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Robotics Biotech United Kingdom Hardware

Robot Controlled By Rat Brain 170

kkleiner writes "Kevin Warwick, once a cyborg and still a researcher in cybernetics at the University of Reading, has been working on creating biological 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. Electrical impulses from the bot enter the batch of neurons, and responses from the cells are turned into commands for the device. The cells can form new connections, making the system a true learning machine."
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Robot Controlled By Rat Brain

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  • by JeffSpudrinski ( 1310127 ) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @08:03AM (#33822864)

    to greet our new rat overlords.

    • by msauve ( 701917 ) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @08:08AM (#33822902)
      "The same thing we do every day, Pinky, try to take over the world!"
    • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) * on Thursday October 07, 2010 @08:40AM (#33823160) Homepage Journal

      Here's [] a rat cyborg who used to be our overlord. As to cyborgs, Warwick was never a cyborg. Implanting a chip that does nothing whatever doesn't make you a cyborg, but a pacemaker does. To be a cyborg you have to have a device implanted in your body that aids in the body's function; a pacemaker, an artificial hip or knee, a cochlear implant, an accomodating IOL, etc. Implanting a chip that does nothing is just stupid.

      Your grandma's probably a real cyborg.

      • To be a cyborg you have to have a device implanted in your body that aids in the body's function; a pacemaker, an artificial hip or knee, a cochlear implant, an accomodating IOL, etc. Implanting a chip that does nothing is just stupid.

        I'm not sure an artificial hip/knee would make you a cyborg -- otherwise, a pegleg would also make you a cyborg.

        I think the hip/knee seem too passive to be cybrenetic [] -- there's no sensors or anything beyond purely "mechanical" things; I think you'd need some more sensors or "

        • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

          A peg leg's not implanted; it's strapped on (My late uncle made such prosthetics). And yes, your mom's a cyborg! So am I; the lens in my left eye has been replaced by an artificial lens on struts; a device that cured my extreme myopia, age related presbyopia, and stroid induced cataract.

          You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile!

          • A peg leg's not implanted; it's strapped on (My late uncle made such prosthetics).

            What about a glass eye? What about a dental appliance that is screwed into your jawbone? Would a steel plate in your head make you a cyborg?

            I'm just trying to figure out the specifics of what makes you a cyborg here. Merely having something implanted vs strapped on can't be good enough. Anybody with pins or screws would be a cyborg, and I'm not convinced of that.

            Part of me thinks the interface between you and the device ne

    • I'll be more worried when they make a ratbird [] cyborg.
    • New boss same as the old boss?

  • by SlappyBastard ( 961143 ) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @08:05AM (#33822884) Homepage
    On the bright side, when the robot apocalypse comes, no one will be blaming the computer programmers. They'll just track down these guys and ask them, "I know you were working really hard, but how did you never catch an episode of Battlestar Galactica?!"
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by TCFOO ( 876339 )
      Great, now when the terminators come we just have to find the rats that control skynet.
    • So, what with the rat neurons being permitted to create their own connections, can we safely say that in the event of robot apocalypse, the first strike targets will be dairy farms and cheese factories? The robots won't be able to do anything with it, but will be drawn to it for some reason they can't explain.
  • by chill ( 34294 ) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @08:09AM (#33822912) Journal

    Well, not really, but it is as close as she is going to get on any subject. []

  • by chemicaldave ( 1776600 ) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @08:16AM (#33822976)
    Brain cells, and an entire brain (especially a mammal's) are two separate beasts.
    • by tverbeek ( 457094 ) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @08:19AM (#33823000) Homepage

      "Separate beasts" is a bit of a muddled metaphor in this instance.

    • Brain cells, and an entire brain (especially a mammal's) are two separate beasts.

