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Scientists Build a Robot Controlled by Human Brain Tissue

Organoids and robotic systems could be the future of brain-machine-interfaces.

By Cassidy Ward

Gerard Johnstone and Akela Cooper’s 2022 sci-fi horror M3GAN (streaming now on Peacock) follows the tragic childhood of Cady, a young girl whose parents are killed in a car accident. In the aftermath, Cady goes to live with her Aunt Gemma, a roboticist who has invented the Model 3 Generative Android, M3GAN for short.

M3GAN is a child-sized anthropomorphic robot with human level intelligence, designed to be the perfect friend. M3GAN’s primary directive is to keep Cady safe and happy, and it’s a job she executes with deadly seriousness. In the real world, scientists in China recently crafted a less deadly but equally spine-tingling intelligent robot controlled not by a person or by programming, but by a spheroid blob of human brain tissue.

For More on Brain Organoids:
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Mindless Gaming! Brain Cells in Petri Dish Learned to Play Pong

Roboticists Made a Robot Controlled by a Blob of Human Brain Tissue

Chip implanted in human brain

Researchers from Tianjin University and the Southern University of Science and Technology collaborated on what they are calling MetaBOC, an open-source computer-brain interface reportedly capable of controlling a robotic body. It uses a brain-on-a-chip system, similar to those used in other brain organoid stories which have made headlines in recent years. 

The system is made of two parts: the organoid of brain tissue and a more conventional computer chip. The tissues are cultured from stem cells in the lab and they organize themselves, with a little prodding, into a 3-dimensional structure. Unlike flat cell cultures commonly grown in high school science labs, 3D organoids achieve more of the functionality of an actual brain. Meanwhile, the chip provides an interface for sending and receiving signals to and from the organoid.

That channel of back-and-forth communication allows for training, teaching the organoid to perform tasks like navigating its environment and avoiding obstacles, or manipulating objects. Because the brain tissue is only receiving information via signals from the chip, it can be trained virtually before being placed in an actual environment. Hypothetically, they could be trained to operate in any number of environments both real and virtual, they might even be trained to intelligently operate spacecraft in deep space.

Brain organoids

In effect, it’s not all that different from training an organoid to play Pong, except the game you’re teaching it takes place in the real world. Researchers announced the advancement in a press release, alongside images which appear to depict an organoid driving a bipedal toy store robot. Those pictures, which you can see here, are misleading mockups showing what future organoid-controlled robots might look like.

In reality, organoids are typically much smaller than those depicted in the mockups and, much like your own brain, you wouldn’t want it exposed to the elements. There are, of course, some ethical questions we’ll need to work out before we start filling our cell phones and space probes with blobs of human brain. Fortunately, that potential future is still a long way off.

M3GAN is streaming now on Peacock!

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