Next time you’re getting your ass kicked at Fortnite or online chess, it could be at the metaphorical hands of a petri dish of brain cells.

Scientists in Australia taught ‘sentient’ cells to play Pong in just minutes, according to a paper published last week in journal Neuron

“What machines can’t do is learn things very quickly,” study leader Brett Kagan told AFP

“If you need a machine learning algorithm to learn something, it requires thousands of data samples. But if you ask a human, or train a dog, a dog can learn a trick in two or three tries.”

A mix of embryonic brain cells from mice and human neurons from adult stem cells were grown on top of electrodes that could deliver electric pulses.

Rather than reward successful play with dopamine, which was too slow, the cells instead got regular and predictable electrical signals. If they made a mistake, the signals became erratic – the belief being that the cells would seek to minimise unpredictability in their environment.

And it worked – in just five minutes, the ‘DishBrain’ – about the complexity of a bumblebee’s – had mastered a simple version of the 1970s arcade classic. 

The paper, which was first made public last year ahead of peer review, said the cells showed “intelligent and sentient behaviour” far beyond the capabilities of artificial intelligence, which tends to focus on single tasks.

“This represents the largest step to date of achieving synthetic sentience capable of true generalised intelligence.”