Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Friday 29/10/2004This has been a good week for brains in vats - oh, and monkeys. First, researchers at the University of Minnesota managed to get a jar full of 25,000 rat brain cells to control a flight simulator: then, a team from the University of Pittsburgh wired a robot arm into the motor cortex of a passing simian.

Friday 29/10/2004
This has been a good week for brains in vats - oh, and monkeys. First, researchers at the University of Minnesota managed to get a jar full of 25,000 rat brain cells to control a flight simulator: then, a team from the University of Pittsburgh wired a robot arm into the motor cortex of a passing simian. A computer - have you noticed that they're always hanging around at this sort of event? - decoded the neural activity in the cortex and used the signals to control the arm.

It took a while for the monkey to work out what was going on, and even longer for it to learn how to control the thing, but in the end it managed to feed itself reliably using the bionic prosthesis. "The monkey was perfectly happy doing this" said one researcher, "If it wasn't comfortable doing it, it wouldn't." No word yet as to the degree of contentment felt by the rat neurons, although with Delta in receivership and Ryanair getting more and more unionised they may feel that becoming a pilot is not the best career move.

Combine these sort of experiments with the knowledge that Jeff Hawkins, inventor of the Palm Pilot, is busy building artificial brains and it's clear we're in for an interesting few years. I would like to propose a few experiments to help advance the state of the art.

1. Grow a network of journalist neurons in a glass jar, and see whether it can accomplish simple tasks. Flying a flight simulator might be a bit hard - I've never had much luck at that, even with getting on for a million times more human neurons than the original jar had rat cells, so perhaps we can see if it can recognise a straight line from a PR, or be taught to reliably react to timed stimuli -- like a bell at 11pm -- without grumbling.

2. Teach a monkey to program a PalmPilot. As our leader today suggests the only way the PDA industry may be saved is if a cross-species market is developed. That will quite reasonably require some ape-centric software and other material, and who better to understand that market than those who are already part of it. If no monkeys show interest in learning to program, and being sensible animals this is quite possible, then teenagers, football managers or other near-humans could be pressed into service. First job: modify payroll program to cope with peanuts.

3. Take a culture of cells from an RAF pilot and see whether it can be grown into a network that behaves like a rat. Cheese detection, nose twitching and synchronised squeaking should do it. This may go some way to showing that pilots and rodents are in fact two different examples of the same species, a discovery which would surprise very few navigators and which would also please the people in charge of finding new ways to cut defence expenditure while giving the appearance of having an air force.

Brave days lie ahead.

Addendum: it would be impossible to write about this week without mentioning the great shock and sadness everyone in the office felt with the sudden passing of John Peel. It still seems like a bad joke gone wrong.

Tears have been shed, music has been played at excessive volume and countless tributes read online. I have no idea how much of the music I love came either directly from Peelie's show or because his endless promotion of the good stuff kept the record companies on their toes - but given the ska, reggae, punk, weird electronic and general shoutiness that lives on my iPod, I'd think that 'most of it' would be an accurate guess.

An irreplaceable man.