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article imageThe Future of Computers: Melding Human Brains and Technology

By Clio     Dec 3, 2007 in Health
Could it be possible that the technology of the future is a combination of technology we know today and living organic tissue? According to Dr. Charles Higgins, a scientist who connected a moth's brain to a robot, in 10-15 years this will be nothing new.
Dr. Charles Higgins is an associate professor at the University of Arizona who has built a robot that is basically guided by the brain and eyes of a moth. According to his interview with the Computerworld, the hawk moth is strapped to a robot with tons of electrodes going into neurons dealing with sight in the moth's brain. After this, the robot responds to what the moth is seeing - meaning that, for example, when something is going towards the robot, it is able to move out of the way.
For awhile now, Dr. Higgins has been trying to build a computer chip that would perform the same actions as the processing visual images. Then he found out that the the human brain alike chip would cost about $60,000.
"At that price, I thought I was getting lower quality than if I was just accessing the brain of an insect which costs, well, considerably less," he said. "If you have a living system, it has sensory systems that are far beyond what we can build. It's doable, but we're having to push the limits of current technology to do it."
According to him, this 12-in-tall robot may be a big success now, but it is only the beginning of what is to come. In about 10 to 15 years, the world could be seeing computer components combined with living tissue.
"In time, our knowledge of biology will get to a point where if your heart is failing, we won't wait for a donor. We'll just grow you one. We'll be able to do that with brains, too. If I could grow brains, I could really make computing efficient."
For now, the moth is only attached to the robot but Higgins expects that in the future all we will need is a human brain. He also believes that scientists are going to be able to grow a brain that does exactly what one wants it to do, but also build computers that are both nonliving and living.
In his opinion there are no ethical issues involved in making such a thing because they would not be hooking up primate brains to a robot.
You might be wondering how can this little computer be useful. Well, one of the applications of this system would be to put it on the front of an automobile - sort of like a visual sensor. It would keep the vehicle from rear-ending another car. Another application Dr. Higgins mentions is the chips being embedded in military robots which could sniff out land mines. Furthermore, the robots could be also used in health care to make people with spinal injuries mobile again.
Moreover, he suggests that computer desktops and laptops of the future could potentially have organic parts.
For now Dr. Higgins has successfully attached electrodes into a single vision neuron in the moth's brain. Moth's have hundreds of these neurons. He's now experimenting in connecting four electrodes into neurons on both sides of the moth's brain, which would in turn expand the visual image the robot is receiving.
"That should give me information about things moving on the left and right of the animal, at different speeds and moving up and down," he explained.
In addition, he is also experimenting with going into the moth's muscles and olfactory senses. If he could accomplish to attach it to the moth's muscles, this would actually propel the robot itself.
"We're developing a lot of technology that could be used for prosthetic applications," said the researcher. "There are lots of people working on connecting functional brains to people who have nonworking limbs. You connect to the brain and send the information to a human limb or robotic limb. It's an area that is closely related to what we're doing."
If you would like to read a bit more about Higgins research, you can visit The Higgins Lab. Also, there is a good video about Dr. Higgins' research that you could find on Discovery Channel video provided.
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