Scientists taught a Petri dish of brain cells to play Pong better than I can

An image of a Robobrain from Fallout 3.
(Image credit: Synonymous)

Scientists are once again asking if they 'could' and not if they 'should': a team of researchers at "biological computing startup" Cortical Labs has taught lab-grown brain cells to play Pong. By spreading around 800,000 neurons across a silicon chip and firing electrical signals at them, the cells were able to demonstrate "apparent learning within five minutes," according to the scientists involved. This is how Deus Ex got started, you know.

The scientists call their silicon/neuron conglomeration DishBrain. And to be clear, the process was a bit more abstract than just sitting a Petri dish down in front of a copy of Video Olympics for the Atari 2600. DishBrain wasn't responding to visual inputs like you or I would, but instead to a series of alternating electrical signals that simulated a round of Pong, which the researchers then converted into a visual representation of the game.

It worked like this: whenever DishBrain hit the ball, it received a predictable electrical response. Whenever it missed, the signal spiked randomly. The cells weren't conscious, and didn't 'know' they were playing a game. Rather, by naturally adapting in such a way that it received predictable responses more often, DishBrain adapted to—or, more poetically, learned—Pong. Most exciting for the researchers: it learned quickly, on-the-fly, and with a very low power requirement.

Also, DishBrain was apparently pretty bad at it, so the Pong esports community can rest easy. Still, its success rate was noticeably better than random chance, which makes it more skilled than me. The cells really were adapting to get better at Pong. It might seem unremarkable compared to the abilities that other AI have displayed in games like chess, checkers, and, uh, Overcooked, but those projects weren't working with actual, organic brain cells. If we want our dark cyborg future to arrive, it has to start with only being 'kind of okay' at Pong.

The team behind DishBrain say their next test will be to examine the effects of alcohol on the neurons' playing activity, which does make it sound like they're just having a laugh now. But the project's intended goal is to aid in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, and there are several such conditions—like dementia—that can be caused or exacerbated by excessive alcohol consumption, so it does make sense. Still, you can't shake the feeling that this is how a million cheap sci-fi paperback plots kick off, can you?

Joshua Wolens
News Writer

One of Josh's first memories is of playing Quake 2 on the family computer when he was much too young to be doing that, and he's been irreparably game-brained ever since. His writing has been featured in Vice, Fanbyte, and the Financial Times. He'll play pretty much anything, and has written far too much on everything from visual novels to Assassin's Creed. His most profound loves are for CRPGs, immersive sims, and any game whose ambition outstrips its budget. He thinks you're all far too mean about Deus Ex: Invisible War.