Artificial Intelligence has always been a branch of Computer Science that really catches the imagination of both scientists and the public. Trying to understand and replicate intelligence in all its different forms (reasoning, creativity, decision making, planning, language, etc) is exciting because it helps us to understand ourselves. Computer scientists such as Alan Turing have been pondering the implications and possibilities of AI since the 1940s and 50s. In 1951, Marvin Minsky built the first randomly wired neural network learning machine. He had studied mathematics and biology and was trying to understand brains. He's now famous for his work in AI, but, back in the 1950s, he wasn't just a mathematician, or just a computer scientist, but also studied optics, psychology, neurophysiology, mechanics and other subjects. Perhaps we pigeonholed people less into disciplines back then? Or maybe he was just amazing. Armed with all this knowledge, and a desire to learn about the brain and to look at neurons, he invented a new type of microscope, the confocal microscope. This gets rid of unwanted scattered light so that he could really focus in detail on a very specific part of the item he was looking at. Now he could see things that had never been seen before. He built the first one, and then patented this microscope in 1961. It would be another 20 years before the idea caught on (what would the research impact monitoring committees of today make of that?). Confocal microscopes are now in every biological lab and are taken for granted.
C. elegans is a 1mm long worm which lives in the soil. It is a very simple creature, easy to grow in the lab and it has a brain. Sydney Brenner (who is 85 years old today, 13th Jan 2012) has a Nobel Prize for introducing C. elegans to biologists as a "model organism": an ideal organism for studying the principles of life. In 1986, John White and his colleagues Southgate, Thomson and Brenner published a paper on the structure of the brain of C. elegans. Each worm has just 302 neurons and this number is the same for any C. elegans worm. They worked out where all the neurons were and what their connections to other neurons were, using a confocal microscope. John White had to make substantial improvements to Minsky's microscope design in order to do this. They took 8000 pictures ("prints", because it wouldn't have been digital back then) with the microscope and annotated them all by hand.
So we now have a complete picture of a simple brain. Other scientists have taken the data from White et al.'s work and created models of the brain. We understand a lot about the behaviour of the worm and which of its 302 neurons are responsible for which behviours. We have the entire C. elegans genome, so we know how many genes it has (approx 20,000), how many cells it has (approximately 1000), and we have a technique (RNA interference) for surpressing the behaviour of any gene we want to investigate. Are we nearly there yet? Are we at that tipping point where we've inspected all there is to inspect and found nothing except complexity? Have we already understood intelligence?
- See the video web stories of Marvin Minsky and Sydney Brenner. During their stories, Minsky describes inventing the confocal microscope, and Brenner describes his love of computing, including how he wrote a compiler in order to better teach himself about programming.
- See the Royal Society hosted talk: "How new science is transforming the optical microscope" by Dr Brad Amos FRS (a scientist who worked with White) Monday 13th Feb 2012.
- See White and Amos's paper on the story of confocal microscopes (including a section on "Why aren't we rich?") DOI: 10.1016/S0248-4900(03)00078-9
- See Minsky's lovely memoir of how and why he came to invent this microscope.
- How does a confocal microscope work? A page with colourful hand-drawn diagrams, explaining the basics.