University of Reading scientists have developed a robot controlled by a biological brain formed from cultured neurons. And this is a world's premiere. Other research teams have tried to control robots with 'brains,' but there was always a computer in the loop. This new project is the first one to examine 'how memories manifest themselves in the brain, and how a brain stores specific pieces of data.' As life expectancy is increasing in most countries, this new research could provide insights into how the brain works and help aging people. In fact, the main goal of this project is to understand better the development of diseases and disorders which affect the brain such as Alzheimer or Parkinson diseases. It's interesting to note that this project is being led by Professor Kevin Warwick, who became famous in 1998 when a silicon chip was implanted in his arm to allow a computer to monitor him in order to assess the latest technology for use with the disabled. But read more...
You can see on the left a picture of this robot with a biological brain. "The brain consists of a collection of neurons cultured on a Multi Electrode Array (MEA). It communicates and controls the robot via a Bluetooth connection." (Credit: University of Reading). Here is a link to a larger version of this picture.
These robots are developed at the Cybernetic Intelligence Research Group, part of the School of Systems Engineering at the University of Reading. The team has been led by Kevin Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics (please also check his personal home page. He worked with two lecturers in his group, Dr Victor Becerra and Dr Slawomir Nasuto, as well as with Dr Ben Whalley, another lecturer in the School of Pharmacy.
Now, let's look at these biological brains for robots. "The robot’s biological brain is made up of cultured neurons which are placed onto a multi electrode array (MEA). The MEA is a dish with approximately 60 electrodes which pick up the electrical signals generated by the cells. This is then used to drive the movement of the robot. Every time the robot nears an object, signals are directed to stimulate the brain by means of the electrodes. In response, the brain's output is used to drive the wheels of the robot, left and right, so that it moves around in an attempt to avoid hitting objects. The robot has no additional control from a human or a computer, its sole means of control is from its own brain."
Impressive, isn't? The team is now working on "how memories manifest themselves in the brain when the robot revisits familiar territory," hoping to help people affected by Alzheimer's disease. Here is a quote from Warwick about this project. "This new research is tremendously exciting as firstly the biological brain controls its own moving robot body, and secondly it will enable us to investigate how the brain learns and memorises its experiences. This research will move our understanding forward of how brains work, and could have a profound effect on many areas of science and medicine."
And here is another quote from Whalley. "One of the fundamental questions that scientists are facing today is how we link the activity of individual neurons with the complex behaviours that we see in whole organisms. This project gives us a really unique opportunity to look at something which may exhibit complex behaviours, but still remain closely tied to the activity of individual neurons. Hopefully we can use that to go some of the way to answer some of these very fundamental questions."
This project has been funded by the UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) with a grant of £ 435,856. The projects started on January 1, 2007 and will end on December 31, 2009. Here is a link to the details of the grant awarded to this project called "Investigating the Computational Capacity of Cultured Neuronal Networks Using Machine Learning."
Here is an excerpt from the project description. "In this project the neural cultures will be cultured locally in the University of Readings' new Electrophysiological research laboratory allowing real-time access to the recording and stimulation hardware via an intranet link-up. In order to test the abilities of such cultured neural networks we propose using them to control some of our existing mobile robots. This is to be achieved by applying a number of Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence techniques in order to correctly translate robot sensor inputs into suitable patterns of stimulation and interpret the resulting patterns of neural activity as motor actions. In order to measure the amount of computation the cultured "brain" is performing we will use a surrogate (an artificial neural network that redistributes the input signal to the output) in place of the the cultured "brain". Both the cultured "brain" and the surrogate will be applied to various behavioural tasks (such as obstacle avoidance and wall following) the difference in performance between the cultured "brain" and the surrogate will give us some measure of the processing capabilities of cultured neural networks when used in this way."
This project has been recently presented during the European Robotics Symposium 2008 (EUROS 2008) held in Prague, Czech Republic, on March 26-27, 2008. The title of the paper accepted for publication was "Architecture for Living Neuronal Cell Control of a Mobile Robot," while Warwick's keynote talk was named "Robots with Biological Brains and Humans with Part Machine Brains."
Here is an excerpt from the introduction of this keynote talk. "In this presentation a look is taken at how the use of implant and electrode technology can be employed to create biological brains for robots, to enable human enhancement and to diminish the effects of certain neural illnesses. In all cases the end result is to increase the range of abilities of the recipients. [...] The area of focus is notably the use of electrode technology, where a connection is made directly with the cerebral cortex and/or nervous system. The presentation will consider the future in which robots have biological, or part-biological, brains and in which neural implants link the human nervous system bi-directionally with technology and the internet.
If you've read this post up to now, you need a reward. Here is a link from where you will be able to download a broadcast quality video (I'm not sure if you have to register). Anyway, this video is 7 minutes and 22 seconds long and this is a 95.2 MB download. This movie is divided in three parts: the evolutions of the brainy robot and two interviews with the main researchers. Very instructive...
Sources: University of Reading news release, via AlphaGalileo, August 12, 2008; and various websites
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