Australian rat-robot hybrid paints pictures

Artists, scientists and computer programmers have embedded rat neurons in a robot to create a 'hybrot' artist

A Western Australian art and science collaboration is assisting US neuroengineers with the development of distributed networks and artificial intelligence.

The SymbioticA Research Group (Sarg) is a collection of artists, computer programmers and scientists based at the University of Western Australia. It has collaborated with the Laboratory for Neuroengineering at Georgia Tech in the US, which recently hooked a few thousand rat neurons to a multi-electrode array to create a 'Hybrot' -- so named because it is a hybrid of living and electronic components.

Sarg had already done some research in creating art using fish neurons, so the two laboratories decided to collaborate in an attempt to bridge the gap between biological and artificial systems, to produce a machine capable of matching the intelligence of even the simplest organism -- one that will over time evolve, learn, and express itself through art, according to Professor Steve Potter.

The US hybrot was linked over the Internet to a robotic arm with three coloured pens created by Sarg that responded to electrical signals from the hybrot; the first time neurons over an electrode array have communicated over the Internet to a remote location. "The areas of activity in the neural culture respond to [movements] in the robotic arm," Oron Catts, artistic director of Sarg, told ZDNet Australia . "For example, if the upper left area of the neural culture activates, the arm moves that way."

The resulting robot is called "Meart," which stands for multi-electrode array art. Catts said there was a feedback loop so the neurons could "see" what they were drawing. "The culture is fed with the original image, the portrait that they are trying to produce, and what they have drawn already, so they can subtract the image," he said.

Potter believes that the teams will be able to establish a cultured in vitro (literally "in glass") network system that learns in the same way as the living brains in people and animals: in effect, creating artificial intelligence by using the building blocks of living brains.

"On the science side, I hope that we can look at the drawings it makes and see some evidence of learning," said Potter. "Then we can scrutinise the cultured network under the microscope to help understand the learning process at a cellular level."

Catts, on the other hand, is more interested in the artistic and philosophical aspects of the experiment. "I'm interested in creating a cultural discussion questioning the gap between the cultural understanding of life and the scientific understanding of life," he said, saying that other people who worked at Sarg had different interests in the project. "[We're also] interested in raising the broader issue of using living tissues in areas they are not meant to be used."

"Being creative and artistic is something that has traditionally been reserved for [humans and other higher life forms]... [we're trying to] create something that can be perceived by others as creative," said Cotts. The choice of words is significant, since the human input into the artworks is integral. Humans not only created the robotic arm, but also wrote the software to interpret the neural signals generated by the rat cells, and provide input to the cells in terms of electrical impulses.

"We're walking the line," admitted Catts, claiming that part of their role as artists was to explore boundaries and be confronting. "It's not about the shock value of the work but about raising questions."

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