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Scientists teach a bunch of human brain cells to play a video game

The neurons learned and exhibited sentience when embodied in a simulated game-world, the team says

The experiment demonstrates the unmatched power of the human brain
The experiment demonstrates the unmatched power of the human brain

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A team of researchers working across the fields of biomedicine, neurology and biotechnology from Australia and the UK have demonstrated the awesome power of the human brain by ‘teaching’ a bunch of isolated human brain cells to play the video game Pong. It took the cells 5 minutes to learn how to play the game.  

“We developed DishBrain, a system which exhibits natural intelligence by harnessing the inherent adaptive computation of neurons in a structured environment,” write the scientists in the abstract to the paper, which is available on the pre-print website for research papers in biology, bioRxiv

Led by researchers at Australian biotechnology startup Cortical Labs, the team created “mini-brains” consisting of 800,000-1 million living human brain cells in a petri dish, New Scientist reported. The cells were integrated with in-silico computing via a high-density multielectrode array that analysed their activity. “We think it’s fair to call them cyborg brains,” Brett Kagan, chief scientific officer at Cortical Labs and research lead of the project, told New Scientist.

Pong, one of the first computer games ever created, is a simple “tennis like” game featuring two paddles and a ball, where the goal is to defeat your opponent by being the first one to gain10 points. The game can be played with two human players, or one player against a computer controlled paddle. In the experimental configuration, the cells can both stimulate other cells and read the activity of others around them. “Electrical signals are sent to the array to tell them where the ball is located. If electrodes to the right of a cluster fire, for example, the brain cells know that the ball is to their left. The distance of the signal gives the cells information regarding frequency. As with real Pong, the paddle can only move left and right. And also like the real game, the goal is to move the paddle into the path of the ball,” explains Bob Yirka in Medical Xpress. The “cyborg” brain was given feedback in the form of electrical signals in the electrodes to learn the game's techniques and intended outcome.

The scientists explain the process by which they conducted the experiment: “Through electrophysiological stimulation and recording, cultures were embedded in a simulated game-world, mimicking the arcade game ‘Pong’…  we found that learning was apparent within five minutes of real-time gameplay, not observed in control conditions.” 

They also concluded that “(brain cell) cultures display the ability to self-organise in a goal-directed manner in response to sparse sensory information about the consequences of their actions.”

The experiment also demonstrated the superiority of human brain cells over Artifical Intelligence (AI) when it comes to speed and accuracy of learning new, goal-oriented actions. “The superiority of biological computation has been widely recognised with attempts to develop hardware supporting neuromorphic computing. Yet, no system outside biological neurons are capable of supporting at least third-order complexity which is necessary to recreate the complexity of a biological neuronal network (BNN),” say the researchers. 

Harnessing the computational power of living neurons to create synthetic biological intelligence, previously confined to the realm of science fiction, is now tantalisingly within the reach of human innovation, they asserted.


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