Thursday, March 12, 2009

Rats Can be Trained as Soldiers Too

The rat brain is a highly effective survival tool. Rats can learn to navigate complex maizes, can be taught to respond to complex sequences of stimuli, and now can learn to target a robot arm with a high degree of precision. How much longer before rats can target projectile weapons and detonate command mines and booby traps?
Fitted with tiny electrodes in their brains to capture signals for the computer to unravel, three rats were taught to move a robotic arm toward a target with just their thoughts. Each time they succeeded, the rats were rewarded with a drop of water.

The computer's goal, on the other hand, was to earn as many points as possible, Sanchez said. The closer a rat moved the arm to the target, the more points the computer received, giving it incentive to determine which brain signals lead to the most rewards, making the process more efficient for the rat. The researchers conducted several tests with the rats, requiring them to hit targets that were farther and farther away. Despite this increasing difficulty, the rats completed the tasks more efficiently over time and did so at a significantly higher rate than if they had just aimed correctly by chance, Sanchez said.

"We think this dialogue with a goal is how we can make these systems evolve over time," Sanchez said. "We want these devices to grow with the user. (Also) we want users to be able to experience new scenarios and be able to control the device."

Dawn Taylor, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University, said the results of the study add a new dimension to brain-machine interface research. That UF researchers were able to train rats to use the robotic arm and then obtain significant results from animals lacking the mental prowess of primates or humans is also impressive, she said. _Source
This type of research is meant to develop into human research, of course, to help paralysed and disabled humans to learn to manipulate prosthetic arms and other aspects of their environment, mentally. Such goals are quite worthwhile and should be pursued. Sophisticated brain implants will learn to adapt to an individual's unique intra-brain communication signaling -- it will self-customise itself to fit each person whose brain it finds itself within.

But the rat brain is far more capable of precise, real time adaptive behaviour in the real world than any human-made computer of such small size. In combat, a brain implant equipped rat could create total mayhem within the ranks of an opposing military, given the proper weapons and munitions. Will such rodent warriors take the form of Cyborgs or Grobycs? It depends upon the approach of their developers. Either way, such four legged commandos could pack quite a wallop.

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