It started as a trick played on a young IT engineer, and has inspired art installations and even social experiments. Its creators – and those they influenced – hail the bleeping genius of a coin-op classic
Pong: a game so simple a bundle of lab-grown brain cells could play it. This might sound like a low blow, but it’s true – last month, Australia-based startup Cortical Labs challenged its creation DishBrain, a biological computer chip that uses a combination of living neurons and silicon, to play the early console classic.
The game – a 2D version of table tennis where players control a rectangle “paddle”, moving it up and down to rally a ball – ran in the background, wired up to the DishBrain. Electrical stimulations were fed into the cells to represent the placement of the paddle and feedback was pinged when the ball was hit or missed. The scientists then measured the DishBrain’s response, observing that it expended more or less energy depending on the position of the ball.
“After a 20-minute session, [the DishBrain was] playing much better than then when they started and much better than chance,” Dr Brett Kagan, Cortical’s chief scientific officer, says. While it wasn’t operating at the level of a human or even a motivated mouse, it did demonstrate a consistent learning path and some form of information processing optimisation. “It was so exciting,” Kagan says gleefully. “We honestly did not expect to see the extent of the results.”