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Closer to 'Transcendence'? Robot Given a Worm's Mind

Jan 22, 2015 05:07 PM EST
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(Photo : Wiki CC0 - Heiti Paves) A microphoto closeup of simple 1mm long roundworms (Caenorhabditis elegans).

It seems we are a lot closer to the fantastical idea of uploading our minds into computer than most people have ever imagined. Researchers have recently copied the "mind" of a living roundworm and put it into a small robot, taking us a step closer to the amazing (albeit somewhat disturbing) reality of Hollywood's Transcendence.

Transcendence (2014) is centered around a deceased scientist (played by Johnny Depp), whose mind was uploaded into a computer program at the moment of his death. The movie, which didn't sit so well with critics, took a lot of flak for trying to sell an unbelievable premise with questionable dialogue and story progression.

However, the premise may not be nearly as unbelievable as many thought, especially after an international collaboration between scientists and programmers in the Open Worm Project were able to recreate the structure of a roundworm's neural pathways digitally. The result was uploaded into a tiny robot that responds to environmental stimuli just like a live roundworm would - and without any prior programming. In this way, it could be argued that the synthetic mind responds to situations on "instinct," just like a real mind.

"We've been working on [the mind] for four years and while we have a lot more to achieve it's been the most surprising project I've been involved in," project coordinator Stephen Larson recently told CNN. "It's certainly exceeded my expectations."

Larson explained that while the tiny robot, made up of many plastic LEGO parts, may not exactly look like a roundworm (Caenorhabditis elegans), the robot has synthetic versions of the correct number of neurons that are connected in the same way as found in a worm. The organization of these neurons even mirrors a roundworm, in that it boasts the same pace and order that information is distributed.

As things stand, you can watch a video of the robot being sent a signal for where "food" is. All on its own, the robot will "decide" to head towards that food. If it bumps into a wall, you can watch as it backs away and tries again.

"This is not a program telling the robot to stop and reverse," researcher Timothy Busbice wrote in the video.

Instead, he argues, the robot's actions are purely the result of the connectome - the neural network of a full mind - simply doing what it was designed to do.

Still, it should be noted that this is exceptionally far from "copying" a human mind, and uploading it digitally. Comparatively, if a roundworm's connectome were a grain of sand, the human mind would be a beach.

All the same, it's certainly a start, and only a single success story from the many ongoing projects that Project Open Worm's teams are working on.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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