Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Cyborg Moths

It was back in 2003 that I first wrote a piece about Cyborgs and Hybrots. I've written a few more posts since then, the latest last year.

The latest :
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.

Higgins explained that he had been trying to build a computer chip that would do what brains do when processing visual images. He found that a chip that can function nearly like the human brain would cost about $60,000.

"At that price, I thought I was getting lower quality than if I was just accessing the brain of an insect which costs, well, considerably less," he said. "If you have a living system, it has sensory systems that are far beyond what we can build. It's doable, but we're having to push the limits of current technology to do it."
"In future decades, this will be not surprising," he said. "Most computers will have some kind of living component to them. In time, our knowledge of biology will get to a point where if your heart is failing, we won't wait for a donor. We'll just grow you one. We'll be able to do that with brains, too. If I could grow brains, I could really make computing efficient."

While the moth is physically attached to the robot at this point, Higgins said he expects that one day only the brain itself will be needed. "Can we grow a brain that does what we want it to do? Can I grow an eye with a brain connected to it and have it do what I need it to do? Can I engineer an organism and hook it into my artificial system?" he asked. "Yes, I really think this is coming. There are things biology can do so much better. Think of a computer that can be both living and nonliving. We'd be growing tissue that has no more intelligence than a liver or a heart. I don't see ethical issues here."

I've already thought a lot about the ethical issues involved.
The problem of Animal Rights becomes acute and immediate when we consider the experimentation currently underway with Hybots. It can be persuasively argued that experimentation with primitive organisms like lampreys (Gugliotta 2001) and spiny lobsters(Aguilera 1999) do not involve "thinking creatures" as such. The fact that some of the neural processing can be replaced by an absurdly simple inorganic equivalent is strong evidence of this. A lamprey or a spiny lobster, despite being organic, may in fact be no more than a self-directing robot. The situation described by Graham-Rowe 2001 is less clear : only a few thousand neurons are used, and from Rat foetuses rather than the fully-developed animal, yet it is this very plasticity and higher level of development that leads one to suspect that the result may "think" in an animal fashion rather than merely be a robot with organic parts. Should such a Hybot be able to navigate a maze, then very troubling ethical issues arise regarding cruelty. We can plausibly avoid the issue when dealing with a non-organic artificial intelligence with the same external behaviour, but we know Rats think. And the situation regarding fully inorganic artificial intelligence is not as clear-cut as it once was, given the experimentation with Cyborgs and prosthetic brain parts....


mythusmage said...

Anne Macaffrey, The Ship Who Sang. Ever read that?

Nicole said...

And, on a nastier note, the OGRE; a huge tank (think BOLO for Keith Laumer fans) using a human brain instead of a computer.