!"

Rat brains fly jet!

Alright, not really...but almost, sort of.

Thomas DeMarse, 37, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Florida, has been working on training Petri dish-grown rat brains to fly an F-22 fighter jet simulator.

WHAT???

DeMarse and his fellow university scientists first grew a rat brain by extracting neurons from a rat embryo. The neurons then mulitply, and voila, soon you have 25,000 neural cells ready to take on Iceman and win the Top Gun competition, right? Not quite. They keep the rat neurons in a Petri dish with special liquid to keep the neurons alive. Soon, the neurons clump together, form neural networks, and become a real working mini-brain.

The 25,000 cells are on top of a grid of 60 electrodes inside the dish. "These electrodes allow us to literally listen to the 'conversations' among the neurons to find out how they are computing," DeMarse said (pictured right with one of his rat brain dishes). "By sending in [electronic] pulses to each electrode, we can also stimulate the network in 60 different locations."

DeMarse then connected the rat brain to a jet flight simulator via the electrode grid and a regular 'ol desktop computer. They activated the brain, turned on the flight simulator, and let the rat noggin do the rest. I feel the need for speed! And some cheese!

How well did the brain do?

"When we first hooked them up, the plane 'crashed' all the time," Dr DeMarse said. "But over time, the neural network slowly adapts as the brain learns to control the pitch and roll of the aircraft. After a while, it produces a nice straight and level trajectory." The brain even learned how to keep the jet fighter straight in mock hurricane force winds.

Does this freak anybody else out???

So what's the purpose of such experiements? Are we going to crush Iran with a squad of rat brains or something?

"We're hoping to find out exactly how the neurons do what they do and extract those rules and apply them in software or hardware for novel types of computing," DeMarse said. In other words, this research could possibly lead to the creation of sophisticated, real thinking computers. Imagine - a computer that could actually think, be creative, and be flexible enough to figure out more complex and open-ended problems. Even the most powerful computer lacking the ability to "think outside the box" wouldn't know the differnce between a dog or a cat if it had no previous knowledge of either. Giving a computer a "biological" component would enable it to figure it out. This type of thinking is what we humans take for granted, but it's currently impossible for a computer to do.

Of course the research has military implications. One day, they could install living computers in unmanned aircraft so they can be deployed on missions too dangerous for humans. This work also has medical breakthrough potential as well. Studying the nature of neurons might provide the basis for developing new drugs to treat brain diseases such as epilepsy.

The U.S. National Science Foundation has awarded DeMarse and his group a $500,000 grant to produce a mathematical model of how the neurons compute, and the U.S. National Institute of Health is financing research into epilepsy.

I see a lot of potential benefits from this research, but I can't help but wonder about the inherent risks involved. What if we take the next step and see if lab-grown brains can fly a real jet? I think that would be very dangerous. It could put thousands of pilots out of a job. What about the creation of thinking and self-aware computers? They could enslave humankind and take over the world! OK, sorry...I must be paranoid.

How dangerous could self-aware, living computers be? Seems harmless to me.


Or maybe not...

24 comments:

Andrew said...

Okay, now you're freaking me out!

I'm off to buy a couple of hundred acres in the mountains, some guns and a few thousand cans of beans. Nice knowing you'all.

Kid Jacque said...

That is some seriously freaky stuff. It's so sci-fi....

Big Pissy said...

Now I'm scared!!!!

the weirdgirl said...

That is so bizarre! I don't know which part is more amazing... that they can grow brains in dishes (the heads in jars on Futurama flashes to mind) or that the RAT BRAINS can learn to fly a jet. It's just so outside of any biological function (on an evolutionary level) that the rat has ever had (no less than a few neurons)!

I am tripping.

grrrbear said...

Don't they understand that if you have rat brains driving all the military vehicles they will eventually conspire to take over Wisconsin and keep all the cheese for themselves!?!?

It'd be just like in 2001 - A Space Odyssey. Only without the trippy ending.

:P fuzzbox said...

It's a Brave New World. But I am secure in the knowledge that a petri-dish brain will never be able to cook a perfect peach cobbler in a dutch oven over an open fire.

Jamie Dawn said...

That is so unbelievably freaky. I don't see how it would know if the darn thing was level, if it can't see the screen. It doesn't seem feasible to me, but then I'm not using my own brain cells to their full capacity.

Anhoni Patel said...

Dude. They're building super machines. And I *totally* thought of Terminator before I scolled down and there he was!

Grafs said...

Awright this is ridiculous. And btw: Top Gun wouldn't have been as fun with a bunch of brains in a petri dish, though maybe a little more dignified ;)

siren said...

You know, rats are always getting the short end of the stick. If we're not crushing or poisoning them, we're pouring chemicals on them or taking their brains to fly jets. That's just bad rat karma.

The Phoenix said...

You people are so incredibly witty.

FLAMINGO1 said...

The brains clearly would not have been able to play volleyball without their shirts on.

Would one of the brains have been conflicted because its father crashed over Laos in 1965?

Brains singing "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" would not be pretty.

That all being said, I hate human robots. Human robots have the strength of ten men. That is why I am working on a gorilla robot that will have the strength of 10 human robots.

Get your filthy robot hands off me you damn dirty robot ape!

Pixie said...

You always manage to find the weiredest things to write about Heh.

Jillian said...

Man that is rediculous - Sorry I haven't been to your blog in awhile. I have been so busy with a Lotttttt of school-related things lately - I haven't had time to read anyone's blog!

It's nice to be back though. :-)

Sherri said...

Yep, this one freaked me out. Yikes!

The Phoenix said...

Why can't they train rat brains to do something useful, like shovel snow or something???

Lucy Stern said...

I'm sure the government gave him millions for his research. I'm sure there are all kinds of practical purposes for teaching rats how to fly planes...I'm not getting on one of them.

Reiki said...

that is freaky. although, i am sure the government does even freakier experiments that we never find out about...

Sherri said...

Hmmm.... on one hand it freaks the heck out of me, on the other hand I wouldn't have to shovel snow.

Keshi said...

lol Andrew!

Freakkkkkkky stuff mate!

Keshi.

NowhereGirl said...

I don't know about shoveling rat brains, but a laundry one would be perfectomente! ;-)

cube said...

There's nothing like open-ended rat brain research news to make my Monday. Science grows more like sci-fi all the time. But I say, if it helps me get a robot friend, I'm all for it.

BuffyICS said...

Interestingly enough, this subject was covered in 2005's "Stealth." Not the rat brain part, but the creation of a jet that flies itself. Of course, after watching the movie, I became convinced that while the jet might not have worked with rat brains, the script most certainly did.

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