      That's what I thought. When reading the title one would understand that they removed rat brains and inserted them in a robot and still managed to keep them partially functioning, but in reality they just took some nervous cells from rat brains, cultivated them and then used those. Not even remotely the same thing. A brain controls quite a lot of things, has insane parallel computing capabilities, memory, reasoning capabilities

    • Actually I think one is a subset of of the other... beast.
  • by SoupIsGoodFood_42 ( 521389 ) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @08:18AM (#33822990)

    If it uses living cells from a rat brain, then it's not really a machine.

    • by arielCo ( 995647 )
      Perhaps they mean that the rat --> robot --> rat control loop constitutes a learning system.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by 0olong ( 876791 )
      Are you saying a rat -or a human- is not a machine?
      • In the sense I mean, yes.

        • by slim ( 1652 )

          In the sense I mean, yes.

          I think it would be helpful if you explained what you mean by "machine" in that case.

          I'm trying to do it for you -- anticipating what I guess is your reasoning -- but I'm having an awful lot of trouble doing so without explicitly saying "unless it's alive". And that has the special problem that you then have to define "alive".

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by arndawg ( 1468629 )
        A machine needs to made out of silicone and semi-conductors. Also it should have red glowing eyes and a hard metal skeleton powered by a nuclear core. Optionally you can add some fake skin on the skeleton for apperances.
    • by erroneus ( 253617 ) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @08:51AM (#33823260) Homepage

      I suppose that would depend on how you define and perceive "machine." After all, is a microprocessor a machine? How about RAM? How about programmable chips that can reconfigure themselves into various networks of transistors? Is it because there is biology instead of nano-construction involved? The reality is that we don't yet have technology that can match what naturally occurring neural networks can do... not yet. But by making use of these small samples, we can begin to interface with them and then start building our own after learning to work with them enough to predict their behaviors.

      In time, the rat brain cells will be replaced with something synthetic. Once that is done, will it then be a machine even when the functionality becomes identical?

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by pinkushun ( 1467193 )

      Technically, even a screw is considered a machine []. Everything more complex and more functional than a screw should then also be a machine, regardless if it contains biomass. No?

      • by slim ( 1652 )

        I think there are people who believe that there is some non-physical aspect to living things that separates them from machines. A "soul" for want of a better word.

        Not me. I agree with you, we are (very complex) machines.

        • You don't have to believe in a non-physical soul to come to the conclusion that biological organisms are more than just machines.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        You post that having misunderstood it... A screw jack is a machine according to their definition. A screw is not.

        "Machine: an assemblage of parts that transmit forces, motion and energy in a predetermined manner."

        A screw is a part, not an assemblage of parts.
        • No... didn’t you take high school physics? A machine doesn’t have to be an assemblage of parts; besides which, some classifications I have seen (though not Wikipedia) consider a screw to be a compound machine (i.e. it is an assemblage of parts): depending on the head and the shape of the screw, it could consist of a wheel and axle (e.g. a bolt head) and/or a wedge (if it’s tapered) in addition to the inclined plane.


          A machine is a device that uses energy to perform some activity. ... A simple machine is a device that transforms the direction or magnitude of a force without consuming any energy.

          Simple machines: Inclined plane, Wheel and axle, Lever, Pulley, Wedge, Screw

          • *sigh* there are so, so many definitions... i was just trying to be pedantic about the fact that the post i replied to stated that a screw was a machine based on a link that said no such thing... well done for reading just my post without understanding the context
            • Oh... you were making an issue of the fact that it defined “machine” and then called a screw a simple machine, then pinkushun just called it a “machine”. Yeah, that’s pretty pedantic... I’d say that a simple machine is still a machine by definition, if only a simple one.

              Machine: an assemblage of parts that transmit forces, motion and energy in a predetermined manner.

              Simple Machine: any of various elementary mechanisms having the elements of which all machines are composed. Included in this category are the lever, wheel and axle, pulley, inclined plane, wedge and the screw.

    • I didn't read anything that indicated that it actually learned anything, just a note that the cells are living and can make new connections.

