Robot With Bacteria Brain Stalks Food, Is Your Worst Nightmare - InformationWeek

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7/17/2015
10:06 AM
David Wagner
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Robot With Bacteria Brain Stalks Food, Is Your Worst Nightmare

A robot run by a brain made up of bacteria sounds like a science fiction plot, but it is actually good science.

9 Ways Technology Is Slowly Killing Us All
9 Ways Technology Is Slowly Killing Us All
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Basically, unless you have a degree in biochemistry, what you are about to read will freak you out.

Two Virginia Tech scientists have created a mathematical formula for running a robot brain with bacteria. Soon they are going to build a real robot that runs on a hive mind of bacteria just like a brain. They are doing it because they want to learn more about how our own brains are basically controlled by the bacteria in our bodies. That, or because the bacteria told them to do it.

It is enough to make Elon Musk curl up in a little hole and cry. Not only are we talking about AI, which he fears, but we're talking now about robots controlled by AIs that are controlled by species other than ourselves. Not to mention, we're unleashing potential bacterial nightmares on a population already worried about a pandemic. It is the stuff of science fiction. Very dark science fiction.

Before we get too invested in the nightmare, why are we doing this? Because it is actually good science.

Here's what you have to know: 90% of you, isn't you. You're only 10% human cells. The rest of you is made up of microbes that aren't you, but they are a part of your normal physiology. For instance, you have trillions of microbes in your digestive system that break down your food. While that sounds gross, it is a good relationship. They break down the food and we ingest most of it in the form of nutrients. They take a handling fee in the form of some of the food and live on.

Here's the thing: We're starting to realize that not all of those microbes mind their own business. Some of them actually change our personality, control our actions, and might even be the cause of mental disorders.

One of the most famous is probably toxoplasma gondii. It is a microbe found in cat poop that makes you like cats. What? You thought you like cats because they were cute and fuzzy? Nope. They are evil disinterested things that manipulate you into feeding them and caring for them every time you handle their feces. T gondii has actually been known to make infected rats lay down and be eaten on purpose by cats.

Even that bacteria in your gut that digests your food is controlling you. The bacteria can interact with your brain through a neuron called the vagus nerve. Your late-night craving for fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches might come from your gut bacteria demanding certain nutrients. Your brain gets this signal and can be altered over time by it. The bacteria can make you do things to suit their needs.

We're only beginning to figure out how much these microbes can affect our brains. Some researchers are theorizing they can cause autism, schizophrenia, and all sorts of terrible diseases.

(Image: Virginia Tech)

(Image: Virginia Tech)

Which gets us back to the robot run by bacteria. What better way to study the effect of bacteria on the behavior of an organism than to create an artificial organism that can be placed in a controlled environment? So far, the researchers have only done this in a computer simulation, but they're going to build a real robot to do this.

In the simulations they did things such as creating a robot that sought out lactose and other nutrients when placed in a virtual environment. The robots in the simulation did some frightening things. One of the most interesting was that, when the robots would approach a food source, they would often pause and then "pounce" like a predator does in nature. In other words, the robot started behaving like an animal, not a robot. And not just any animal, a predator.

Here is a video explaining it:

The whole point of all of this is to better understand the mechanisms that bacteria use to manipulate us in order to stop an action when it has negative consequences, or when it improves the positive consequences. For instance, if we understand how certain mental illness might be caused by bacteria, we could create bacterial medicines that prevent these disorders by either killing the offending bacteria, or replacing the missing bacteria that were helping us stay healthy.

Real-world experiments have been done that have used bacteria to alter the mating habits of fruit flies, or make mice less stressed. Problem with these experiments include the cost and the controlling of variables. A bacteria-brain robot would reduce costs and "democratize the field of synthetic biology" according to the press release from the researchers.

Honestly, that's all well and good, but we're still talking about researchers using bacteria to do experiments with mind control and artificial intelligence. They've already basically created a robot that attacks its food like a predator. Oh, and it is sponsored by the Air Force. The Air Force is experimenting with how to use bacteria to control minds and create robots that attack their food like predators. How's that for unsettling? Planning on joining Mr. Musk in his hole?

[ Scared of robots taking over? Don't worry. Read 10 Reasons Robots Should Rule The World. ]

No, seriously, it is creepy, but which is creepier -- having 90% of your body run by microbes you don't understand, or having 90% of your body controlled by microbes and learning how they work? Even if the bacterial robot sounds a little scary, there's nothing in it that isn't in you. So far, while the microbes might be telling you what to eat and how to act, they mostly haven't killed you … yet.

While it is fun to think of a giant robot wiping out all humans in the name of bacteria, these microbes don't want to do that. For the most part, they need to keep you alive to keep feeding off you. The ones that kill us need a mechanism for going to the next host. If we're all gone, they don't last. Kill your host too fast and you can't spread.

So the freaky part isn't the experiment, or the robot. The creepy part is that you aren't all you. I don't know about you, but I'd rather learn as much about that part of me as possible.

