The technological sublime -- via airplanes, rat brains, and tweets

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University of Florida/Ray Carson via Discovery News

In 1992, Steve Potter, a professor of biomedical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, developed a hybrid robot. The cybernetic organism -- which came to be referred to as a "hybrot" -- consisted of both biological and technological elements: On the robot side, it had hardware and software, and on the biological side, it had rat neurons and incubators for those neurons. The computer was programmed to respond to the neuron impulses. And the result of this was, essentially, a "rat-brained" robot that was able to manifest neuronal activity with physical motion. Dr. Potter's creation marked the first instance in which cultured neurons were used to control a robotic mechanism.

In 2004, that work was moved forward -- through an experiment that used rat neurons not just for movement, but for learning. Researchers at the University of Florida created a living "brain" of cultured rat cells ... and used them to control an F-22 fighter jet flight simulator. [Insert your preferred "WHAAA?" reaction here.]

That story is now nearly eight years old, but -- thanks to some hits on Reddit and a tweet from William Gibson -- it's gotten a new burst of life today. And that's not surprising. As a story rather than a news story, this has it all: cyborgs, robots, airplanes, rats. And as a story, it is a particularly Internet-friendly incarnation of what David Nye calls the "technological sublime": that sense of the power and opportunity embedded in the tools we create to extend ourselves into the world. The awe of augmentation -- the communion we experience, confronted with our greatest technologies, that is so powerful it is almost spiritual.

There's a little bit of that sense in Twitter's reaction to the RAT FLYING PLANE story: a sense of wonder at science fiction becoming fact, of the impossible being executed in a petri dish. The conversation is illustrative and kind of wonderful. Below, assorted reactions to the story that is Brains Flying Planes:



Cultural connection:




A combination of all of the above:

Hat tip @faketv.