A Lego Mindstorms Body Powered by a Worm’s Mind

Scientists mapped the connections between the 302 neurons of a worm’s brain and simulated them in software. Then they uploaded the software to a Lego Mindstorms EV3 robot, Quartz reports.

OpenWorm is an international open science project to build a complete simulation of the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans at the cellular level on a computer. Although the long term goal is to model all 959 cells of the worm, the first stage is to model the worm’s locomotion by simulating the 302 neurons and 95 muscle cells. After preliminary developments, the first phase of the project was successfully funded by a Kickstarter campaign in 2014.

A complete simulation with a simple brain with a few hundreds of neurons is the best that today’s technology can do. But if we can simulate a simple brain, there is no reason we couldn’t simulate a much more complex brain. In principle, we could simulate the brain of a rat, a dog, or a human.

The ultimate goal of the Open Worm project is to create a virtual worm inside a computer. So, weird as it seems, this odd endeavor is perhaps a tiny step towards one day uploading a human brain into a computer.

A Lego Mindstorms Body Controlled by the Simulated Brain

C_elegans, stainedLego Mindstorms robotic construction kits contain software and hardware to create customizable, programmable robots. They include an intelligent brick computer that controls the system, a set of modular sensors and motors, and Lego parts from the Technic line to create the mechanical systems.

Researcher Tim Busbice used the OpenWorm data to build a simulated worm brain. He started by building a neural network in which the neurons were connected to each other according to the map of neural connections (connectome) of the C. elegans. Then he assembled a suitable body, built with Lego Mindstorms and controlled by the simulated brain.

It is claimed that the robot behaved in ways that are similar to observed C. elegans, I-Programmer reports. Stimulation of the nose stopped forward motion. Touching the anterior and posterior touch sensors made the robot move forward and back accordingly. Stimulating the food sensor made the robot move forward.

There will be, of course, “philosophical” objections to question whether the worm is really alive in its robotic body. But if the robotic worm behaves like a real worm and responds to stimuli in a similar way, it appears that technology has leaped ahead of philosophy.

All seems to indicate that the next decade will see the beginning of a Golden Age of neurotechnology, with breathtaking implications. We may soon be able to drive our car by thought alone as foreseen by Nissan researchers and develop artificial telepathy between persons far away. Like today’s cell phones – but implanted in the brain.

Also read: Wireless Brain Sensors to Connect Brains to Computers

Images from Tim Busbice and Wikimedia Commons.

Giulio Prisco is a freelance writer specialized in science, technology, business and future studies.