Kevin Warwick Discusses Creating Intelligence From Biological Neural Networks

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Robots with biological neurons
Biological Robots
Kevin Warwick studies the relatively new area of culturing neural tissue and embodying them into robot platforms—essentially giving a robot a biological brain.  This work has a potential major impact with regard to society and ethical issues.  In a lecture recorded last year, Warwick explores the initial issues of the research and looks to the potential consciousness of such a brain.
Kevin Warwick is well known for his work in integrating electronics with biology.  He has even implanted devices on himself for his Project Cyborg.   His research now centers around using biological neurons to control robots.

His team at the University of Reading anticipates that the behavior of the rat neurons controlling robots will provide insight into how brains store data, which could lead to a better understanding of disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, and strokes.

The rat neurons are housed in a small vat of nutrients and antibiotics, where they make connections and generate electrical signals. A multi-electrode array (MEA), equipped with approximately 60 electrodes, picks up the signals and transmits them to the robot via Bluetooth.

Information about the robot’s surroundings is collected from an ultrasound sensor, and communicated to the neurons via the MEA. When the robot nears an obstacle, the MEA stimulates the neurons, causing them to react. Their reaction is transmitted back to the robot, moving it left or right. By applying different signals when the robot moves into a predefined location, it is hoped the neurons will begin to manifest signs of memory creation.

"This new research is tremendously exciting as firstly the biological brain controls its own moving robot body, and secondly it will enable us to investigate how the brain learns and memorizes its experiences. This research will move our understanding forward of how brains work, and could have a profound effect on many areas of science and medicine," said Professor Kevin Warwick from the School of Systems Engineering.

"One of the fundamental questions that scientists are facing today is how we link the activity of individual neurons with the complex behaviors that we see in whole organisms. This project gives us a really unique opportunity to look at something which may exhibit complex behaviors  but still remain closely tied to the activity of individual neurons. Hopefully we can use that to go some of the way to answer some of these very fundamental questions," said Dr Ben Whalley from the Reading School of Pharmacy.

Slide courtesy of Kevin Warwick on

In the lecture below, Warwick delves deeper into the philosophy and deep questions concerning robots with human brains.  According to Warwick, this is only a matter of technology now.  He is currently working with two-dimensional neuron arrays of around 100,000 neurons, but can easily forsee that the technology could be scaled to human level capacity.

Warwick's lecture is thought-provoking, but the questions should be discussed sooner-than-later.  For example, how might we be able to objectively determine the consciousness of such a robot brain?


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