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First Synthetic Neuron Created April 25, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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This story is a few days old at this point but its worth talking about anyway.

Engineering researchers the University of Southern California have made a significant breakthrough in the use of nanotechnologies for the construction of a synthetic brain. They have built a carbon nanotube synapse circuit whose behavior in tests reproduces the function of a neuron, the building block of the brain…

Carbon nanotubes are molecular carbon structures that are extremely small, with a diameter a million times smaller than a pencil point. These nanotubes can be used in electronic circuits, acting as metallic conductors or semiconductors.

“This is a necessary first step in the process,” said Parker, who began the looking at the possibility of developing a synthetic brain in 2006. “We wanted to answer the question: Can you build a circuit that would act like a neuron? The next step is even more complex. How can we build structures out of these circuits that mimic the function of the brain, which has 100 billion neurons and 10,000 synapses per neuron?”

Where to even begin?  The idea of an actual functioning synthetic neuron is a holy grail in neuroscience.  The applications that a device like this presents are enough to make even an ardent transhumanist like me feel a little giddy.

Lets start with some near future applications.  Mentally controlled electronics are already at a fairly mature stage with more than one successful demonstration of plugging a person’s brain directly into an electronic interface.  So far this technology has been primarily used to provide quadraplegics the ability to manipulate items within their environment such as controlling a computer mouse with their thoughts.  However, the surgery to install the necessary device, which is not what you’d call compact size, is quite invasive.  One could imagine a synthetic neuron implanted into the brain being not only more efficient in its performance but also being far less disruptive  to the patient.

In addition it is easy to see the kind of impact this could have on the field of prosthetics.  Far from the way they are usually portrayed in science fiction modern prosthetics are pale simulacra of actual biological limbs.  There are a few reasons for this but one of the big ones is that prosthetic users do not have direct mental control over their artificial limbs.  Often times the technology is shockingly primitive simple: an arm amputee using their shoulder to push buttons on their prosthetic to move the limb.  Even the good ones however (i.e. the really expensive ones) have a major drawback in comparison with biological limbs in that they are unable to transmit sensory data back to the brain.  An artificial arm has no way of warning you when you stick it in the fire.  To possess the sensory abilities of the human body will require imitating or rebuilding the afferent nervous system in the prosthetic, something which an artificial neuron would be perfectly suited for.

Of course quadraplegics aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit.  Imagine being able to plug your brain directly into your computer.  At first this may simply being able to manipulate it with though, typing a paper or surfing the internet without ever touching the keyboard, but the possibilities expand from there.  A synthetic neuron would by definition function much in the same way our biological ones do; storing information, sending impulses and so on.  With our brains now hooked up to the internet imagine being able to download any information you want without the need for old fashioned learning.  This would literally be right out of the Matrix.

Finally we come to the mother of them all; creating an artificial brain.  Why not right?  If we can create a synthetic neuron then there is no reason why we could not hypothetically create an entire brain.  At this point we have achieved one of the great visions of the transhumanist movement with the possibility of mind uploading.  Take your brain, scan its state, recreate its data in digital form, then upload your mind to an electronic substrate.  True there are some tricky philosophical and technical issues surrounding this idea but no one can deny its importance in the visions of many transhumanists.

Now of course it must be said that everything I just mentioned is many years off and in some cases may not be possible at all.  But if it is possible then this is the first necessary step we need to take.

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