WASHINGTON, Jan. 21 (UPI) -- Scientists working on the ragtag research operation known as Open Worm are blazing the path toward real artificial intelligence -- artificial worm intelligence, that is. Everyone's got to start somewhere.
Recently, the collaborative project, which involves scientists from all over the world, enjoyed a major breakthrough when their software spurred a robot made of Lego bricks to act entirely on its own. The software is the replication of the mind of a common roundworm (Caenorhabditis elegans), and it included no pre-programmed actions.
The project isn't yet perfected, but it is arguably the first true example of a synthetic biological system, the simulation of animal via computer.
For all the talk of the so-called singularity, whereby artificial intelligence surpasses the capability of the human brain, there's been relatively limited action on the idea, posited by futurists, that the human brain can be replicated in computer form.
But the newest achievement by Open Worm is proof that executable biology isn't just the stuff of science fiction. IBM's Watson can win Jeopardy on any given night, but it's far away from being anything close to a human. Open Worm's worm robot, on the other hand, isn't far off from being a worm dressed as a Lego robot.
"We've been working on it for four years and while we have a lot more to achieve it's been the most surprising project I've been involved in," Stephen Larson, Open Worm's project coordinator, recently told CNN. "It's certainly exceeded my expectations."
Currently, the robot with the mind of a worm only replicates part of the persona of C. elegans -- approaching objects curiously and then backing away, sometimes hunting down nearby food. But researchers working on the project say it may not be long before the worm robot is evading predators and seeking out mates.
"We know we have the correct number of neurons, we have them connected together in roughly the same way that the animal has, and they're organized in the same way in that there are some neurons that give out information and other neurons that receive information," explained Larson.
"We feel we've gone a long way down the road, but we still know that there's a lot that's been left out and there are a lot of assumptions -- at the moment it represents one point in a line of iterative improvements."
Whether or not Larson and company successfully continue down that road -- a road to self-sustaining artificial life -- could go a long way in determining whether talk of a Kurzweilian cyborg future is taken more seriously by mainstream science.
"It's really a difficult thing to say whether it's possible," Steven Cook told The Atlantic in 2013. Cook is a graduate student at Yale who has been contributing to the project. "I'm optimistic that if we're starting with 302 neurons and 10,000 synapses we'll be able to understand its behavior from a modeling perspective."
"If we can't model a worm, I don't know how we can model a human, monkey, or cat brain."