Monday, October 06, 2008

Brain Power

Our brains are marvelously intricate computing machines. It is estimated that the 100 billion neurons in the human brain average 7000 synaptic connections to other neurons. While rat brains are much smaller, rat brain neurons have a similar connectivity. It seems only natural to try to utilize the brain's natural computing power in place of silicon-based microchips.

Along those lines Steven Potter - a professor at Georgia Tech's Neuroengineering Laboratory - has developed a so-called "hybrot", which uses cultured rat neurons to control a robot. A 2002 article in Technology Review described the machine as "a thinker, not a fighter":
And while the hybrot's movements may appear less than graceful, the knowledge gained could lead to computer chips modeled on biological systems-and perhaps even to computers that incorporate biological components. Such computers might one day learn, repair themselves, and perform certain tasks-such as dictation-at which binary-based systems are miserable. "I'm banking my whole career on the fact that there is a world of emergent properties in these neural networks that we don't know anything about," says Potter, who is a professor of biomedical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
(Watch a video featuring Potter's work from BBC Horizon)

More recently, Missouri University of Science electrical engineering professor Ganesh Kumar Venayagamoorthy has been collaborating with the Georgia Tech scientists to create a living neural network that is able to control a simulated power grid.
"We want to develop a totally new architecture than what exists today," says Venayagamoorthy, who also directs the Real-Time Power and Intelligent Systems Laboratory at Missouri S&T. "Power systems control is very complex, and the brain is a very flexible, very adaptable network. The brain is really good at handling uncertainties."
Venayagamoorthy's goal is to develop what he calls "biologically inspired artificial neural networks" or BIANNs, which would ultimately be able to control not only power grids, but also "other complex systems, such as traffic-control systems or global financial networks." While those applications are only at the planning stage, the Missouri S&T lab is currently able to simulate a power grid the size of Nigeria's or part of the New England-New York power grid here in the US. Presumably their next step is to try to control a real power grid.

I'd hate to think what would happen if the neural networks controling the traffic control systems was infected by a virus or contaminated with bacteria. Would the systems be as easy to replace or repair as non-organic computers?

Some free science fiction featuring neuron powered machinery:
  • In Peter Watts' Rifter's trilogy -Starfish, Maelstrom, Behemoth - cultured brain cells are used as "smart gels" (AKA "head cheese") to manage complex tasks like flying airplanes
  • Anne McCaffrey's short story "The Ship Who Sang" features a ship run by a very real human brain
(via Peter Watts)

Top Image: Golgi-stained neurons in the somatosensory cortex of the primate, Macaca fascicularis from
Bottom Image: B'Elanna Torres, chief engineer of the USS Voyager, inspects a bioneural gel pack for infection



  1. Not to mention the comic book Shatter by Mike Saenz (the first comic done using only computer graphics) -- the characters used smart bombs controlled by rat brains.

  2. I haven't seen Shatter, but I bet bombs like that would be nasty.


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