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The video game Pong is such a simple concept, anyone can play – even a dish of brain cells, according to scientists.
Researchers connected the neurons – the cells responsible for receiving sensory input from the external world and for sending motor commands to muscles – of humans and mice to a computer, where neurons were made aware if their paddle was making contact with the ball.
Using electric probes, scientists monitored the activity and responses of the neurons and plotted the results as “spikes” on a grid, with the spikes getting stronger the more a neuron moved a paddle and hit the ball.
Scientists used software to analyze instances when the neurons missed. In a paper published Wednesday in the journal Neuron, researchers claim they were able to demonstrate “the neurons could adapt activity to a changing environment, in a goal-oriented way, in real time.”
“From worms to flies to humans, neurons are the starting block for generalized intelligence,” first author Brett Kagan, chief scientific officer at Cortical Labs in Melbourne, Australia, said in a statement. “So, the question was, can we interact with neurons in a way to harness that inherent intelligence?”
Kagan said the team chose Pong due to its simplicity and familiarity, adding that it was one of the first games used in machine learning. His team is now testing other games.
Kagan told CNN that in the short term, the technology could be used for “better drug discovery, disease modeling, and understanding how intelligence arises – which in turn could be used to develop new algorithms for machine learning.”
“It touches on the fundamental aspects of not only what it means to be human but what it means to be alive and intelligent at all, to process information and be sentient in an ever changing, dynamic world,” Kagan added.
In the longer term, he believes it could “form the backbone of a new type of information processor,” to be used in areas like robotics, where processing information is critical.
Two of the paper’s authors, as well as Hon Weng Chong, the founder of Cortical Labs and lead researcher, have various patents pending on the Pong-playing neurons, Kagan told CNN, adding that the company hopes to build devices using synthetic biological systems.
This isn’t the first time researchers have used Pong when studying brain capabilities.
Last year, Neuralink, the implant company owned by SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, released a video in which a monkey appears to play Pong using only its mind.
The 9-year-old male macaque, named Pager, had a Neuralink device implanted in both sides of its brain, according to a YouTube video posted by the company.
Neuralink is developing Bluetooth-enabled implantable chips that can communicate with computers via a small receiver, and has previously demonstrated the technology in pigs.