Amazing Robot Controlled By Rat Brain Continues Progress

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Body of a machine, brain of a rat.

Some technologies are so cool they make you do a double take. Case in point: robots being controlled by rat brains. Kevin Warwick, once a cyborg and still a researcher in cybernetics at the University of Reading, has been working on creating neural networks that can control machines. He and his team have taken the brain cells from rats, cultured them, and used them as the guidance control circuit for simple wheeled robots. Electrical impulses from the bot enter the batch of neurons, and responses from the cells are turned into commands for the device. The cells can form new connections, making the system a true learning machine. Warwick hasn't released any new videos of the rat brain robot for the past few years, but the three older clips we have for you below are still awesome. He and his competitors continue to move this technology forward - animal cyborgs are real.

The skills of these rat-robot hybrids are very basic at this point. Mainly the neuron control helps the robot to avoid walls. Yet that obstacle avoidance often shows clear improvement over time, demonstrating how networks of neurons can grant simple learning to the machines. Whenever I watch the robots in the videos below I have to do a quick reality check - these machines are being controlled by biological cells! It's simply amazing.

Warwick was busy in the beginning of the year, publishing three papers in regards to biological control of robots. He gave a great overview of the field in both the Defence Science Journal and the Proceedings of the IME, and then he published a really interesting discussion on the implications of these systems in the journal of Ethics and Information Technology. As Warwick points out again and again, these cyborgs are going to become more advanced, probably sooner rather than later. Current cultures of neurons have about 100,000 cells, but only a small fraction are actually involved in controlling the robot circuits at any given time. Research teams continually find new ways to increase the size and response of these cultures, as well as how long they can survive. Eventually, we'll have a cultured system that is roughly the size of the simplest of mammalian brains. At that point these systems will be able to accomplish much more, but how will we classify devices that contain living cells, especially if they become somewhat intelligent?

Artificial intelligence is usually pursued through computer science, but biotech systems like Warwick's raise the possibility that cybernetics may be a quicker route to success. There are several other teams around the world working on similar systems (Steve Potter's group at Georgia Tech is doing pretty well). Collectively these researchers are pushing the boundaries of what biologically controlled machines can perceive and learn. Hopefully we'll have breakthroughs in animal cybernetics soon. It should be interesting to see if Warwick announces any new successes at his presentation at the IEEE SMC conference this month. I would love some more amazing videos of rat brain robots.

[source:, Warwick et al 2010 Proc. IMechE, Warwick et al 2010 Defence Science Journal, Warwick et al 2010 Ethics and Info. Tech.]

Discussion — 21 Responses

  • Deltacdynamics October 6, 2010 on 10:58 pm

    Wow. After reading his paper, this research is really opening up a can of worms. This could have implications equal to that of…well, I don’t think there is a historical equivalence to what this research means to the future of humanity. A truly disruptive potential.

  • Jay October 6, 2010 on 11:16 pm

    The second video states that robot is a cyborg. But the dictionary definition of ‘cyborg’ is…

    ‘a person whose physiological functioning is aided by or dependent upon a mechanical or electronic device’

    • Nowincolour Jay October 18, 2010 on 2:18 pm

      So that would make it a cyborg…

      The brain can’t do anything if not for the ‘robot’. This makes the brain dependant upon a mechanical device.

    • Isaac p. Jay March 24, 2013 on 2:07 pm

      There are different definitions of the word. But, going by that one, it’s not a cyborg because it’s not a person.

  • Rteach12345 October 7, 2010 on 1:08 am


    • Ng Rteach12345 October 7, 2010 on 1:36 pm

      Your face is disgusting

  • juxtapoz October 7, 2010 on 2:48 am

    Well, Jay, the cyborg’s body is a robot. The bare minimum of the organism that is left…is it’s psyche/mind. Since it is controlled by the organism’s will, it is a “cyborg”. And as long as it’s not the other way around (a robot mind controlling / driving a fully organic body), then “Rock on, little cyborg rat!”

    • Joshua D. Burns juxtapoz October 7, 2010 on 2:35 pm

      it’s not the psyche or mind- it’s simply a collection of neurons originally completely separated from one another from multiple brains into one collection of neurons. over time these neurons connect to one another creating path ways. the more signals are sent to this circuitry of neurons, the strong those path ways become, and the faster/more efficient the circuitry is able to come to intelligent conclusions.

    • Joshua D. Burns juxtapoz October 7, 2010 on 2:37 pm

      … Thus, I don’t know if I would consider it a “cyborg” just yet, but I’d say it’s definitely headed that way. The other current issue is that the collection of neurons can only survive for aorund 3 months currently. moving forward, it would be very interesting if they were able to feed the neurons in a way which allowed them to persist for years, or to see they could work with a much larger collection of neurons to expand functionality.

  • Sumatra October 7, 2010 on 6:48 am

    This is the great achievement. I am looking forward to see more improvements. But I think that there might be a problem. If something is alive, that means it can die. What happens when brain cells die? Are we going to replace them with new brain cells? Then, what happens with all the knowledge and experience acquired during a lifetime?

    Maybe these memories, skills and experiences could be stored on some chip and restored when a new brain arives.

    Or we could find a way to protect living cells from dying. (-:

    Just a thought, though.

  • Anonymous October 7, 2010 on 6:57 am

    best best


  • Ivan Malagurski October 7, 2010 on 11:36 am

    This is just amazing work! Hats off to the team behind this…
    Ivan Malagurski

  • Pkprasad October 7, 2010 on 5:01 pm

    imagine cyborgs with rat brain infesting our houses 🙂 . Just kidding, it is an amazing work though.

  • Spambait002 October 7, 2010 on 7:12 pm

    Oh sure !
    …It’s all ooh and aaahh and fun and games,
    Until SKYNET goes online …

  • dan keller October 8, 2010 on 2:33 am

    put my brain in robot mean my BRAIN

  • Melle Gloerich October 8, 2010 on 7:51 am

    Warwick never ceases to impress me. His views on identity in a world of connected beings is one from experience, few can tell you about it from that perspective. A while back I interviewed him and asked all kinds of things, about viruses that transfer from computer to human and about which species’ cells would likely to be used for cyborgs: They might not be human…

  • Anonymous October 8, 2010 on 4:36 pm

    What’s the music used in that second video?

  • Deano... October 20, 2010 on 1:58 am

    Harvesting “wetware” to run weapon systems and process control. Watch out. Your brain might be next!!

  • Sneeuwjager October 23, 2010 on 2:30 pm

    Questions, 1.000 questions:
    How is the neuron punished when bouncing against the wall?
    How is the neuron rewarded when going elswhere?
    How can this biological structure survive and for how long?
    etc etc

    • guest Sneeuwjager October 24, 2010 on 7:39 pm

      If You were watching you would know that the biological structure lasts for about 3 months until the neurons need to be replaced requiring a new “brain” to function. The robot can go on and on as long as it’s supplied with a new set of neurons every 3 months.

  • Isaac p. March 24, 2013 on 1:46 pm

    I want to see brain cells controlling/replacing the AIs in video games