Researchers have just taught cyborg brains how to play Pong

An international research team has grown a brain-like organoid that is capable to play the simple video game Pong. This is the first time that such a structure (which researchers called a “cyborg brain”) is capable of performing a goal-directed task.

Pong is one of the simplest video games. You have a paddle and a ball (in the single-player version) or two paddles and a ball (in the two-player version), and you move the paddle to keep the ball in play and bounce it to the other side — much like a real ping-pong game. For most people familiar with computer games, it’s a simple and intuitive game. But for cells in a petri dish, it’s a bit of a tougher challenge.

Researchers at the biotech startup Cortical Labs took up the challenge. They created “mini-brains” (“we think it’s fair to call them cyborg brains,” the company’s chief scientific officer said in an interview) consisting of 800,000-1,000,000 living human brain cells. They then placed these cells on top of a microelectrode array that analyzes electrical changes and monitors the activity of the “brain.”

Electrical signals are also sent to the brain to tell it where the ball is located and how fast it is coming. It was taught to play the game just like humans: by playing the game repeatedly and by being offered feedback (in this case, in the form of electrical signals to electrodes).

It took about five minutes to learn the game. While the cyborg brain wasn’t quite as a human would be, it was able to learn how to play the game faster than some AIs, researchers say.

The fact that it was able to learn so quickly is a real stunner, but this is just the beginning. It’s the first time this type of brain-like structure was able to achieve something like this, and it could be a real step towards a true, advanced cyborg brain.

“Integrating neurons into digital systems to leverage their innate intelligence may enable performance infeasible with silicon alone, along with providing insight into the cellular origin of intelligence,” the researchers write in the study.

The researchers say their work can bring improvements in the design of or in therapies targeting the brain. For now, as exciting as this achievement is, it’s still hard to say what it will amount to.

The study was published in a pre-print and was not yet peer-reviewed. Journal Reference: Brett J. Kagan et al, In vitro neurons learn and exhibit sentience when embodied in a simulated game-world, biorxiv (2021). DOI: 10.1101/2021.12.02.471005.

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