Sunday, June 03, 2007

Living Computer Flies Airplane

Cultured-neuron computers are a favorite science fiction technology, from the bio-neural circuitry used on Star Trek Voyager to the "smart gels" in Peter Watts' Starfish. Bioengineers have made great strides in making such technology a reality in the past few years. For a cool example, check out this National Geographic video of cultured rat neurons controlling a flight simulator (via Grrrl Scientist).

When these experiments were first published in 2004, one of the scientists involved, Thomas DeMarse, explained to Wired how the experiment worked.
"It's as if the neurons control the stick in the aircraft, they can move it back and forth and left and right," said Thomas DeMarse, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Florida who has been working on the project for more than a year. "The electrodes allow us to record the activity from the neurons and stimulate them so we can listen to the conversation among the neurons and also input information back into the neural network."

Currently the brain has learned enough to be able to control the pitch and roll of the simulated F-22 fighter jet in weather conditions ranging from blue skies to hurricane-force winds. Initially the aircraft drifted, because the brain hadn't figured out how to control its "body," but over time the neurons learned to stabilize the aircraft to a straight, level flight.

"Right now the process it's learning is very simplistic," said DeMarse. "It's basically making a decision about whether to move the stick to the left or to the right or forwards and backwards and it learns how much to push the stick depending upon how badly the aircraft is flying."
In similar research, Steve Potter's group at Georgia Tech has used cultured neurons to control robotic devices, called the hybrot. Meanwhile, scientists at Tel-Aviv University recently showed that an artificial neuron network grown on a silicon chip can store a "memory."

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