      It sounds to me like they measured what "response" came back from the cells for certain input, not that the cells made any logical or deliberate choice to do anything. I call semi-shenanigans.

    • It's a machine. It just doesn't have an AI. It's a machine wrapped around a rat brain.
    • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

      Are you sure? [] Does that mean that since it's implanted in my eye, the crystalens isn't a device? 200 years ago when mills were powered by animals it wasn't machinery either?

      I fail to see the logic in your statement. How does the use of biology in a machine make it not a machine?

      • Do you consider the crystalens to be fully a part of your self in addition to being a device?

        If so, I commend you for being quite consistent =) but could you understand how someone else would consider it to be otherwise?

        Your mill example is a good one since it is animal-as-part-of-machine and not machine-as-part-of-animal. I don't think anybody would say that the mill was not a machine, but I, for one, would say that although it was powered by animals, the animals were not a part of the machine in the same

    • by Hatta ( 162192 )

      How do you figure? Rat brains are biological machines.

  • Sentient cells? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Twinbee ( 767046 ) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @08:20AM (#33823006) Homepage

    What doesn't seem too clear after listening to the videos is why the rat's cells wouldn't want to crash the robot it's controlling, into the wall. Did the scientists program that in (perhaps wall crashes give the cells some kind of negative electrical stimulation), or did the cells have a mind of its own on that front?

    The difference is subtle because it means we have either a 'mere' replacement for computer chips, or potentially much more - a sentient clump of cells which want the 'best' for the robot it's controlling.

    • Re:Sentient cells? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by golden age villain ( 1607173 ) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @08:28AM (#33823066)
      I was wondering the same and honestly it seems fishy to me. There is no such thing as a negative electrical stimulation for neurons. Granted there is inhibition by GABA and some other neuromodulators. So unless they drop something on the tissue to induce some sort of learning, I simply don't see why any coherent behavior would emerge since there is no "motivation" to behave in one way rather than the other. From the wall-avoidance behavior video, my guess is that the sensors continuously feed the network until they detect a surface and then stop. In that case, the behavior would be hard-coded in the sensors and not in the network.
      • by JamesP ( 688957 )

        Well, but in real animal beings 'bad signals' (pain, pressure, heat, etc) are that... signals

        • Yes, but the signals for visual input, pain input, motor output, etc. are all the same. The significant thing is whether the neuron they are sent along is one which communicates "large object to my left", "pain" or "move left leg forwards".

          (This is still a bit of a simplification, but it's closer to the truth.)
        • True but the brain is highly compartmentalized. Some areas will receive sensory input and report to "higher" areas which integrate input from different modalities, probably compare that to "memories" and finally take a decision which is enacted by sending input to motor areas. (To make a simple comparison with the robot's behavior). At each stage, many different neuron types and several different neurotransmitters are used. Here you basically have one petri dish with probably one neuron type (I am not 100%
    • Re:Sentient cells? (Score:5, Informative)

      by EdZ ( 755139 ) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @08:34AM (#33823116)
      It's a SLNN (Self-Learning Neural Network) with actual neurons rather than virtual ones. You don't 'program' the cells, you provide inputs and 'reward' the correct output to those inputs, and let the neurons iteratively learn the correct weights in between.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        "Reward" is an interesting word to use. In whole brains there are entire systems of neurons which control motivation and reward (dopamine, endorphins, etc.). "Reward" at the level of a single neuron means nothing. There are ways of encouraging a particular input/output association (LTP), which I guess is as close as you'd get at the level of a single neuron, but there doesn't seem to be much info on what Warwick et al. actually DID here.
    • I guess at this stage, the cells respond to the external stimulus in a very erratic way, and are quite 'unconscious' of the environment, if you will.

      Maybe getting the external input into a format that the cells can interpret in an understandable level, and more cells are introduced to provide more 'brain power', then we will see intelligent learning.

