March 1 (UPI) -- Scientists have created a virtual slug model that thinks and acts just like a real sea slug.
Cyberslug is modeled after the sea slug species Pleurobranchaea californica, a small marine predator with a simple nervous system. Scientists were able to recreate this slug's neural wiring in a virtual environment.
On its own, the virtual predator learns which of the other virtual sea slugs are tasty and nutritious and which are toxic. Cyberslug can also recognize potential predators, as well as potential mates.
In a primitive sense, the sea slug is self-aware.
"That is, it relates its motivation and memories to its perception of the external world, and it reacts to information on the basis of how that information makes it feel," Rhanor Gillette, a professor of molecular and integrative physiology at the University of Illinois, said in a news release.
For the virtual sea slug, life is pretty simple.
Gillette says the slug asks itself three questions each time it encounters a new organism: "Do I eat it? Do I mate with it? Or do I flee?"
To answer these yes-no questions, Cyberslug does have to do a bit of processing. The virtual predator must consider his internal state, as well as the surrounding environmental cues.
The sea slug's default response is to avoid anything and everything. But if it's hungry, the sea slug must consider whether it has encountered a meal.
"When P. californica is super hungry, it will even attack a painful stimulus," Gillette said. "And when the animal is not hungry, it usually will avoid even an appetitive stimulus. This is a cost-benefit decision."
Gillete and his research partners have been studying and replicating the sea slug's neural circuitry for several simulations, becoming more precise with each iteration. The researchers described their latest programming effort this week in the journal eNeuro.
Cyberslug is also available online for the public to experiment with.
Like the scientists responsible for its creation, Cyberslug gains experience over time, gaining a better understanding for what tastes good and what doesn't with each meal.
"I think the sea slug is a good model of the core ancient circuitry that is still there in our brains that is supporting all the higher cognitive qualities," Gillette said. "Now we have a model that's probably very much like the primitive ancestral brain. The next step is to add more circuitry to get enhanced sociality and cognition."