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It sounds like a joke: what happens when you cross a 3-D printer with a computer simulation of the human brain can that can count, remember and even gamble? A grant with a cash flow problem?


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Using a mere 2.5 million virtual neurons to model the brain’s 100 billion, computational neuroscientists at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada have created a new computer entity that can respond to eight types of requests, including copying what it sees, recognizing numbers written with different handwriting, answering questions about a series of numbers and finishing a pattern after seeing examples.

The program called “Spaun” (Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network), organizes simulated neurons into subsystems to resemble the prefrontal cortex, basil ganglia, thalamus and other cognitive machinery in the brain. It also has a simulated eye that can see, and a robotic arm that draws. The result: a software mimic of the brain that can recognize simple patterns to complete abstract number sequences and move a physical arm to represent answers in its own “handwriting.” According to Canada’s Research Chair in Theoretical Neuroscience, Chris Eliasmith:

Human cognition isn’t interesting because we can recognize visual patterns … move our arms in an integrated way … [or] solve a particular task or puzzle. It’s interesting because we can do all of this with the same brain, in any order, and at any time.”

What has the attention of many scientists is the bridge Eliasmith’s team has built from cognition to behavior. And some of this behavior can be considered very human indeed. Like humans, for example, Spaun is better at remembering numbers at the beginning and end of a list than the ones in the middle. This functioning analogue of the human brain may allow us to ask questions we have never been able to consider before, such as how it learns, how it is affected by various classes of drugs and how it is changed by disease. Needless to say, the work offers the potential for new research into pedagogical strategies across a spectrum of disciplines.

In a related development, a team of researchers at the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana has designed a tiny “biobot” capable of moving across a substrate by curling and uncurling its segmented tail like an inchworm. This part of the tiny cyborg’s anatomy is particularly interesting since it is powered by a fine membrane of rat heart. Yet what makes this accomplishment even more startling is the manner in which it was built: using a 3-D printer. While 3-D printers have been around since the mid 1980’s, they have only recently been used in fields ranging from archaeology to surgery and even in computer-aided tissue engineering—perhaps the polite term for building biobots.

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Credit: Elise A. Corbin

According to a recent article in Science News:

3-D printers create objects by depositing layer upon layer of a material other than ink, ultimately building a 3-D object from the bottom up. To create the bot, the printer squirts out a layer of liquid hydrogel—a gelatinous mix of water and inert, meshlike molecules—and then stiffens up each layer of the bot’s body with a laser. The bot’s curved “leg” was then seeded with a mix of rat fibroblast and heart cells, which spontaneously contract. After about three days, the cell layer became a synchronized beating sheet whose contractions propelled the springboardlike bot forward.

University of Illinois biobot research team leader Raschid Bashir notes that “By using cells to build biological machines we may solve problems.” But what if the bots could solve problems on their own, as proven possible by Eliasmith’s team? This could herald the beginning of true machine intelligence, with applications from human health to public safety, energy production, sustainable farming and more. Some believe that as our devices become more intelligent, our reliance upon them makes us humans seem less so. Others believe that rising tides lift all boats. Either way, staying informed on this issue may help you navigate some extremely interesting choices ahead.