First digital animal

One approach to building artificial intelligence is to just build a perfect copy of an animal intelligence (including humans). We are a long ways away from being able to do that. How long I have no idea, but safe to say it's not imminent.

But someday we may look back on this digital worm as a significant milestone in the attempt to replicate a live organism without using genetic cloning.

The bot's artificial brain has the same number of cells as a real nematode brain, and they are connected up in exactly the same way. But instead of a fluid tubular body animated by 95 muscles, WormBot has a plastic body and two wheels. It does not eat, defecate, reproduce or die. That will be left to its future sibling, WormSim, which will be a cell-for-cell digital copy of the worm, living inside a computer.

Both projects began with the simplest, smallest brain that we know of – the one that is inside the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans. This lab workhorse was the first organism to have its genome sequenced, and the first to have its entire brain mapped. It is largely hermaphrodite, with 959 cells each of which has also been mapped. Its network of 302 neurons connect via 6393 synapses – its connectome – and link to the worm's 95 muscles at 1410 junctions.


Independent researcher Tim Busbice used the OpenWorm data to build WormBot's brain. He started by building a neural network in which the neurons were connected to each other according to the C. elegans connectome. In a live animal, neurons often latch onto each other through repeated connections: so neuron A might make five synapses to neuron B, and each time A fires, all five relay the signal to B. Busbice used weightings to represent this in his neural network. Just like real neurons, those in WormBot, receive inputs from a network of "upstream" neurons and have to reach a threshold in order to fire and pass the signal on to those downstream. If that threshold isn't reached a set period of time the system resets to zero.

Instead of muscles, WormBot has two wheels controlled by a matrix of 95 cells, representing the 95 muscles of C. elegans. Busbice hooked up the worm's chemosensory neurons, which a real worm uses to detect smells and tastes, to a microphone that is triggered beyond a certain decibel threshold. He also connected the worm's "nose-touch" neurons to a sonar that would send a message upstream to the brain if WormBot gets within 20 centimetres of an obstacle.

Assuming you can create a perfect copy, profound philosophical questions of consciousness, the soul, and all that are sure to follow.