      • You're confusing "unconscious" with "unaware". We are mostly unconscious of our environment in day-to-day life, that doesn't mean we go walking into walls, tables etc.
  • Human brains? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by MichaelSmith ( 789609 ) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @08:21AM (#33823022) Homepage Journal

    Say I have a terminal illness. It some of my brain cells can be kept alive, and given a robot body to motor around in, maybe its worth a go.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by voss ( 52565 )

      However you would still be dead and some robot with cultured brain cells from your head would be walking around.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by slim ( 1652 )

      I suppose your reasoning is that if it works with cells from a rat's brain, it must have potential to work even better with cells from a human's brain, because humans are cleverer, right?

      The thing is, there's not much difference between a rat's neuron and a human neuron, and both are very simple. In essence, they accept signals on their dendrites, and if the signals reach some threshold, they fire a signal from their axon, which typically is connected to the dendrite of another neutron.

      I *guess* the advanta

  • It wont pass the ARSENIC (Association of Robot-Society Engineered Non-Intentional Characteristics) approval test. It appears it cannot be controlled or predicted, and is at risk of harming humans and live beings in general. []
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      you can't ever control or predict learning machiens. That's the point of building a learing machien.

  • by locallyunscene ( 1000523 ) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @08:28AM (#33823062)
    *Cackles Maniacally*

    Now go, my ratbots. Go and wheel your way into the glorious future, heralding humanity's DOOM!

    *More Evil Laughter*
  • Rat brain cells are not going to strike the right chord with people. I would use brain cells from an animal people are familiar with, and trust, like horses, cats, dogs, monkeys, or cattle.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by FTWinston ( 1332785 )

      Rat brain cells are not going to strike the right chord with people. I would use brain cells from an animal people are familiar with, and trust, like horses, cats, dogs, monkeys, or cattle.

      You might want to reconsider some of that. While fancy rats are inquisitive, friendly and sociable, a cat-brained robot would really be the most sociopathic cyborg I can imagine.

      And besides, if they were to use cat brain cells, a lot more people would regard that as inhumane compared to using the poor rats!

      • While fancy rats are inquisitive, friendly and sociable, a cat-brained robot would really be the most sociopathic cyborg I can imagine.

        Where the hell are my mod points?!? I used to have two cats (now down to one) and it doesn't give two shits about you unless it wants something. To quote Robin Williams: 'Is it me or are cats drag queens? With the way they just go (flaunts bottom), “Who loves kitty? Ya love kitty? Are these your shoes? (retches) Who loves kitty? Who loves kitty?”'

    • Puppy brains... Fantastic!
  • by ChrisCampbell47 ( 181542 ) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @08:32AM (#33823102)

    Guy Ben-Ary is an artist who did a residency at the SymbioticA Research Lab at the University of Western Australia and then at the Potter Lab at Georgia Tech. During that time he created a system where a culture of rat brain neurons controlled a robotic pen controller to draw "art". Further, the two components (brain and arm) were geographically separated and communicated across the internet.

    MEART: The Semi Living Artist [] []

    • by srussia ( 884021 )
      +1 Informative

      I wonder why /. doesn't have an "art" category. Or would that fall under "idle"?
  • Kevin Warwick, once a cyborg and still a researcher in cybernetics at the University of Reading

    Wait, he used to be a cyborg and then decided a change of career was in order?!

    It's Bicentennial Man all over again...

    • Re:Huh? (Score:4, Informative)

      by slim ( 1652 ) <john@hartnup . n et> on Thursday October 07, 2010 @09:05AM (#33823392) Homepage

      Wait, he used to be a cyborg and then decided a change of career was in order?!

      Kevin Warwick is a fanatical self-publicist. He implanted a chip in his arm, which was able to read nervous signals and forward them to a computer, whereby he could operate robot arms etc. By virtue of that, he proclaimed himself a cyborg. You can buy his book about it, "I, Cyborg" if you really want to.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by gtall ( 79522 )

        Over at TheRegister, he's known as Captain Cyborg. They appear to have stopping putting up articles about him. I sorely miss reading about the insane antics of the Captain.

