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Scientists Teach Lab-Grown Brain Cells To Play Pong

A dish of brain cells can now play the classic video game Pong, though not very well.


A team of scientists at Cortical Labs has taught a dish of living brain cells to play a version of the classic arcade game Pong. The experiment is part of a larger effort to understand how the brain learns, and possibly apply that knowledge to the field of artificial intelligence.

"We've made huge strides with silicon computing, but they're still rigid and inflexible," Brett Kagan, an author of the study, told NPR. Kagan further stated that brain cells are able to adapt to novel tasks in unfamiliar environments in a way that computers simply can't--at least with today's technology. For example, while a person can make a cup of tea in a friend's house, a computer would struggle to locate and prepare the items, because the computer doesn't recognize the geography of the kitchen.

In the experiment, Cortical Labs hooked the dish up to a simplified Pong game and sent signals to the brain cells to indicate the location of the ball. Then the scientists tried to "motivate" the cells by using electrical stimulation--an "organized burst" for a hit, and a "chaotic stream of white noise" for a miss. This follows the "free energy principle," which says that brain cells prefer organization.

Eventually, the dish was able to strike the ball more often than it missed, doing significantly better than the same experiment performed with mouse brain cells. Though the rallies were never that long, Kagan notes that the dish contained fewer brain cells than that of a cockroach. It's not a pleasant mental image, but I am somewhat confident that I could beat a cockroach at Pong.

Note: Thumbnail image is taken from Spore. Your brain cells do not have eyes.

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