creating senses in a lab

Can you create “Artificial Senses” in the lab?

The five human sens­es, through which our brain receives infor­ma­tion, ana­lyzes, and makes sense of the infor­ma­tion, are the next-lev­el-cre­ation of the “nature-lab”.

And the cur­rent trend of research in Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence, Machine Learn­ing, Robot­ics, and Humanoids may also have made you curi­ous about if sci­en­tists are exper­i­ment­ing with the pur­pose of cre­at­ing human sens­es in the lab. 

If so, you are right, because the AI of the next lev­el will cer­tain­ly require its own sens­es, which it can­not bor­row from any human. After sci­en­tists cre­ate sens­es for them, they will be able to use their own brains to cre­ate addi­tion­al sens­es and come up with new wisdom. 

How is it possible to create senses in the lab?

Arti­fi­cial sens­es, but as pow­er­ful as the nat­ur­al human sens­es, can pave the way for AI to cre­ate its own intel­li­gent and wise sys­tems. They can be used as a test bed for years in the lab before they make it onto the market. 

Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence (AI) focus­es on using com­put­ers and soft­ware to sim­u­late human intel­li­gence. The goal of AI engi­neers has been to build sys­tems that are able to think, act, learn, and even feel like humans.
If you explore var­i­ous areas of research on arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, you will find that researchers are work­ing towards cre­at­ing an AI mod­el to have a sense of sight, hear­ing, or taste, along with ana­lyz­ing pat­terns among them and then mak­ing sense of them. 

Then there are those sci­en­tists who aim to give AI its own “self-aware­ness” and “emo­tion­al intel­li­gence”. The goal is to cre­ate humanoids like Sophia, who debuted in 2016. Sophia is con­sid­ered the most advanced humanoid robot. Star­ship Deliv­ery Robots, Pep­per Humanoid Robot, Bear­ro­bot­ic Restau­rant Robot, Nim­bo Secu­ri­ty Robot, and Shad­ow Dex­ter­ous Hand are the top 5 advanced AI robots in 2022.

But these robots do not have any sense like humans. They just go along accord­ing to the pro­gram. The extent of their func­tion depends on the archi­tec­ture of the system.

The rea­son why sci­en­tists are work­ing towards cre­at­ing sens­es for AI is that, they want to make it smarter

Prerequisites to create senses

To cre­ate a sense, it is essen­tial to have a sys­tem that can rec­og­nize pat­terns among oth­er sens­es and then act accord­ing­ly to make sense of the data. 

Synaps­es and neur­al net­works — for­mer, the con­nec­tion between nodes, or neu­rons, in an arti­fi­cial neur­al net­work (ANN) and lat­ter, a machine learn­ing process called deep learn­ing respec­tive­ly — are con­sid­ered to be the fun­da­men­tal build­ing blocks of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence. These are the basic com­po­nents that make up the brain’s sig­nals and deci­sions. The mind of a human or a robot con­sists of these neu­rons con­nect­ed to one anoth­er in dif­fer­ent patterns. 

Despite the fact that sci­en­tists are exper­i­ment­ing with both arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence (AI) and machine learn­ing, it’s noth­ing but an enhanced ver­sion of arti­fi­cial neur­al net­works in order to make devices more intu­itive, effi­cient, and intel­li­gent. These com­po­nents have been con­tin­u­ous­ly mak­ing progress over time because they work on mul­ti-vari­ate algo­rithms that can learn mul­ti­ple mod­els at once.

The complexity of our senses

How­ev­er, cre­at­ing sens­es in a lab can be a great chal­lenge. It is because each of the five human sens­es con­sists of dif­fer­ent neu­rons arranged in a unique pat­tern in the neur­al network. 

The sense of sight con­sists of the sen­so­ry organ (the eye) and parts of the cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem (the reti­na con­tain­ing pho­tore­cep­tor cells, the optic nerve, the optic tract and the visu­al cor­tex) and oth­er asso­ci­at­ed struc­tures for pro­cess­ing the image. 

The pri­ma­ry audi­to­ry recep­tor cells, or inner hair cells in our ears, con­vert sound waves into an elec­tri­cal sig­nal that is trans­mit­ted to the brain through an audi­to­ry nerve, which then reach­es the audi­to­ry cor­tex to process them further. 

In our mouth, taste buds are respon­si­ble for sens­ing salty, sour, sweet, and bit­ter tastes through gus­ta­to­ry hairs present on them while they also con­nect to a part of the brain called the “gus­ta­to­ry cortex.”

The sense of touch con­sists of 1) sin­gle- and mechanore­cep­tor cells as well as 2) glabrous (skin) epi­der­mous and 3) hair cells for detect­ing dynam­ic stimuli. 

The sense of smell is made up of 1) olfac­to­ry epithe­li­um, 2) olfac­to­ry recep­tors and the olfac­to­ry bulb, 3) olfac­to­ry cor­tex, 4) amyg­dala and hip­pocam­pus, 5) hypo­thal­a­mus, and 6) thalamus. 

