Inner Nature: A chat with ChatGPT about bioelectricity

By Vidya Rajan, Columnist, The Times

The power of a good story is that has sound grounding in fact, but also pushes the boundary of belief. Is it too much to imagine that our world will be un-livable soon due to the effects of climate change? Will watching the movie The Day After Tomorrow change your mind? Will watching GAATACA sensitize you to the possible outcomes of human genetic engineering? Will Ex-Machina make you aware of the possibility of Artificial Intelligence (AI) becoming sentient? Or of “The Matrix” making AI spiteful? There is also the premise that stories are based on. The underlying facts have to be unassailable with our current understanding to be a truly great story.

In the 1999 movie, The Matrix, human beings grown and kept alive in aquatic pods, the premise being that humans could be farmed as electricity-generating mega-batteries. The backstory is that humans blocked out the sun, the greatest source of energy for the planet, to stop the computers which had started taking over the world. But the computers turned the tables on humans, farming them, tapping their central nervous systems for energy. To keep the humans from understanding what was happening and revolting again, they fed the brains of the farmed humans with electrical signals which created three-dimensional worlds into which they were then inserted as if they were living and breathing and had free will. Here, I want to interrogate the premise that biological energy can power anything at all, least of all computer mainframes.

And then there is a twist: the availability of an Artificial Intelligence system, to interrogate this question with! Recently, ChatGPT, an Open AI system which is capable of responding to open-ended questions became available. This system is both fun and amazing to interact with because of its capacity to access data and then to present that data in a conversational manner. I asked ChatGPT what it thought of a Matrix-like scenario being possible. My essay and ChatGPT’s essay (with a prompt to include information on harvesting energy from biosystems like electric eels) are presented below. Tell me what you think!

Vidya Rajan’s essay:

That nerves produce and transmit electrical signals is well obvious and well understood. It’s even more obvious when the system fails, such as with diseases such as multiple sclerosis where the signal is dissipated, or when people are put in an electric chair as a means of execution by so overloading their electrical circuitry that it breaks down. That energy interacts with life is established. But how does the interaction work? There are four terms to understand – electric current (expressed in amperes, symbol A) and potential difference (expressed in Volts, symbol V) and their product is the amount of wattage (effective power transmitted, symbol W). The final term is resistance of the medium measured in ohms, symbol W. A trick to understanding their interactions is to imagine a Winnie-the-Pooh scenario: A stuck Winnie-the-Pooh (current) is being pushed by Christopher Robin (Voltage) through the too-small front door of Piglet’s house (Resistance).

How does this work in living things? Animals are best known for nerve conduction, although bacteria, fungi and plants also have a voltage across membranes because of the movement of ions. Animals have supercharged the system because they have shed the cell wall, a structure that restrains the free movement of materials but provides structural rigidity. Animals have instead grown scaffolds (bone in vertebrates and exoskeletons in most invertebrates) to compensate. That workaround allows cells to communicate with each other through long wires called nerves. One thinks of nerves as being quite thin, but the thinner the nerve, the greater the resistance and higher the potential needed. So nerves are often quite thick. The first nerve ever dissected was the giant nerve of the squid – about 1 mm in diameter! Another function that improves conductivity is to encase the nerve in insulating fatty material, just as wiring is encased in plastic sheaths.

Neurons from animals ranging from simple flatworms to complex mammals produce electricity by the simple expedient of moving ions across their membranes. They then use neurons appended end to end in long “wires” termed nerves to conduct that electricity over long distances. Technical terms used for this movement of ions across membranes causes membrane sections to be “polarized” and “depolarized” as the electrical wave passes. As an analogy, consider a Mexican Wave at a ball game. A wave is initiated, and it is transmitted linearly along a pathway (here, the stands) when each person awaits their turn (polarized) and stands up with their hands in the air (depolarized) and then sits back down (repolarized). The electrical impulse similarly passes linearly along a nerve’s axon, depolarizing the membrane as it progresses, and repolarizing after the wave moves on. In graphical terms, the movement of electricity, known as an action potential, as shown in the image below:

