Cyborg rats... what's next?

Electrode implant in a laboratory rat used to deliver electrical stimulation to the brain. Credit: Vdegroot at Dutch Wikipedia/Creative Commons

Rats are smart. Computers, in their own ways, are smart too. What would happen if one connects a rat brain with a computer? Would the resulting cyborg be smarter than each of them?

This is basically the question asked by a team of Chinese researchers at Zhejiang University that tested 6 rats performances in solving a maze. The six rats have first been trained to "walk"in a maze and finding the way out by trial and error.

They had implanted electrodes in the brain that provided stimuli to go left or right, plus one electrode providing a "reward".

They have been tested in solving the maze on their own and solving it when receiving computer stimulation. The computer prompted the rat cyborg only when it felt that a different strategy would be better. Similarly, the computer was tested in solving the maze using a number of algorithms, and of course without a "map" of the maze.

You may want to read the paper to see the way the experiment was performed.

What is interesting is that the results achieved by rats alone and by the computer alone are worse than the ones achieved by the rat cyborgs. Although the number of steps (point of decisions) is the same for the computer and rat cyborgs, the overall time and the coverage is better for rat cyborgs. It appears that rat cyborgs complement computer intelligence with their own.

Notice that a similar point was made several years ago by Japanese researchers and more recently by North State Carolina University researchers that connected electrodes to a cockroach to condition it to go forward/left/right. The cockroach indeed moved according to the stimuli received but if the stimuli was incompatible with the situation (like it could not move forward because of an obstacle) it would find a way to detour so that it could eventually go in the direction prompted by the stimulus. It proved that it was possible to exploit the combined intelligence of two brains...

Clearly these experiments beg the question: what's next? Could a human brain be enhanced by a connection to a computer. Well in way we are already enhancing our capability using the Internet to get information and take decisions. We are clearly smarter when we can do that. The next step, using a direct brain connection to the internet is (just) a technology issue. Are we willing to take such a step? I would say that most people today would declare they are not, mostly because of the idea of getting some electrodes implanted is not on the top list of their priorities...

However we are, slowly, moving in that direction: augmented reality is a step in that direction. Seeing data and information displayed onto the windshield of our car will become "normal", and then getting those "help" through our glasses might be next...

I feel that what is scaring people is the physical interconnection of the brain to a computer because of the present invasiveness of the procedure... not because of the ethical implication.

Yet there are plenty of ethical implication in this area. We have been discussion the gap between the have and the have-not in terms of digital connectivity. Brain-internet connectivity, and then brain to specific app connectivity is just making the stakes higher.

Besides, sometimes we are thinking on the power of media to condition our life, culture and decision making processes (to the point of telling us what to like and what to dislike, what is right and what is wrong...). Just imagine when all that could become much more effective, and in a way invisible, through a brain to cloud connectivity. Scaring indeed!

Author - Roberto Saracco

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