Watch Cortical Labs Brain Cells in a Petri Dish Learn How to Play Pong

Have you ever played a video game that you thought was impossible? Think of dark souls or Cuphead levels of frustration. Now imagine you had no hands. Or eyes. Or ears. Or a fully developed brain.

Turns out, it doesn’t take all that much to learn how to play video games decently enough. In an article published in the magazine on Wednesday neuron, Researchers at biotechnology company Cortical Labs say they were able to teach a cluster of brain cells in a Petri dish to play the 1970s classic Pongor at least an alternate version of it, playing against itself with a paddle.

Adorably named DishBrain, the system consists of neurons in a Petri dish connected to a computer. This setup would provide electrical feedback to the cells indicating whether or not the paddle hit the ball in play. When the neurons moved the racquet to hit the ball, they sent spikes of electrical signals back to the computer.

See for yourself below:

Over time, the neurons improved their game of pong amazingly, reducing misses and increasing consecutive hits. This showed that the cells could adapt to their new environment and produce different goal-directed actions and behaviors over time.

“An unpredictable stimulus was applied to the cells, and the system as a whole would reorganize its activity to better play the game and minimize a random response,” Brett Kagan, chief scientist at Cortical Labs and first author of the paper, “says it in a press release. “One can also imagine that just playing the game, hitting the ball, and predictable stimulation creates inherently more predictable environments.”

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Pong wasn’t the only game the mini-brain played, either. The authors note in the press release that the neurons have also been tasked with playing this dinosaur game, which you can play when your Google Chrome browser loses internet connection. “We’ve done that and we’ve seen some nice preliminary results, but we still have more work to do to create new environments for custom purposes,” Kagan said.

Cortical Labs first made headlines in December 2021 for its petri dish game system. However, it only recently published the peer-reviewed paper of its findings.

The experiment not only lays the foundation for the world’s weirdest twitch channel. The study’s authors state that DishBrain is an early step in the development of synthetic biological intelligence (SBI) systems, or computers that use human neurons for their processing. Think cyborgs The Terminator or the human batteries in The Matrix.

In addition, it could fundamentally change the way we think about how the human brain works. If a cluster of neurons can learn how to play a video game from a petri dish, what does that say about the way we learn and experience the world?

“This is the beginning of a new frontier in understanding intelligence,” Kagan said. “It not only touches on the fundamental aspects of what it means to be human, but also what it means to even be alive and intelligent, to process information and to be sentient in an ever-changing, dynamic world.”

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