NeurIPS Day 2: Cronenbergs

Just a brief highlight from day two: Professor Michael Levin’s incredible talk on What Bodies Think About, summarising 15 years of research in exploring the hardware/software distinction in biology. Hello, Cronenberg World.

A brief introduction on how the brain is far from the only place where computation happens in biology. Experiments with regenerative flatworms show that memories persist even when their heads are removed and grow back. Butterflies can remember experiences they had when they were caterpillars.

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Then the key bit of the talk: reverse engineering bioelectric signals to trigger high-level anatomical subroutines – aka “reprogramming organs”. For example, telling a normal frog to “regrow a leg”, or convincing a flatworm to grow a different shape head that belongs to a much older species of flatworm. No genomic editing or stem cells – but controlling bioelectric signals by changing ion channels directly or through drugs.

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The ultimate goal: a biological compiler. This could lead to amazing new regenerative medicine, though there are clearly a lot of ethical issues that need to be thought through!

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Do watch the full talk when you get a chance. It’s the only talk I ever remember attending where my jaw literally dropped, several times.

Previous Neurips 2018 posts: Expo and Tutorials. Next: Day 3.

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