On the road to Cylons? Robots with human brain tissue reported

What if we could make robots that possess human brain-like structures?

Chinese scientists have reportedly made such robots that are each guided at least in part by a small amount of lab-grown brain tissue.

These cyborg-like creations, which are being trained to perform specific tasks, also have standard computer chips.

How much does the human brain tissue actually do in guiding the robots vs. the chips? What is the integration like? Is there some ‘there there’ with this or mostly hype?

robots, robots with lab grown brains
“The robots have an artificial brain as well as a neural chip.” Photo: Tianjin University. I’m not sure that blob of brain tissue qualifies as a brain here.

Robots: brain vs. microchips

Let’s start with the nature of the human brain tissue. From the description of the new research and images, it seems like the lab-grown “brains” are more akin to cortical or brain organoids. My lab and others routinely grow such organoids from human pluripotent stem cells.

Can the brain organoids do something meaningful inside the robots? I’m skeptical. There is so far no evidence that brain organoids grown in labs can perform even simple tasks. This is the reality despite breathless media stories claiming cortical organoids can play pong or do other tasks. It’s not even clear if human brain organoids reproducibly have any human brain-like electrical activity.

Can the brain tissue stay alive for more than a few hours in the robots? The images of the organoid-guided robots show organoid-like structures sitting in a dish of media. In the long run, you’d need such a cyborg to have a self-enclosed cranium in which the brain material is constantly bathed in media that is somehow self-sustaining.

“The brain-computer interface on a chip is a technology that uses an in vitro cultured ‘brain’ – such as brain organoids – coupled with an electrode chip to achieve information interaction with the outside world through encoding and decoding and stimulation-feedback,” said Ming Dong, an executive director at the Haihe Laboratory for Brain-Computer Interaction and Human-Computer Integration at Tianjin University.”

Cyborgs or even cylons coming?

With this robot story and other developments such as the Neuralink brain implants, it feels like more complex human-machine cyborgs are getting closer to reality.

In theory, cyborgs already exist and even include someone with an implant such as a pacemaker or a brain implant.

But more complex combinations of human parts and machines are likely on the way. This is a cool area of research but it can be unsettling too if you try to imagine where things might be in as little as a decade. It makes me feel like the human-tissue-containing version of Cylons of Battlestar Galactica is not so far-fetched. Hopefully in some benign form.

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