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Lego car becomes an avatar for a worm

Steve Dent, @stevetdent
November 27, 2014
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Remember the OpenWorm project, in which researchers reproduced the genome of a nematode worm digitally and made it wiggle around on a screen? If you take the "brain" of that worm and use it to power a robotic car, you end up with researcher Timothy Busbice's WormBot. He mapped the software into a Lego Mindstorms EV3 bot, then trained it to follow sound the way a nematode follows food. When he whistles to "call" the bot, it heads toward him but stops and reverses if it detects an obstacle (using the EV3's sonar) -- even though it was programmed to do none of those things.

In effect, WormBot mimics the behavior of a real nematode with wheels, with very little tuning required -- just the original genome. In fact, geneticists can make live nematodes behave differently by removing certain neurons, and Busbice reproduced the same changes in WormBot by removing the same "neurons" virtually. Unlike a living worm, though, his neural net can't form new connections, and therefore can't learn anything. But he's planning on making new versions that do just that, which may open a certain Pandora's box. If you completely reproduce an organism in digital form, is it alive? Ready or not, we may find out the answer that question soon.

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