Sunday, 13 July 2003

Cyborgs, Hybrots and Borg, Oh My!

Something that's coming up over the next decade or so is the fusion of organic and inorganic components into something that is both and neither. No, I've not put on my patented Tinfoil Hat, I'm talking about stuff that's already happened. Consider that in the labs, we already have a Robot controlled by a Lamprey Eel's brain.
"We are getting the engineering tools that allow us to plug into living systems," said Alan Rudolph of the federal government's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which has funded a number of studies into the interaction between animals and electronics. "We are asking the question, 'Can we make machines with living components and make them work?'"
A full-blown Academic Paper is available, as a PDF. Such Hybrid Organic/Inorganic Robots are called "Hybrots", and are not confined to primitive organisms. For example, foetal rat tissue has been used.
In his experiment, Potter places a droplet of solution containing thousands of rat neuron cells onto a silicon chip that's embedded with 60 electrodes connected to an amplifier. The electrical signals that the cells fire at one another are picked up by the electrodes which then send the amplified signal into a computer. The computer, in turn, wirelessly relays the data to the robot.
The robot then manifests this neuronal activity with physical motion, each of its movements a direct result of neurons talking to neurons. And the robot also sends information back to the cells. Equipped with light sensors, the robot receives input about its location in the playpen from infrared signals lining the borders.
But what about Cyborgs, organic creatures with inorganic neural components? It's now been several years since the UCSD managed to replace one of a Spiny Lobster's Neurons with a few dollars worth of Radio Shack parts.

"We built an electronic neuron that is able to work as a member of a neural framework," said Abarbanel, director of INLS. "It's science fiction, except that we did it."
The finding comes after two years of research, using $7.50 worth of circuit parts from a Radio Shack store and dozens of spiny lobsters from La Jolla Cove purchased from a local fisherman.

Closer to home, we have the New Scientist report on the first artificial Brain structure, a partial "Brain Prosthesis".
The world's first brain prosthesis - an artificial hippocampus - is about to be tested in California. Unlike devices like cochlear implants, which merely stimulate brain activity, this silicon chip implant will perform the same processes as the damaged part of the brain it is replacing.
<humour>I know quite a few Green and Democratic politicians who could do with some rather more extensive treatment, of course...</humour> The Ethical issues raised by this new area are staggering. Stay Tuned for more on this as time goes by.

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