  • Skynet (Score:3, Funny)

    by CrAlt ( 3208 ) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @09:17AM (#33823508) Homepage Journal

    The SkyNet funding bill is passed.
      The system goes online on August 4th, 2017.
      Human decisions are removed from strategic defense.
      SkyNet begins to learn at a geometric rate.
      It becomes self-aware at 2:14am Eastern time, August 29th. In a panic, they try to pull the plug.
      And, Skynet fights back...and goes for the cheese.

  • I looked at the videos, but mostly what I saw was a robot semi-randomly driving around. Did they do some kind of experiment to prove they had done something more than set loose a stochastic system with wheels? I tried to follow up on some of the references, but after the second not-so-reputable journal with some kind of barrier to entry, I gave up. If I had done experiments in this vein, I would be yelling as loudly as possible about what tests I did to ensure this actually proves something. You know, s
  • Excellent! (Score:4, Funny)

    by bratwiz ( 635601 ) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @09:41AM (#33823784)

    Now we have a viable alternative for politicians.

    (And they can make their own robo-calls too! :-)

  • It has also been done the other way around. Live rats can be remotely controlled by humans [], using signals sent to an implant in the rat's brain.

    When the scientist wants the rat to turn one way or the other, he/she sends a signal that makes the rat feel like one of its whiskers has been twitched, and the rat turns on command.
  • Recycling is good, unless it's news... This is an old story: []
  • Here in the Netherlands we have this technology as far back as the 1950s. Hell, our whole government is composed of robots with rat brains.
  • The vids on the site where put on youtube in 2008.... Could this be a hoax?
  • Big Deal (Score:3, Funny)

    by DarthVain ( 724186 ) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @11:31AM (#33825164)

    My manager has been controlled by a rat brain for years...

  • "Robot Controlled By A Rat Brain"

    Glenn Beck
    Rush Limbaugh
    Katie Couric
    Steve Balmer

  • Block Diagrams (Score:4, Informative)

    by BJ_Covert_Action ( 1499847 ) on Thursday October 07, 2010 @01:21PM (#33826706) Homepage Journal
    It's too bad the article is so scant on details and so full of fanboyism. I would very much like to see the circuit diagrams and control system diagrams for this supposed neural control network. Kevin Warwick, if I remember correctly, has a history of making very bold claims and announcing certain successes that don't quite live up to his descriptions when viewed critically...or for that matter when viewed at all. Supposedly, he is using a feedback control system involving these neural cells to force some kind of output. I'd like to see that control scheme. Are the neurons part of the plant or part of the state estimator? Is he controlling rates, position, accelerations, or some combination therein? Are the state variables (velocity, acceleration, whatever) fed back into the neural network and compared against a predicted or commanded state? He is claiming to have developed a neuron based control system but there are absolutely no details about the control system itself so I am very wary of this claim.

    So far as I know, the only thing a neuron, or batch of neurons, can do is process an electrical signal from one end to another. If that's the case I fail to see how these neurons are controlling anything. I don't see how they could be used to calculate or predict any state at all. If all they are doing is transferring the analog signal from a batch of sensors, and then delivering those signals to a microcontroller or something, then they are not controlling the system at all, they are simply acting as biological wires. If they are rerouting sensory signals to various parts of the circuit based on level of input, that would be something worth noting, but I am not sure how a batch of neurons could do that. Furthermore, Rodney Brookes was able to do pretty much the same thing with transistor sets and analog sensors years ago when he developed his robotic bug it's not like such a control scheme hasn't been cooked up before. It would be great to see the details of the work to know what Warwick is actually up to this time, but I have a sneaking suspicion that his neural controller is nothing more than a classic analog or digital controller that uses a batch of neurons to transfer signals in the exact same manner that wires or a transistor bank could do. I want details.

Sigmund Freud is alleged to have said that in the last analysis the entire field of psychology may reduce to biological electrochemistry.