Figure: Approximate plot of a typical action potential shows its various phases as the action potential passes a point on a cell membrane. The membrane potential starts out at approximately −70 mV at time zero. A stimulus is applied at time = 1 ms, which raises the membrane potential above −55 mV (the threshold potential). After the stimulus is applied, the membrane potential rapidly rises to a peak potential of +40 mV at time = 2 ms. Just as quickly, the potential then drops and overshoots to −90 mV at time = 3 ms, and finally the resting potential of −70 mV is reestablished at time = 5 ms. From:

This may be a lot to take in if you are reading about nerve action for the first time, but the point is that the movement of positively-charged ions across membranes is effectively the movement of electrons in the other direction. The movement of electrons is otherwise known as electricity.

Now to get to the question at the top of this page: Can this electrical energy be harvested in a Matrix scenario? Probably. A human body produces about 75 Watts of power a day, just about enough to power a small bulb for an hour. But wire up 8 billion humans, and now we’re talking serious numbers. Those Matrix computers would have done better to have wired up electric eels. These animals can discharge around 600 Volts of jolt. Assuming 1 Ampere of current, that is 600 Watts. Apparently it was from studying the electrical cells of the eel that inspired the invention of the battery. As for the name “battery”? That was conferred by Benjamin Franklin, he of the kite-flying-in-a-lightning-storm daredevilry.

That, at least, is not a shock.

ChatGPT’s essay:

Prompt: Write an essay on whether Matrix-like bioenergy scenarios are possible and include bioenergy sources like electric eels

Matrix-like bioenergy scenarios, where humans are able to harness energy directly from their own bodies, have been a popular subject in science fiction for decades. While such scenarios may seem implausible or even impossible, it is worth considering whether they could potentially become a reality in the future.

One potential source of bioenergy that has garnered significant attention is the electric eel. Electric eels are a type of fish that are capable of generating powerful electric shocks for defense and hunting. These shocks can reach up to 600 volts and are generated through a process called electrogenesis, which involves the conversion of chemical energy into electrical energy.

While electric eels are certainly an impressive example of bioenergy, it is not clear whether their abilities could be harnessed and utilized by humans. For one, electric eels are not able to generate electricity on demand, as they only produce shocks in response to specific stimuli. Additionally, the mechanisms behind electrogenesis are not fully understood, and more research is needed to determine how this process could be replicated or harnessed in other organisms.

Other potential sources of bioenergy include bioelectronics and biofuel cells. Bioelectronics involve the use of living cells or biological materials to create electronic devices, while biofuel cells generate electricity through the chemical reactions of biological materials. Both of these technologies are still in the early stages of development, but they have the potential to revolutionize the way we think about energy production and consumption.

One of the main advantages of bioenergy is that it is renewable and sustainable. Unlike fossil fuels, which are finite and have a significant environmental impact, bioenergy can be produced indefinitely and with minimal impact on the environment. This makes it an attractive alternative to traditional energy sources, particularly as concerns about climate change and environmental degradation continue to grow.

However, there are also several challenges that must be overcome in order for bioenergy to become a practical and widely-used source of energy. For example, bioelectronics and biofuel cells are still relatively inefficient, and it is not clear whether they will ever be able to produce energy at the same levels as traditional sources like fossil fuels. Additionally, there are questions about the safety and ethics of using living cells or biological materials for energy production, and more research is needed to address these concerns.

Overall, it is difficult to say whether matrix-like bioenergy scenarios will ever become a reality. While the technology and scientific understanding needed to make them possible are still in the early stages of development, it is clear that bioenergy has the potential to be a transformative and sustainable source of energy. Whether it will ever be able to fully replace traditional energy sources, however, remains to be seen.


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