Preposterous Universe

Friday, November 05, 2004
Brain in vat flies fighter jet

Ha, I bet you think the title is some clever metaphor for some contemporary political situation about which I will now snarkily comment. Nope, it's just the straightforward truth. Philosophy, Etc. links to a report from the University of Florida about researchers who have grown a brain of rat cells in a vat. Aforementioned brain, feeling all cooped up, then took a fighter jet for a spin.

To be clear, the "brain" is a collection of 25,000 neurons extracted from the brain of an actual rat, and cultured in a Petri dish. The neurons are placed separately in the dish, at which point they stretch out to each other and grow connections. Thomas DeMarse, the scientist leading the study, obviously has a sense of humor, so the first thing he did was to hook up the newly-formed brain to an F22 fighter simulator. The brain interacted with the simulator through electrodes, both giving and receiving information.

Just think of that poor rat brain, tricked into thinking it's a fighter pilot when it's really stuck in a dish in a laboratory. Philosophers love this stuff. (What will Daniel Dennett think? Or Descartes, for that matter?) The scientific justification is that there are certain tasks that organic brains are much better at than computers -- pattern recognition being a simple example. Someday the autopilot on your plane might be constructed from neurons rather than integrated circuits. Let's just hope they don't rise up and take over the world!

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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