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Researchers at NTNU are developing a robot that will be controlled by living brain cells.
NTNU CYBORG: Cyborgs have been part of our fantasy world since the start of the science fiction genre. The interface between living organisms and machines has been used to frighten and entertain, as well as to explore the boundary between man and technology.
It probably won’t be taking over the world anytime soon. But it will become a cyborg. Photo: Kai T. Dragland, NTNU
A cyborg is about to become reality at NTNU. Scientists and students are working on constructing an interactive social robot that will connect to a biological “brain.”
The cyborg may become a familiar figure on campus down the road – while also helping researchers understand how to repair brain damage and construct new types of computers.
A cyborg that wants to be your friend
“We start with the machine, and then we ‘bring it to life’ by adding biological neurons. Then we have to keep them alive and get them to communicate with a computer,” says researcher Stefano Nichele at NTNU’s Department of Computer Science.
He coordinates NTNU Cyborg, a project that includes NTNU research groups in various disciplines – ranging from computer technology and cybernetics to neuroscience, ethics and design.
The goal is to build a social robot that will stroll around campus and interact with students and staff. It will be able to approach and greet people, recognize them, and even send them a friend request on Facebook. Combining the robot and the living neural network makes this structure unique. According to Nichele, this project has the potential to open doors to research breakthroughs in several fields.
“Neuroscientists would like to understand how the brain can repair itself after a brain injury, for example. We want to understand how to make machines that can learn and adapt, by transferring principles from neuroscience to computers,” he says.
The “brain” will control the cyborg
The robot is beginning to take shape. The neuroscientists have cultivated a biological neural network from almost 100,000 neurons in a laboratory. Electrodes connect the neural network to a computer, and scientists can observe and analyse what the network is “saying” from the neural electrical signals. The researchers can also send signals back to the neural network – or stimulate it in different ways to “teach” it to behave in a certain way.
Nichele and his IT colleagues are working on processing the data from the brain network and “translating” them into a language that the robot can understand. The researchers are learning to communicate with the biological material grown by the neuroscientists.
So far, the biological neural network has been communicating with an artificial neural network that controls the robot. Nichele hopes that he will eventually be able to remove the artificial brain network so that the biological neural network can “learn” directly within its working environment.
That will in turn enable the biological neural network to control the robot’s movements, so the robot can learn to adapt to different situations. This will lay the groundwork to build unique biological computers of living nerve cells that can learn over time.
Better understanding and treatment of central nervous system injuries
Modern biotechnology makes it relatively easy to build biological neural networks. For example, scientists can take cells from the skin of a rat – or human being – and transform them into neurons. Neural networks cultured today can live for up to a year under good conditions.
Researcher Ioanna Sandvig at NTNU’s Department of Neuromedicine and Movement Science does not so much think of these neural networks as a “brain”, but rather as a hierarchy of neurons. Even though the researchers are working with relatively simple networks, they can learn a lot about how the neurons communicate with each other and how connections are formed, maintained, and changed in neural networks. These relatively simple networks will be able to grow quite large and powerful over time.
The networks can be used for studying aspects of normal brain function, but also mechanisms behind disease and injury. Sandvig and her colleagues, including PhD candidate Ola Huse Ramstad, want to learn as much as possible about the neurons so that they can understand neuroplasticity, especially in the context of how the brain may be able to repair itself following injury. This knowledge could result in far better understanding and, hopefully, treatment options for patients with spinal cord injuries or stroke, or patients suffering from neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s or ALS.
“Although the neural networks that we’re culturing for this project are far from anything close to a brain, we’re still able to extract very important information by studying them. Even small advances may have great significance for these patients, she explains.
Lots of ideas
Thomas Rostrup Andersen from the Department of Engineering Cybernetics sits in a small office. He is one of four master’s students involved in the robot’s development. A cyborg prototype stands behind him. Evidently it’s resting.
“I’m working on creating a control module for the robot,” says Andersen, who will soon be submitting his thesis.
In fact, he is working on the robot’s core functions. Andersen is helping the various components talk to each other.
A camera records movements and faces, and a selfie arm can be raised and take pictures of people the cyborg encounters. The cyborg can be connected to a screen with a troll face that seemingly shows emotions. Mark Sagar, who also works with special effects for Hollywood, developed the troll face.
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