Last year, I interviewed Binyamin Hochner of Hebrew University about his work developing new robotics systems based on the neurobiology of octopuses and other cephalopods. That interview ended up being incorporated into a video about cephalopod intelligence that was posted here on BoingBoing.
Long story short: Cephalopods don't have their neurons organized in the same way that we vertebrates do. An octopus has as many neurons as a cat, but instead of relying on a central brain, the octopus' neurons are far more scattered. Some are centralized into what we might think of as a "brain"—in this case, a donut-shaped organ that actually wraps around the octopus' esophagus. But the bulk of the neurons are distributed throughout the octopus' body. When the octopus moves, the centralized and decentralized neurons work together, sharing information and the duties of processing and control*.
Researchers like Hochner think that distributed processing system could make for better robots that can do more thinking on their own. Now, his work is paying off. In the video above, you can see the robotic arm produced by an interdisciplinary, team funded by the European Commission, of which Hochner is a part. The 17-inch arm can grasp objects and is the first step in a larger plan to build an entire robot octopus.
I'll say that again, "Robot octopus." Feel free to squeel with delight.
*For the record, this is my guess for why the technically dead squid in that video Xeni posted on Monday still reacted when doused with soy sauce. Squid have distributed neurons, just like octopuses. So some of its "brain" was dead. But the distributed neurons spread throughout its arms were still, apparently, somewhat functional. In the video, I mentioned that one of the scientists I spoke with told me that the humane way to kill an octopus was to kill the whole octopus at once.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.