Stranger than science fiction

You know those guys in high school who never learned to talk to girls? The ones who didn’t bother with acne medication, sported glasses that appeared to have been passed down from a long-dead uncle, and knew an alarming amount of Star Trek trivia? Well, apparently, they’ve all grown up and become neuroscientists.

It’s the only possible explanation. No one else could have come up with the idea of teaching a disembodied brain to fly an F-22 fighter jet. That’s right, folks–a group of neuroscientists in Florida grew a brain in a Petri dish and taught it how to fly.

They extracted 25,000 neural cells from a rat embryo, planted them in a glass dish, and grew a brain–or, at least, a close approximation. The brain or “live computation device” was “suspended in a specialized liquid to keep [it] alive and then laid across a grid of 60 electrodes.” Once the brain had formed all the appropriate cellular connections, the scientists used the electrodes to stimulate different areas and measure neural activity.

Initially, they used their new fangled “living computer” to chart the brain processes involved in storing information. They soon became so adept at it that they decided to try something more ambitious: they hooked the brain up to a flight simulator. Preliminary testing was not terribly promising. “When we first hooked [it] up, the plane crashed all the time,” said chief researcher Thomas DeMarse. (Why this brain flies on rat cunning)

But the brain learned quickly. The organic neural network adapted and grew increasingly skilled at piloting the virtual jet. According to DeMarse, “the brain [learned] to control the pitch and roll of the aircraft. After a while, it [produced] a nice straight and level trajectory.”

As bizarre as it may sound, the Florida researchers’ findings do have practical applications. DeMarse’s team has paved the way for the development of “hybrid computers,” one part circuit board, one part living tissue. Before you panic, the ultimate goal is not to create walking, talking cyborgs, a la the Terminator. It’s to create biologically enhanced computers to perform sophisticated operations with little room for human error.

If our understanding of “neural computation” continues to advance at its current rate, bio-computers may soon be used to pilot unmanned aircrafts on military missions deemed too dangerous for humans, and to perform complex computations that stymie even the most gifted mathematicians and programmers.

Bio-computers will make Deep Blue, the Supercomputer that went head to head with chess champion Garry Kasparov in the late ’90s, look like a proto-type, according to DeMarse:

“The algorithms that living computers use are extremely fault-tolerant,” Dr DeMarse said. “A few neurons die off every day in humans without any noticeable drop in performance, and yet if the same were to happen in a traditional silicon-based computer the results would be catastrophic.”

(Why this brain flies on rat cunning)

Okay, I gotta hand it to them. The idea of a self-correcting computer is pretty impressive. But I won’t be satisfied until I can plug myself in, instantaneously download a program, and proclaim: “I know Kung Fu.”