Scientists Apparently Taught Brain Cells How to Play ‘Pong’

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In new research this week, scientists say they were able to teach mice and human brain cells how to play one of the most enduring video games in history: pong. The novel performance suggests that even neurons can learn and display some form of rudimentary sentience at the individual level, the authors say. And the research could one day pave the way to the development of computers that use brain cells to perform specific tasks at levels that today’s computers can’t match.

Research is primarily the work of scientists Cortical Laboratories, a new biotech startup in Melbourne, Australia. It is said to be the proof of concept for a technology the group calls biological computing — a technology that relies on the different abilities of the brain.

“There’s a lot of research going on into building better information processes, from machine learning to neuromorphism to quantum computing,” the study’s lead author, Brett Kagan, chief scientific officer at Cortical Labs, told Gizmodo in an email. “However, biological brains exhibit unique properties that we cannot yet replicate with hardware alone. Brains can process large amounts of information very quickly with minimal energy requirements and adapt to changing environments. We were interested in how brain cells display this intelligence, so we asked the question: Why are you trying to mimic what you can use?”

The DishBrain system in action while playing Pong. Image credit: Kagan, et al./Neuron

To create the pong-To set up the game, the team integrated mouse or human brain stem cells cultivated in the laboratory into a silicon chip. The chip was designed to read and write information via electronic signals. This “DishBrain” system was then placed in a simulated environment –pong. The team developed software that could read the electrical signals from the cells when fired and apply them to the game, namely the paddle that keeps the ball in the air; This software could also provide feedback and send information to the cells about how their signals changed the game world, such as whether the bat actually hit the ball. With this feedback, the cells were apparently able to reorganize their shots and essentially “learned” how to play better pong real-time gaming in just five minutes. This purposeful change in behavior over time, the authors argue, shows that even cells in a petri dish can manifest some kind of inherent intelligence under the right conditions.

The insights were released Wednesday in Neuron magazine.

Eventually, Kagan and the team believe biological computing can provide a variety of benefits, such as: B. Improving the way we find new potential drugs and model diseases, among other things. But for now, this research is only the first step to get there.

“We needed a system that could test how we could interact with neurons to demonstrate intelligence and goal-directed activity,” Kagan said. “We can now apply the system in new ways to start investigating [these advances] At the same time, the basic technology is being further developed to enable new applications.”

The team has already started testing the system in other gaming environments. Next, they hope to make the technology more accessible and reliable.

“In addition, we will study how certain drugs affect learning or diseases that affect cognition and improve the hardware, software and wetware behind these systems,” Kagan said. “By being able to use these systems to better understand and eventually use how neurons exhibit intelligence, it will ultimately open up a wealth of applications.”

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