Efforts to recreate the behavior of a common worm in a machine is a step forward in artificial intelligence and suggests we might one day be able to upload what's in our brains into a computer, researchers say.
In a global effort dubbed the Open Worm Project, scientists and computer programmers have been working on modeling neurons in the brain of the common round worm in software.
In a recent breakthrough, their software was independently controlling a small Lego robot, making it behave like the worm, approaching and then moving away from walls and obstacles and replicating the worm's responses to food, the researcher say.
With the software in place but without any prior programming, the Lego robot could also replicate the worm's responses to food, they say.
The robot emulates the worm's biological wiring, using a sonar sensor in place of the worm's nose neurons and motors on each side acting as the motor neurons on both sides of a worm.
"We've been working on it for four years and while we have a lot more to achieve it's been the most surprising project I've been involved in," project coordinator Stephen Larson says. "It's certainly exceeded my expectations."
There's a lot more work ahead before the robot might start looking for a Lego "worm" mate, but the progress to date shows artificial intelligence is no longer just a device of science fiction novels, they researchers say.
While the researchers have been reluctant to make any claims of how closely their robot may eventually mimic biological behavior, they say they are encouraged by their progress so far.
"We definitely have further to go, but I think what captures people's imagination is how much information we have managed to put together," Larson says.
"We know we have the correct number of neurons, we have them connected together in roughly the same way that the animal has, and they're organized in the same way in that there are some neurons that give out information and other neurons that receive information."
The researchers say their goal is to eventually entirely model the worm in hardware and software and create a robot with a worm-like elastic body.
"Something with wheels that is rigid is an interesting application but it still falls short of reproducing the anatomy of the worm," Larson says.
"I'd say we're only 20 to 30 percent of the way towards where we need to get."
So far the project has involved more than 60 contributors from 15 countries.