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Scientists seek to create 'biocomputers' using lab-grown, human pseudo brains
Image source: YouTube video, Frontiers - Screenshot

Scientists seek to create 'biocomputers' using lab-grown, human pseudo brains

A group of Maryland scientists revealed their intention in a paper published Monday to lean into the use of human pseudo brains instead of silicon chips for sophisticated computing.

Noting that the human brain continues to best machines in various ways, such as in image processing and in terms of energy efficiency, the paper suggests that simplified and miniaturized human pseudo brains — called "brain organoids" — could be used to great effect in biocomputing.

The hoped-for result would be an efficient system that can tackle problems conventional digital computers are or will soon be unable to solve, particularly if the silicon-based competitors max out their processing capacity limits and energy demands.

There are already ethical concerns about the use of these so-called organoids, particularly if the systems in which they will be used enjoy significant processing upgrades; however, the scientists indicated they will accept ongoing feedback as their monstrosities grow in capability and possible cognition.

The why

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University, the University of California, San Diego, and other academic institutions penned a study entitled "Organoid intelligence (OI): the new frontier in biocomputing and intelligence-in-a-dish," published Monday in the journal Frontiers in Science.

The paper notes that "Human brains are slower than machines at processing simple information, such as arithmetic, but they far surpass machines in processing complex information as brains deal better with few and/or uncertain data. ... Moreover, each brain has a storage capacity estimated at 2,500 TB, based on its 86–100 billion neurons having more than 10^15 connections."

The researchers suggested biological learning not only uses fewer observations to learn how to solve problems (requiring ~10 training samples to distinguish between two objects versus the many millions required by AI algorithms), but uses far less power to solve computation problems.

Seeking to take advantage of these benefits and others, the researchers have placed stock in the future of "biological, brain-directed computing as an alternative to silicon-based computing, with the potential for unprecedented advances in computing speed, processing power, data efficiency, and storage capabilities – all with lower energy needs."

Instead of computer chips, dependent on rare earth minerals and hostile supply, biocomputers of the kind described in the paper depend upon the "self-assembled machinery of 3D human brain cell cultures (brain organoids) to memorize and compute inputs."

The advancement of this technology could "stimulate drug development and other interventions" as well as "aid the development of new brain-computer-interface technology," said the paper.

The how

The pseudo brains are generated from embryonic stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells derived from skin samples.

The paper notes that the Johns Hopkins Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing "has produced such brain organoids with high levels of standardization and scalability. ... Having a diameter below 500 μm, and comprising fewer than 100,000 cells, each organoid is roughly one 3-millionth the size of the human brain (theoretically equating to 800 MB of memory storage)."

A paper published in October in the journal Neuron detailed how a team of researchers grew a collection of 800,000 human brain cells to generate a pseudo brain.

BBC News reported that Dr. Brett Kagan's team at Cortical Labs connected the monstrosity to a video game via electrodes revealing which side the ball was on and its distance from the paddle. The brain reportedly learned how to play the game in five minutes with a success rate well above random chance.

Watch brain cells in a dish learn to play Pong in real time [1/2]youtu.be

To successfully "implement the vision of a multidisciplinary field of OI," the scientists reckon they will have to scale up current pseudo brains into "complex, durable 3D structures enriched with cells and genes associated with learning, and connecting these to next-generation input and output devices and AI/machine learning systems."

"For organoid intelligence, brain organoids will need to become even more brain-like" than the Pong-playing pseudo brains at Cortical Labs.

To get to where researchers want to be for organoid intelligence in the way of supporting sophisticated computations, they need to increase the size of the pseudo brains from tens of thousands of cells to tens of millions of cells.

In order to feed these pseudo brains, the scientists endeavor to create artificial blood vessels using microfluidic systems. In addition to nourishing the organoids, these fluid systems will enable OI techs to communicate with them via chemical signals.

The glaring ethical issues

The researchers recognized that creating a human pseudo brain "that can learn, remember, and interact with their environment raises complex ethical questions. Could they develop consciousness, even in a rudimentary form? Could they experience pain or suffering? And what rights would people have with respect to brain organoids made from their cells?"

Admittedly, the researchers do not have the answers to these questions, noting they "will require deeper analysis and research regarding the morally salient neurobiological features that contribute to human capacities, including consciousness, and the implications for OI research and implementation when some or all of these are met."

Even if there are some signs of sentience or rudimentary consciousness, the researchers intimated that they may ultimately have to appeal to a scientific "consensus" on whether the pseudo-brains' newfound capacities warrant concern.

Having recognized the ethically shaky ground on which their "new frontier" rests, the researchers proposed using "an 'embedded ethics' approach whereby an ethics team will identify, discuss, and analyze ethical issues as they arise in the course of this work. Embedded ethics is a standard approach in interdisciplinary ethics research, whereby expert ethicists join and collaborate integrally with research and development teams to consider and address ethical issues via an iterative and continuous process as the research evolves."

Organoid intelligence: a new biocomputing frontieryoutu.be

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Joseph MacKinnon

Joseph MacKinnon

Joseph MacKinnon is a staff writer for Blaze News.
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