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We’ve Put a Worm’s Mind in a Lego Robot's Body

A wheeled Lego robot may not look like a worm, but it "thinks" like one after programmers gave it the neuron connections in a C. elegans roundworm

False-color micrograph of Caenorhabditis elegans (Science Photo Library/Corbis)

If the brain is a collection of electrical signals, then, if you could catalog all those those signals digitally, you might be able upload your brain into a computer, thus achieving digital immortality.

While the plausibility—and ethics—of this upload for humans can be debated, some people are forging ahead in the field of whole-brain emulation. There are massive efforts to map the connectomeall the connections in the brain—and to understand how we think. Simulating brains could lead us to better robots and artificial intelligence, but the first steps need to be simple.

So, one group of scientists started with the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans, a critter whose genes and simple nervous system we know intimately

The OpenWorm project has mapped the connections between the worm’s 302 neurons and simulated them in software. (The project’s ultimate goal is to completely simulate C. elegans as a virtual organism.) Recently, they put that software program in a simple Lego robot.

The worm’s body parts and neural networks now have LegoBot equivalents: The worm’s nose neurons were replaced by a sonar sensor on the robot. The motor neurons running down both sides of the worm now correspond to motors on the left and right of the robot, explains Lucy Black for I Programmer. She writes:

It is claimed that the robot behaved in ways that are similar to observed C. elegans. Stimulation of the nose stopped forward motion. Touching the anterior and posterior touch sensors made the robot move forward and back accordingly. Stimulating the food sensor made the robot move forward.

Timothy Busbice, a founder for the OpenWorm project, posted a video of the Lego-Worm-Bot stopping and backing:

The simulation isn’t exact—the program has some simplifications on the thresholds needed to trigger a "neuron" firing, for example. But the behavior is impressive considering that no instructions were programmed into this robot. All it has is a network of connections mimicking those in the brain of a worm. 

Of course, the goal of uploading our brains assumes that we aren’t already living in a computer simulation. Hear out the logic: Technologically advanced civilizations will eventually make simulations that are indistinguishable from reality. If that can happen, odds are it has. And if it has, there are probably billions of simulations making their own simulations. Work out that math, and "the odds are nearly infinity to one that we are all living in a computer simulation," writes Ed Grabianowski for io9.

Is your mind spinning yet?


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