Watch Brain Cells in a Petri Dish Learn How to Play Pong

Watch Brain Cells in a Petri Dish Learn How to Play Pong

Have you ever played a video game that you thought was impossible? Think Dark Souls or Cuphead levels of frustration. Now imagine if you didn’t have hands. Or eyes. Or your ears. Or a fully-developed brain. It turns out that you don’t really need a lot to be able to play decent video games. In a paper published on Wednesday in the journal Neuron, researchers from biotechnology firm Cortical Labs say they were able to teach a cluster of brain cells in a petri dish to play the 1970s classic Pongor at least, an alternative version of it where it played against itself with one paddle.

The system, delightfully dubbed DishBrain, is made of neurons in a petri dish connected to a computer. This set up would deliver electrical feedback to the cells indicating whether or not the in-game paddle was hitting the ball. The neurons would transmit spikes of electrical signals to the computer as the paddle was moved to hit the ball.

Watch for yourself below:

Over time, the neurons astonishingly improved their Pong game, reducing misses and increasing consecutive hits. This showed that the cells were able to adapt to its new environment and produce different goal-oriented actions and behaviors over time.

“An unpredictable stimulus was applied to the cells, and the system as a whole would reorganize its activity to better play the game and to minimize having a random response,” Brett Kagan, the chief scientific officer at Cortical Labs and first author of the paper, said in a press release. “You can also think that just playing the game, hitting the ball and getting predictable stimulation, is inherently creating more predictable environments.”

Pong wasn’t the only game the mini-brain played either. The authors note in the press release that the neurons were also tasked with playing that dinosaur game you can play when your Google Chrome browser loses Internet connection. “We’ve done that and we’ve seen some nice preliminary results, but we still have more work to do building new environments for custom purposes,” Kagan said.

Cortical Labs first made headlines for its petri dish game system in December 2021. However, it wasn’t until recently that it published the peer-reviewed paper of its findings.

The experiment doesn’t only lay the foundation for Twitch’s strangest channel in the world. According to the study, DishBrain was an initial step towards the creation of synthetic biological intelligence systems (SBI), which are computers that use human neurons as their processing. Think cyborgs in The Terminator or the human batteries in The Matrix.

Moreover, it could fundamentally upend the way we think about how the human brain works. What does it say about how we experience and learn the world if a group of neurons learns to play video games from a dish?

“This is the start of a new frontier in understanding intelligence,” Kagan said. “It touches on the fundamental aspects of not only what it means to be human but what it means to be alive and intelligent at all, to process information and be sentient in an ever changing, dynamic world.”

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