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/30/2015 | 9:04:07 PM
Re: meal ticket
@kstaron- Depends on how we die. Most of them have an exit plan. :)
kstaron
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kstaron,
User Rank: Ninja
7/30/2015 | 8:26:46 PM
meal ticket
That is both fascinating and entirely creepy. Plus I imagine we will have a fair amount of new dark sci-fi out there involving bacteria robots. Yrs understanding the microbes that control us is better than not understanding them. And if even that creeps you out just remember that these symbiotes are helping us make decisions for both their benefit and ours (at least most of the time.) After all if we die, they lose their meal ticket.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
7/20/2015 | 11:55:30 AM
Re: Re Robot With Bacteria Brain Stalks Food, Is Your Worst Nightmare
@Broadway0474- You should write screenplays. that's a good line. :)

Personally, i agree with you that man is more likely to wipe himself out than anything. But given that we seem to be virtually ignoring climate change, i just can't get all that excited about the remote threat of AI when there is a real threat staring us in the face.

But more importantly, we've been guessing science was going to ruin us forever. Scientists are more careful about this than regular folks. i always feel like science is feared because we don't understand it at the level scientists do. It seems unfair to think they are more likely to make a mistake than industrialists, politicians, etc.
nomii
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nomii,
User Rank: Ninja
7/18/2015 | 9:19:30 PM
Re: Re Robot With Bacteria Brain Stalks Food, Is Your Worst Nightmare

@Broadway I believe that nothing in this world that is created is only having bad effect. It might be bad in one aspect but definitely it has some good affects in other. I think that the apprehension of Elon Musk about AI is justified. I buy your idea here that we should wait and see what these scientists are upto. Most of the times we have heard contradicting theories after experimients by different scientists. For one instant I heard that drinking more tea and you have high chances of cancer and few years later I also heard that drinking excessive tea will eliminate chances of cancer. I was not sure whom to believe. In same sense we should wait and see the end result of these experiments.

nomii
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nomii,
User Rank: Ninja
7/18/2015 | 9:10:36 PM
Re: Re Robot With Bacteria Brain Stalks Food, Is Your Worst Nightmare

@Pedro  true. It was very scary at first but it becames even more scarier once I thought that how can we distinguish all capailities of these microbes. We thought that few are good and few are bad but their might be other functions in human body where these bad microbes are doing some good job while others are not. Isn't that scary?. 

PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
7/18/2015 | 10:04:28 AM
Re: Re Robot With Bacteria Brain Stalks Food, Is Your Worst Nightmare
wow. This is truly amazing.  I think Elon must and all of the scientists worrying about AI are focusing on the wrong topic.  They should be focusing on saving the planet from killer robot microbes.  I read this article; I got really scary of what scientist can do with such microbes.  Imagine the army getting its hands on this.  Realizing such microbes where your enemy is located and controlling their mind by making them fall on the ground.  This is as someone put it dark sci fi.
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
7/17/2015 | 9:00:58 PM
Re: Re Robot With Bacteria Brain Stalks Food, Is Your Worst Nightmare
I was watching 28 Days Later the other day (it's been a while since I saw it), and if you remember, the infection that wiped out the UK in that was created by some high-minded scientists who didn't know what they were getting into. It's all well and good to make fun of Elon Musk's apprehension about AI, but more than likely the creature that wipes out (or nearly wipes out) the human race --- if that's how we go out --- will be man-made, whether it's a robot, or some superbug, or a robot controlled by a superbug. So laugh it up now ... until that robot looks you in eye and says, "What am I, a clown? Do I amuse you?"
zerox203
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zerox203,
User Rank: Ninja
7/17/2015 | 3:09:25 PM
Re Robot With Bacteria Brain Stalks Food, Is Your Worst Nightmare
This whole idea definitely gets my sci-fi motor running; it sounds like a potential setup for a Marvel superhero's origin story. The robot get zapped with some kind of extraterrestrial lightning bolt, and a feedback loop causes it to merge with the human scientist nearby, turning him part-man, part-robot, and part-microbe (well, more microbe than the 90% he already is), with psychic powers. In seriousness, it reminds one how far we've come since the days when just throwing 'nano'-this or 'micro'-that into any sentence made it sound sci-fi - now, that's the reality. Looking at the video, I can recognize some of the devices, processes, and terms at work, but others are way over my head. These researchers are combining new developments in robotics, AI, etc., and peeking into the next level.

The stories you linked, Dave, are a nice primer for a topic it appears we still have a lot to learn about. I got curious and took a longer look at the article about toxoplasma gondii, and it looks like quite a rabbit hole. It mentions large camps of skeptics and doubters who avoid the research just on principle (re: because it's unsettling). That article is from 2012 - I wonder how much has changed since then? The article on stomach bacteria (which is from just last year) still uses lots of 'may's 'might's and 'could's. Like many areas of the human brain, it seems a lot of inference is still used to predict *how* something happens. This robot could be a great step towards filling in those blanks.
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