Rat-brain robot alters direction of human history ... again!

New robot, not such new science.

Published August 16, 2008 12:03AM (EDT)

The world of science and tech news is downright exuberant over the announcement of a robot controlled by the neurons of a rat brain. In case you missed it (and I don't see how you could have!), Kevin Warwick, a professor at the University of Reading, unveiled the cute little creation earlier this week. Gordon, as the would-be ratbot is known, follows the whims of 300,000 lab-grown rat neurons, whose signals are picked up by 60 electrodes and transmitted to Gordon via a Bluetooth connection.

You can watch little Gordon wander around, rodentlike, here and here.

The dramatic discovery leads some to ask, is this the answer to Alzheimer's and other memory disorders? (You may be surprised to find that the University of Reading press release has already settled the question: "The key aim is that eventually this will lead to a better understanding of development and of diseases and disorders which affect the brain such as Alzheimer's Disease, Parkinson's Disease, stroke and brain injury.")

I'm all for the next-big-thing-to-change-the-world stories -- and anytime somebody hooks anything to neurons they've gotta learn something -- but I might gently point out that Dr. Warwick has in the past proven adept at obtaining copious press coverage for revolutionary exploits that some later found to be less than revolutionary, and sometimes even worthy of ridicule. Facts which I'd be more inclined to overlook and get on board with the celebration, if Steve Potter at Georgia Tech hadn't already gone public with very similar research back in ... 2002. Any of the following sound familiar?

Steve Potter's brand new robot would probably never make it to the second round of Battlebots. The size of a coffee mug, the cylindrical robot slides across a round meter-sized playpen on an apparently chaotic path. But this robot is a thinker, not a fighter, and it does its thinking with a network of neurons-culled from rat embryos-that resides a few feet away on an electrode-activated silicon chip.

The device, which Potter calls a hybrot, is in essence a rat- controlled robot, and marks the first instance in which cultured neurons have been used to control a robotic mechanism. And while the hybrot's movements may appear less than graceful, the knowledge gained could lead to computer chips modeled on biological systems-and perhaps even to computers that incorporate biological components. Such computers might one day learn, repair themselves, and perform certain tasks-such as dictation-at which binary-based systems are miserable.

Not to say that the latest entry in the rat brain category isn't cool. It really is quite fascinating. (And I don't want throw a wet blanket on your favorite "Three Laws of Robotics" and "I, for one, welcome..." jokes!) But this seems like a small step in an evolution of technology that's been happening for a while, rather than a giant leap into our new, rodent overlord future. In fairness, the New Scientist article that launched this frenzy largely portrayed it as such, but as always the second line coverage operates under its own rules.

By Evan Ratliff

Evan Ratliff is a contributing editor to Wired magazine, and the co-author of "Safe: The Race to Protect Ourselves in a Newly Dangerous World."

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