Every day, there seems to be a new advancement in computing–whether it’s OpenAI releasing ChatGPT AI, or Google announcing a breakthrough in quantum computing. Some researchers think that traditional computing is reaching its limits, despite all these advances.
In order to create the next generation of technology, some scientists are getting inspiration from the world’s most powerful computer: the human brain. Biocomputing is a field that uses biological molecules such as DNA and cells to create hardware. The idea is that if we’re able to merge brain organoids, or clumps of neurons in a petri dish, with computing systems then we might be able to create computers with the operational power of the human mind.
The concept isn’t exactly new. We’ve seen biocomputers in movies, books, and TV shows like Dune and The Terminator. There have also been limited instances of it in real life. In October 2022, a team of scientists were even able to demonstrate that a group of brain cells in a petri dish could “play” the video game Pong. DishBrain was a system that connected to a cluster of neurons. To move the paddle to hit the ball, the cells would send electrical signals to the computer to tell it what to do.
Over time, the neurons were actually able to improve their Pong game–reducing the amount of times they missed the ball and increasing the amount of times they did. They were capable of adapting to the new environment and setting goals. While they might have mad gaming skills, a fully operational biocomputer still remains a bit of a white whale for biotechnologists.
“Since the beginning of the computer era, engineering has aimed to emulate brain-like functionality, most obviously by striving for artificial intelligence,” Thomas Hartung, a professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins, told The Daily Beast. “Still, we are far away from achieving brain functionality [in a computer.]”
Advances in brain organoids have shown that they’re able to replicate certain aspects of memory and even cognition while in a petri dish. Hartung leads a Johns Hopkins team that is creating the field of organoid Intelligence (OI) which describes developments in biocomputer technology and the systems involved. The group published a paper of their proposal in the journal Frontiers in Science on Feb. 28.
The team believes that research into biocomputing would have a number of benefits outside of creating more advanced and powerful computers. It would also be more efficient in terms of energy and better for the environment. Frontier, one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers, was able to produce the computational capacity of a single human brain just last year, according to Hartung. However, it requires a “million times more energy” than our minds–not to mention $600 million.
“The hope is that some of the remarkable functionalities of the human brain can be realized in OI such as its ability to make fast decisions based on incomplete and contradictory information (intuitive thinking), the continuous learning, and the data- and energy-efficiency,” Hartung explained.
Additionally, Hartung claimed that the field of OI could also lead to the development of new treatments for neurological disorders like dementia or Alzheimer’s. The development of biocomputers requires research into the “biology of learning, memory, and other cognitive functions.” This will allow scientists to use brain organoids to potentially test for new drugs and treatments for cognitive decline.
There are many ethical issues to be aware of when dealing with mini-brains. Issues surrounding potential sentience or self-awareness with biocomputers need to be addressed–which brings into question whether or not something like this should be pursued at all.
What does it mean if the computer you’re using is essentially a human inside of a machine? Can it experience “pain?” What do we even consider sentient when it comes to computers anyway? What happens when a biocomputer crosses this line?
To their credit, the team is incorporating ethicists into their OI discussions and “agreed on a concept of embedded ethics where they actually follow developments and observe the actual work in the laboratory,” Hartung said. However, ethical questions surrounding biocomputing are likely to remain as long as human brain cells continue being used.
A fully functional biocomputer remains a distant reality. Hartung believes that it could take decades before OI is powerful enough to have the computational power of a mouse’s brain. However, the research to actually create a biocomputer will go a long way in not only creating the next generation of computers, but also potentially finding new treatments for some of the most destructive neurodegenerative conditions out there.
And you don’t need the smartest brain to see why that’s good.
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