Scientists taught lab-grown brain cells to play Pong — watch them play
Scientists grew human brain cells from stem cells and mouse embryos in a lab that can play video games.
For the first time, a Melbourne-led team has demonstrated that 800,000 brain cells living in a dish can perform tasks such as a tennis-like video game, Pong. Published in the journal Neuron, scientists of the biotech start-up Cortical Labs, claim to have created the first conscious lab-grown brain, called the 'DishBrain' in a dish.
"We have shown we can interact with living biological neurons in such a way that compels them to modify their activity, leading to something that resembles intelligence," lead author Dr. Brett Kagan, who is Chief Scientific Officer of Cortical Labs, said in a statement.
The mini-brain learned to play in five minutes
The mini-brain was connected to a computer in such a way that they received feedback on their game-playing skills. The neuron's activity and responses to this feedback were monitored using electric probes that recorded "spikes" on a grid.
The more a neuron moved its paddle and hit the ball, the more strong the spikes became. When the neurons missed, their play skills were critiqued by a software program created by Cortical Labs themselves. According to the study, this demonstrated that the neurons could adapt the activity to a changing environment, "in a goal-oriented way, in real-time".
"We chose Pong due to its simplicity and familiarity, but, also, it was one of the first games used in machine learning, so we wanted to recognize that," said Kagan, who worked with collaborators from 10 other institutions on the project.
Next, DishBrain plans to get drunk
The living model proves that brain cells can display signs of intelligent behavior, even when they are mixed together in a dish. However, the researchers stress that the brain cells do not know that it is playing Pong in the way a human player would.
The researchers went beyond the video game. "You know when the Google Chrome browser crashes and you get that dinosaur that you can make jump over obstacles (Project Bolan). We’ve done that and we’ve seen some nice preliminary results, but we still have more work to do building new environments for custom purposes," said Kagan.
The team hopes the technology might eventually be used to test treatments for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and epilepsy.
"This is the start of a new frontier in understanding intelligence," Kagan said. "It touches on the fundamental aspects of not only what it means to be human but what it means to be alive and intelligent at all, to process information and be sentient in an ever-changing, dynamic world."
Next, Kagan hopes to test the impact alcohol has on DishBrain's ability to play Pong and see if the game is affected.
Integrating neurons into digital systems may enable performance infeasible with silicon alone. Here, we develop DishBrain, a system that harnesses the inherent adaptive computation of neurons in a structured environment. In vitro neural networks from human or rodent origins are integrated with in silico computing via a high-density multielectrode array. Through electrophysiological stimulation and recording, cultures are embedded in a simulated game-world, mimicking the arcade game “Pong.” Applying implications from the theory of active inference via the free energy principle, we find apparent learning within five minutes of real-time gameplay not observed in control conditions. Further experiments demonstrate the importance of closed-loop structured feedback in eliciting learning over time. Cultures display the ability to self-organize activity in a goal-directed manner in response to sparse sensory information about the consequences of their actions, which we term synthetic biological intelligence. Future applications may provide further insights into the cellular correlates of intelligence.