Thursday, April 03, 2008

Living Tissue to Power Your Computer?

A few years ago I read about an experiment that used living cortical neurons from a rat brain to perform calculations. More specifically, the neurons were connected to the controls of an F-22 fighter jet simulator. After some training, the brain was able to fly the jet in tough weather conditions. Today Geylen brought my attention to another similar experiment. An associate professor at the Uni. of Arizona has built a robot chassis controlled by the brain of a moth. He predicts we’ll be using such organic-machine hybrid computers soon.

A scientist who successfully connected a moth’s brain to a robot predicts that in 10 to 15 years we’ll be using ‘hybrid’ computers running a combination of technology and living organic tissue.
Charles Higgins, an associate professor at the University of Arizona, has built a robot that is guided by the brain and eyes of a moth. Higgins told Computerworld that he basically straps a hawk moth to the robot and then puts electrodes in neurons that deal with sight in the moth’s brain. Then the robot responds to what the moth is seeing — when something approaches the moth, the robot moves out of the way. [Usability News]

The benefit of using biological brains is flexibility and the ability to deal with things such as visual pattern recognition, which would otherwise require expensive “conventional” computers. (In quotes because technically biological systems are the conventional computers.)

Higgins goes on explaining his prediction; in the next few decades computers will utilize biological components for processing. The premise for his assumption is that it’ll become increasingly easier to grow biological components like hearts or brains in coming years. We won’t need to rip out the brains of grown animals or insects. (Or, like he does in this case, attach the whole moth to the exoskeleton and plug wires into its brain.) At the same time, our understanding of biology will advance and enable us to properly utilize complex, organic systems for various tasks.
Artificial lifeforms, bioprinters and related research

Personally I think its fascinating and a relatively plausible option. As a recent example of related technological advances I can point out the bioprinter — a modified Inkjet printer that prints 3D organic structures (read about it in this New Scientist article with the amusing title “Print me a heart and a set of arteries”).
However, I’m toying with the idea whether synthetic materials — sculpted from the ground up — will be a viable and possibly better option. Perhaps models of natural systems, yet made of new materials that aren’t as frail. I’ve written about Venter’s advances in creating the world’s first artificial lifeform. While it is organic material — our stride down the path of engineering complex systems will undoubtedly enable us to alter and improve them. But regardless of any superior solution, I’m sure we’ll see a myriad of living-machine hybrid experiments.
Would you buy a computer containing living tissue?
Like Higgins, I see no impending ethical issue and would be happy and intrigued to have my MacBook powered by living tissue, or possibly an entire lab-grown mouse brain for that matter if done properly. I decided to do a quick initial-reaction “consumer survey” on the matter. When I asked my girlfriend Dilj√° whether she’d want one she answered that she’d have to know more about it. My father said it was spooky. My teenage nephew totally wanted one, and his mother first covered her face over the bizarre question and then asked “How long would it last?”. Good question. But after giving it some thought, those who weren’t already became hesitant and uncertain.
I hope for fast advances in this area. I think that, aside from the fascinating science behind it, it’d be interesting to observe how gadgets containing living tissue are marketed.

Links & References
EarthSky has picture in their article on the robo-moth
The Higgins Lab
Science Daily article ‘Brain’ In A Dish Acts As Autopilot
Neuron image courtesy of BrainMaps

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