04 September 2007

Introducing the grobyC--the Inverse of a Cyborg

The problem of devising linear actuators for autonomous robots is an interesting one. Several artificial substitutes for muscle have been devised and tested. Scientists from South Korea have decided to avoid the substitutes and go straight to the real thing--using actual living muscle tissue as robot actuators!

A cyborg is the use of machines and artifacts to replace living tissue in a living organism. A grobyc is merely the inverse of a cyborg--the use of living tissue to replace machinery in a machine. The scientists from South Korea have created a grobyc!
According to Chemical Science, Sukho Park of the Nano/Micro System Laboratory at the Seoul National University and his colleagues "made the robot by growing heart muscle tissue from a rat onto tiny robotic skeletons made from polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS)."

You can see above how the scientists prepared their microrobot: (a) Single heart cells isolated from neonatal rat heart. (b) PDMS structure prepared for culture of cardiomyocytes on its surface. (c) Primary cardiomyocytes on the culture dish containing the PDMS structure. (d) Culture of cardiomyocytes. (e) Transfer of PDMS structure into a new culture dish to observe movement. (f) Schematic image to observe vertical movement. (g) Microscopic image of vertical view. (h) Schematic image to observe lateral movement. (i) Microscopic image of lateral movement. (Credit: Sukho Park and his colleagues)

Okay, this is not the first grobyc. Back in 2004, scientists used an array of 25,000 rat brain neurons to fly a simulated F-22 fighter jet. The scientists from South Korea have extended the concept to muscle as linear robot actuators. That is quite clever.

Nanotechnologists, if they are smart, borrow shamelessly from biological mechanisms and proofs of concept. It should not surprise us that roboticists would likewise borrow from biology to solve difficult problems in the actuation of autonomous robots.

Muscle is an excellent linear actuator, and is powered by simple nutrients that can be obtained easily. When muscles grow weak or scarred, losing their normal function, a good method of replacing them within living organisms--such as people--would be quite convenient. Fortunately, Pittsburgh scientists have located adult stem cells within the walls of blood vessels that fit the task perfectly. Palliatives for muscular dystrophy or scarred hear walls may be within reach.

Back to the grobyC. How far, do you think, can scientists go in using living tissue and biological ingredients in robots and other machines? The South Korean scientists used cardiomyocytes from the Sprague-Dawley rat. What if they wanted to use the entire heart of the rat as a mechanical pump? Or the digestive system as a way of processing nutrients for the pump and actuators? Or the rat brain as a controller for the grobyc, as the US investigators did in 2004?

At what point does the grobyc become cyborg?

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Blogger Will Brown said...

To address your closing question first: this usage strikes me as being a disticntion without a practical difference - as far as the actual organism itself is concerned (scientist sensibilities seem a better source for this usage to me). Despite the humanocentric history of the term, I think the resulting cybernetic organism is the determanent factor, not which entity provided the foundational vehicle for modification.

As to the robotic development itself, I think it is an exciting and necessary next step in our discovery process. I can clearly see the "Terminator T-1000" references already. :) I do wonder if it might prove more effective to reserve replacement therapies to more complex organism's though. This concept seems oriented toward a mass attack strategy using lots of (relatively) inexpensive units to progressively attack a problem. That could be the result of my history influencing my impression, of course, but would negate any need for repair of used robots - they're intended to be replaced when worn out. I think the question of scaling will be critical to that result though, which depends upon further development of the concept.

Tuesday, 04 September, 2007  
Blogger al fin said...

I remember thinking that the rat neural net flying an F-22 fighter simulator had opened the door to some potentially bizarre research.

Cyborg-grobyC experiments and applications are blurring the distinction between living and non-living machines on the macro/micro level, just as bio-nanotechnology and biomimic-nanotechnology are blurring the distinction on the nano level.

Emotionally, it makes a difference to me (and probably a lot of other people) whether you are using a human as the starting point, or a robot, when creating a hybrid bio-machine organism. If the human brain is essentially unaltered, the entity is basically human. If the entity is human in every way except in having an electronic brain, it is basically machine.

The distinction may seem arbitrary, but for now it is likely to be axiomatic.

Wednesday, 05 September, 2007  
Blogger Will Brown said...

Yours is a point I hadn't really considered. In the general category of cybernetic organism, what is the dominant factor in determining it's ethical (and other) status? It is upon such distinctions that our culture will develop proticols for dealing with such entities I suppose.

That and our emotional reaction to it's percieved "ick" factor. :)

Wednesday, 05 September, 2007  
Blogger psychegram said...

"If the human brain is essentially unaltered, the entity is basically human. If the entity is human in every way except in having an electronic brain, it is basically machine."

What if you start with a human and then start putting chips in its brain. Is there a threshold beyond which the entity ceases to become human and becomes machine instead? Would a computer simulation of a human brain, accurate down to the level of the shapes of individual synapses, be more human than that cyborg?

If there's one thing that's for certain, it won't be long before drawing hard and fast boundaries around what is human and what is not will become prohibitively difficult.

Sunday, 09 September, 2007  
Blogger al fin said...

Yes, at a certain point of replacing components, the distinction becomes very tricky.

Brains and chips have different signal characteristics, so far. The density of the human brain is much too dense for any computers existing today to emulate in any acceptable time frame.

The spoiler is the intricate system of feedback and feedforward circuits in the brain, intricately syncopated in time, and influenced by more than just synaptic structure and weighting. The neural pathways in each brain are unique and largely unmapped.

But--and this is purely speculative and unrealistic--if replacement chips could emulate brain signaling in time, of brain tissue they replaced, the resulting hybrid would remain a cyborg because its "template" of higher intellectual function would be taken from the original brain.

If you used a neural net of human neurons to control a robot or other machine, it would be a grobyC. If you used human muscles as actuators in an autonomous robot, it would be a grobyC.

Sunday, 09 September, 2007  

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