Scientists target the development of ‘biocomputing’ using human brain cells

Scientists have proposed creating a computer made of millions of human brain cells that they say could outperform silicon-based devices while consuming more energy.

An international team led by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, published in the journal Frontiers in Science on Tuesday a detailed map of what they call “spy intelligence”. The device will include arrays of brain cells – tiny three-dimensional structures grown from human cells – that are connected to sensors and output devices and trained by machine learning, large information and other techniques.

The goal is to create an efficient system that can solve problems that are beyond the reach of conventional digital computers, while helping to advance neuroscience and other areas of medical research. The project’s wishful thinking mirror works on an efficient computational model but raises ethical questions around the “intelligence” of organoid assemblies of the brain.

“I’m looking forward to an intelligent energy system that is based on synthetic biology, but is not restricted by the many functions that the brain does in the organism,” said Professor Thomas Hartung of Johns Hopkins, who collected community of 40 scientists to develop the technology.

They signed the “Baltimore statement” calling for more research “to explore the potential of organoid cell culture to improve our understanding of the brain and to generate new types of statistics when identifying and treating behavioral issues”.

Developing organoid data into commercial technology could take decades, Hartung admits. On top of the scientific challenge there is an ethical concern about creating a “mind in a dish” that can learn, remember and interact with its environment – and can develop consciousness even in its primitive form.

Hartung said that an “ethical” system has been developed since the launch of the project, adding that: “All ethical issues will continue to be evaluated by groups consisting of scientists, experts and in public.”

Thomas Hartung in his laboratory with dishes in which brain cells are growing © Will Kirk/Johns Hopkins University

Madeline Lancaster, a brain geneticist at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, who was not involved in the project, was skeptical about his ambitions. “This is really very science fiction and, while it’s exciting, the science isn’t there yet,” she said. “There are huge hurdles to overcome to do what the authors suggest.”

Karl Friston, a professor of neuroscience at University College London, who is not involved in the organoid data, is more specific. “It’s definitely an idea worth pursuing,” he said. “There will be many baby steps ahead but the direction of travel can be transformative.”

One necessary step, says Hartung, is to enable human cells to grow by finding a better way to supply them with nutrients in the laboratory. These tiny neural structures need to grow from about 50,000 cells today to about 10 million to help achieve what scientists will recognize as organoid intelligence.

Researchers are also developing technologies to connect organoids and communicate with them, send them information and decode their “thinking”. Hartung’s lab tested the network, “a flexible shell covered with tiny electronic devices that can pick up signals from the organoid and send signals back to it”.

One reason for turning to biological math is that the brain processes and stores information effectively. The world’s most powerful computer, the Frontier machine at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the United States, which began operating last year, is equivalent to a single human brain for processing power – one exaflop or a billion operations per second – but it consumes energy a million times. .

The first application of organoid intelligence will be in neuroscience and medicine. Scientists have already created brain cells from stem cells obtained from patients with neurological conditions, to compare with healthy people and assess their response to drugs. Organoid Intelligence will advance research into cognitive impairment caused by brain diseases – and its prevention.

While technology may take decades to deliver devices powerful enough to compete with traditional silicon or computing systems in providing services such as artificial intelligence, organoid data advocates they point to his greatness and potential.

“I hope we’ll see things that aren’t just copies of brain development,” Hartung said.

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