Challenges in creating senses in a lab

You can see how com­plex the process is of cre­at­ing a com­plete­ly new sense in a lab. You will have to start by iden­ti­fy­ing the key neu­rons and their con­nec­tions and then make the nec­es­sary mod­i­fi­ca­tions, or build new ones, or add some new sen­so­ry structures.

These struc­tures will then be insert­ed into the appro­pri­ate areas of the brain for pro­cess­ing. After mak­ing all these, you should place them in a biore­ac­tor with appro­pri­ate medi­um con­di­tions as well as tar­get cells and tis­sues for interaction.

How­ev­er, the most dif­fi­cult part is to make the brain accept all the new addi­tions. It will need time, patience, and deter­mi­na­tion from you to be able to do this. Besides, this is not an easy task for those who have nev­er worked in the field.

In order for the sense of touch to be cre­at­ed in a lab, you should start by iden­ti­fy­ing the key neu­rons and their con­nec­tions that are respon­si­ble for detect­ing sta­t­ic stim­uli such as pres­sure, vibra­tion, or pain.

Sim­i­lar­ly, a sense of sight can also be cre­at­ed with the help of an opto­ge­net­ics approach. This involves the release of light-sen­si­tive pro­teins in the neu­rons after stim­u­lat­ing them with a spe­cif­ic wave­length of light.

This approach could then be used in the lab to cre­ate sen­sors such as pho­tore­cep­tors and pho­tode­tec­tors that will allow you to respond to exter­nal stim­uli in a man­ner sim­i­lar to how they work in nature.

In addi­tion to these, one should also acknowl­edge that they will have to iden­ti­fy the key neu­rons present in oth­er species that can be used for cre­at­ing sens­es as well as parts of the cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem that are respon­si­ble for pro­cess­ing them.

Risks associated with creating senses

But the most vul­ner­a­ble part of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence is its “sens­es” mech­a­nism, which can cause fatal acci­dents if mal­func­tioned or attacked by hackers.

For exam­ple, in a nuclear dis­as­ter zone, robots with nuclear plant inspec­tion sys­tems can be sent to assess the dam­age and clean the radi­a­tion by using radio fre­quen­cy iden­ti­fiers. But if a hack­er steals the access code, he/she can take con­trol of these robots and cause fur­ther damage.

Sim­i­lar­ly, in order to cre­ate arti­fi­cial sens­es in a lab, a neur­al net­work must be trained to rec­og­nize pat­terns among oth­er sen­sors. The most vul­ner­a­ble part of this mech­a­nism is that it can be hacked. 
Ill-mind­ed peo­ple may acquire tem­po­rary access to it and use it either for per­son­al gain or as part of some polit­i­cal agen­da. If so, they can cre­ate prob­lems at any lev­el, includ­ing assaults on tar­get­ed indi­vid­u­als or pub­lic and crit­i­cal infra­struc­ture systems.

In order to guar­an­tee the secu­ri­ty aspect of arti­fi­cial sens­es in the lab, they will have to train the arti­fi­cial sens­es about pre­cau­tion and protection. 

These sen­sors must be devel­oped and imple­ment­ed while keep­ing in mind their full poten­tial and how they can be used, as well as how they can be pre­vent­ed from misuse. 

Before you create senses in a lab, you therefore need to be sure that:
  • Sens­es (sen­sors) will include, but not be lim­it­ed to: sight, hear­ing, taste, and touch. 
  • Sen­sors should be pro­tect­ed against hack­ing and the use of mali­cious code to pre­vent misuse.
  • Sen­sors should also be pro­tect­ed against acci­den­tal dis­charges as well as any poten­tial harm from nat­ur­al disasters.
  • The sys­tem needs to be designed in such a way that it will gen­er­ate the required result with­out caus­ing an acci­dent in the process.
  • It should be able to accu­rate­ly detect the type of pol­lu­tion and its extent. 
  • Arti­fi­cial sens­es should have a phys­i­cal sys­tem capa­ble of link­ing with devices such as cam­eras and sen­sors in order to increase their pro­cess­ing capacity. 
  • This can enable bet­ter pro­cess­ing time, accu­ra­cy, and performance.

To sum up, arti­fi­cial sens­es are the next step for dynam­ic and smart robot­ic devices, for which you will require more pre­ci­sion, speed, and accu­ra­cy to be able to cre­ate them in a lab. The lev­el of sta­bil­i­ty, pow­er con­sump­tion, and ener­gy effi­cien­cy should be on par with that of organ­ic systems. 

How­ev­er, due to the com­plex nature of these sys­tems, a host of devel­op­ing chal­lenges are being faced by researchers in this field. These include the inte­gra­tion of arti­fi­cial sens­es into robot­ic sys­tems, while they can also help sci­en­tists to under­stand how real sens­es work as well as pro­vide solu­tions to the var­i­ous prob­lems relat­ed to arti­fi­cial sens­es.

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