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Development of the Computational Unit for an Artificial Axon Network


The subject of consciousness is a debated and open question on all levels of inquiry. There is no general consensus for its definition, nor is there agreement in the minimum number of computational units required to produce a conscious experience or to perform the simplest stimulus-response tasks. The unknowns persists down to the interaction between two neurons. When one neuron fires, competing theories exist for how a downstream neuron uses this signal.

A novel, experimental system was developed in the Zocchi lab to explore these questions with a constructivist approach. We call this system the Artificial Axon (AA), and it is the first artificial system to produce an action potential with a voltage-gated ion channel outside of the cell. The long-term direction for the Artificial Axon in our lab is toward a large network of Axons to probe the surface of consciousness with a “brain-like” system. There are many challenges to overcome before such a network is realized. However, we are approaching the end of early development for this system.

My experimental work with the Artificial Axon is in the development of the computational unit for this future network. Because the microscopics of the Artificial Axon and the neuron are the same – both are driven by the voltage-gated ion channel – we expect overlap between the neuron and the computational unit of the AA in response to input and communication of output. I show that this is certainly the case. I demonstrate that the Artificial Axon is a logic gate, capable of performing simple Boolean logic. I produce a firing rate in the Artificial Axon, a crucial property in neuron communication and computation. I develop an electronic connection between Axons, and describe its immediate potential for information storage in a larger network. I end the thesis with a demonstration of two Axons performing a simple task. Namely, I use two Axons to steer an RC car toward a light source.

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