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Scientists taught a petri dish of brain cells to play pong faster than an AI

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As a lover of tough single player games, I’m quite accustomed to getting my butt handed to me by AI, and usually not even a real one. I also happen to be the owner of a full sized human brain. Though it’s not without its problems, the human brain's ability to learn and change is usually why I eventually overcome those difficult in-game challenges.

So when I read about a few human brain cells in a petri dish that are already performing much better at a videogame than AI can, it’s concerning to me and my gaming future. New Scientist (opens in new tab) reports that a team in Australia has been growing these small puddles of brain and now one has learnt to play Pong, in fairly impressive time.

Cortical labs (opens in new tab) is a company working on integrating biological neurons with your more traditional silicon based computing hardware. They grow brain cells on microelectronic arrays, so the cells can be stimulated. These hybrid chips are said to be able to learn and restructure themselves to get past problems, like stopping a sneaky ball that wants in your goal.

According to Cortical labs, AIs typically take 90 minutes to learn Pong, whereas this ‘DishBrain’ (yes, that’s what it’s called) managed to have it down in five. Though the researchers do note that a good AI would still absolutely demolish the cells, once both properly trained. 

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The team managed this by using electrical signals to communicate where the ball is in-game to the DishBrain. The neurons could then move the paddles to collide with the ball, which is pretty insane stuff. Though, I’m fairly sure I worked out Pong faster, and without a full team of scientists helping, just saying.

Chief scientific officer of Cortical Labs, Brett Kagan told New Scientist “We think it’s fair to call them cyborg brains,” and went on to explain that when the brains are moving the paddles in Pong, they’re convinced that they’re the paddles. 

“We often refer to them as living in the Matrix,” he explains. “When they are in the game, they believe they are the paddle.”

AIs are already pretty crazy as it is. They can turn words into photorealistic images (opens in new tab), make Grand Theft Auto (opens in new tab), or code just about anything (opens in new tab), quality aside. Bethesda boss Tod Howard wants better AI in games (opens in new tab), while the UN is even calling for regulation of potentially dangerous AIs (opens in new tab). I am excited to see what horrible wonders DishBrains can concoct in their march towards terrifying sentience.

Hope Corrigan
Hardware Writer

Hope’s been writing about games for about a decade, starting out way back when on the Australian Nintendo fan site Vooks.net. Since then, she’s talked far too much about games and tech for publications such as Techlife, Byteside, IGN, and GameSpot. Of course there’s also here at PC Gamer, where she gets to indulge her inner hardware nerd with news and reviews. You can usually find Hope fawning over some art, tech, or likely a wonderful combination of them both and where relevant she’ll share them with you here. When she’s not writing about the amazing creations of others, she’s working on what she hopes will one day be her own. You can find her fictional chill out ambient far future sci-fi radio show/album/listening experience podcast (opens in new tab) right here.

No, she’s not kidding.