Researchers use lab cultures to create robotic artist

Researchers have created ‘the semi-living artist’, a picture-drawing robot in Perth, Australia whose movements are controlled by the brain signals of cultured rat cells in Atlanta, USA.

Working from their university labs in two different corners of the world, US and Australian researchers have created what they call a new class of creative beings, ‘the semi-living artist’ – a picture-drawing robot in Perth, Australia whose movements are controlled by the brain signals of cultured rat cells in Atlanta.

Gripping three coloured markers positioned above a white canvas, the robotic drawing arm operates based on the neural activity of a few thousand rat neurons placed in a special petri dish that keeps the cells alive.

The dish, a Multi-Electrode Array (MEA), is instrumented with 60 two-way electrodes for communication between the neurons and external electronics. The neural signals are recorded and sent to a computer that translates neural activity into robotic movement.

The network of brain cells, located in Professor Steve Potter’s lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, and the mechanical arm, located in the lab of Guy Ben-Ary at the University of Western Australia in Perth, interact in real-time through a data exchange system via an Internet connection between the robot and the brain cells.

The team hopes to bridge the gap between biological and artificial systems to produce a machine capable of matching the intelligence of even the simplest organism.

‘We’re attempting to create an entity that over time will evolve, learn, and express itself through art,’ said Potter, a professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University.

The neural activity recorded by the electrodes is transmitted over a two-way communication system and processed both in Atlanta and Perth to control the robotic drawing arm. Depending on how the neuro-electrical activity fires, the robotic arm will draw on a portion of the canvas or choose how many coloured markers to use at one time and which colours it will use.

Central to the experiments is Potter’s belief that over time the teams will be able to establish a cultured in vitro network system that learns like the living brains in people and animals do. To achieve that, the information from the robot’s sensors is sent back through the system to the cultured network of cells in the form of electrical stimuli. By closing the loop, the group hopes the robot will learn something about itself and its environment.

‘The goals are both to learn more about how brains work and to apply what is learned to designing fundamentally different types of artificial computing systems,’ said Ben-Ary, who directs the Image Acquisition and Analysis Facility in the School of Anatomy and Human Biology at Western Australia.

The semi-living artist will be on display at <A HREF=’’>ArtBots: The Robot Talent Show</A> in New York City July 12 and 13 at the Eyebeam Gallery.