Monthly Archives: August 2006

Robot With 20 Brains Takes On Any Desired Shape

No head required for 20-brained bot.

Humans are lost without their heads, but not M-TRAN. The robot, made of 20 independent modules that each have their own “brain”, can lose any of its body parts without breaking down.

The modules of M-TRAN, which was developed by the Intelligent Systems Research Institute in Tsukuba, Japan, consist of two blocks connected by a flexing joint, powered by electric motors. Four processors in the two blocks enable each module to operate independently, and hooks allow them to latch onto each other. These hooks also relay signals, so that modules can coordinate to change the robot’s overall shape.

Previous modular robots have formed four-legged walkers, worms or wheels, but unlike M-TRAN, they were unable to function without an external computer or central brain module. Watch videos of earlier M-TRAN versions here.

Be sure to follow the link to the videos. They’re awesome.

Rat Brain Cells Hooked Up To Robot Body, Computer Simulation

It’s Alive (ish).

When Rene Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am,” the philosopher probably didn’t imagine a stamp-sized clump of rat neurons grown in a dish, hooked to a computer.

For years, scientists have learned about brain development by watching the firing patterns of lab-raised brain cells. Until recently, though, the brains-in-a-dish couldn’t receive information. Unlike actual gray matter, they could only send signals.

Scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology figured they could learn more from neuron clumps that acted more like real brains, so they’ve developed “neurally controlled animats” — a few thousand rat neurons grown atop a grid of electrodes and connected to a robot body or computer-simulated virtual environment.

In theory, animats seem to cross the line from mass of goo to autonomous brain. But Steve Potter, a neuroscientist and head of the Georgia Tech lab where the animats were created, said his brain clumps won’t be reciting French philosophy anytime soon.

“Our goal is not to get something as conscious as a person,” he said. “We’re studying basic mechanisms of learning and memory.” The researchers are focusing on how groups of individual cells interact and change when stimulated.

Rather than create a sentient being, the goal of the work is to learn about the earliest human brain development, according to Daniel Wagenaar, a California Institute of Technology neuroscientist who worked with Potter on the animat.

“When someone is born, they’re still not able to control much of their behavior,” Wagenaar said. “Somehow this system has to learn to control a body. Part of that comes from interactions with environment. We hope to get, at the very simple level of small nervous system, some insight into how that occurs.”

The scientists rely on these models because no technology exists to watch live human brain cells in real-time action.

The first generation of animats performed simple tasks. The virtual mouse tended to move in one direction (right). A dish-brain-controlled robot did manage to stay away from a moving target — impressive-sounding perhaps but not particularly complicated. A robotic arm holding a set of pens and attached to a clump of neurons created art — albeit in the eye of the beholder.

“Since our cultured networks are so interconnected, they have some sense of what is going in themselves,” he said. “We can also feed their activity back to them, to mediate their ‘sense of self.'”

The next phase of animats will likely have an even keener sense of self.

“In the next wave, we hope to sequence behaviors.” Potter said. “The sensory input resulting from one behavior will trigger the next appropriate behavior.” In other words, he hopes the animats will learn.

And if consciousness is a function of complexity, what would happen if a whole bunch of dish-brains were hooked together? Right now, Potter said, the biggest obstacle to trying is the $60,000 price tag of each “rig.”

“That’s the present limit,” he said. “If we had a rich patron, I would love to get more rigs to do some ‘social networks’ experiments.”

Potter hopes his research will eventually lead to better neural prosthetics, understanding of neural pathologies and even artificial intelligence. As for consciousness, he said, “I don’t think it will get that far. But I’d love to be proven wrong.”

I don’t think $60.000 dollars is all that much. As a matter of fact, in the scientific world, $60.000 dollars is nothing. Especially if you take a look at what kind of amazing thing you can set up with it.

But apparently these researchers don’t have the money to set up a few dozen of these rigs just like that. That is okay, because the costs of the enabling technology behind this will come down fast.

The article says that there is no way to monitor our brains in real time. Well, according to Zack of the Brainwaves blog, we will be able to do exactly that in 2015:

Nano-imaging techniques will make possible real-time analysis of neuro-molecular level events in the human brain. The brain imaging bottleneck will be broken around 2015.

Anti Obesity Vaccine

Anti-obesity vaccine.

US scientists have developed an anti-obesity vaccine that significantly slowed weight gain and cut body fat in animals.

Mature male rats that received the jab ate normally yet gained less weight and had less body fat, reports the Daily Telegraph.

The vaccine, described by an American team in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, may be especially important to stop “yo-yo dieting”.

The vaccine acts against ghrelin, a naturally occurring hormone that helps to regulate energy balance in the body.

Prof Kim Janda of the Scripps Research Institute, California, said: “Our study is the first published evidence proving that preventing ghrelin from reaching the central nervous system can produce a desired reduction in weight gain.”

According to the World Health Organization, about one billion people worldwide are overweight or obese.

Prof Janda told The Daily Telegraph: “We could speed quickly into human trials, maybe in a year, but we are going to be more cautious.”

Not sure how serious to take this one. The Genotrim solution to obesity that I posted about half a year ago is said by some to be a scam.

That scam link is, unfortunately, in Dutch. Pulling it through a translator gave me an error, which is also unfortunate.

Luckily I’ve got common sense though. Genotrim was supposed to be on Oprah and there was supposed to be shown proof that it worked. More than half a year has gone by, and I haven’t seen anything yet.

I’m sure we’ll see a solution to obesity sometime in the future. Say… in the coming biotech era which is ready to take off anytime now. But in the meantime, it’s important to keep applying common sense to all media coverage on ‘obesity solutions’.

[update]

Th article Obesity Vaccine Looks Promising has some more details than the one I linked to above.

Researchers are reporting progress toward what would be a dream come true for many Americans: a vaccine to prevent obesity.

The target of this vaccine is ghrelin, a recently discovered hormone that decreases energy expenditure and fat breakdown. Scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in California reported in this week’s issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they have developed a way to make the immune system produce antibodies that attack ghrelin, and that rats given the vaccine ate normally but lost weight.

“We have enabled the immune system to recognize a molecule that it ordinarily won’t recognize,” explained study author Kim D. Janda, a professor of chemistry at Scripps.

The immune system thus produced antibodies that bound to and deactivated ghrelin, just as vaccines against diseases caused by bacteria or viruses bind to and inactivate them.

Mice given shots of the vaccine ate just as much as untreated mice but had “about a 20 or 30 percent reduction in weight gain,” Janda said.

His best guess is that a first human trial is “about two years” away. The Scripps group is looking to link up with a major pharmaceutical company to help develop a usable vaccine, Janda said.