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Computers built by human brain cells could help make AI less artificial

Organoids – not quantum computers – could be the next big thing in computing, if researchers from Australia are to be believed.

Researchers from the John Hopkins University together with Dr Brett Kagan, chief scientist at Cortical Labs in Melbourne, want to spawn (pun intended) a new kind of computer based on biology.

The team, which worked together on a biological brain that learnt to play Pong, revealed how biocomputing devices could improve the performance/power ratio by several orders of magnitude. They have already produced small clusters – that they call organoids – of up to 50,000 human brain cells (grown from stem cells in petri dishes).

Organoid intelligence

Their next target is a 200x improvement (10 million neurons) – which is the minimum threshold for organoid intelligence according to the authors – although that would still be a far cry from human brains (80 billion neurons or 8000x more). Now, just like for supercomputers and their thousands of GPUs and CPUs, it is likely that several smaller so-called organoids could be brought together to mimic a bigger (mega?) brain.

While silicon-based supercomputers may soon match the raw performance of the average human brain (about one Exaflops), they may also necessitate the output of a small nuclear power station to do so. The paper – published in Frontiers in Science – also highlighted the differences in storage capacity as well as the extensive meshing between neurons, all of which makes the human brain a superior biological computer. 

No, not the Matrix again

Interest in organoids has grown over the past decade as a means to treat diseases, but very few teams have looked at them as building blocks for future computing devices. 

The group coined the term organoid intelligence (rather than brainoid intelligence) to describe the use of brain-related cells in biocomputing. That’s very different from brain-computer interface work (Elon Musk’s Neuralink) or even Catalog’s DNA computer but the work of these Australian scientists highlight the huge gap that exists between silicon-based computing and whatever Nature produced.

“This new field of biocomputing promises unprecedented advances in computing speed, processing power, data efficiency, and storage capabilities – all with lower energy needs,” Dr. Kagan pointed out. 

“The particularly exciting aspect of this collaboration is the open and collaborative spirit in which it was formed. Bringing these different experts together is not only vital to optimize for success but provides a critical touch point for industry collaboration.”

The rise of organoids has brought forth a number of ethical concerns about their use. CNN spoke to several experts on the subjects of artificial intelligence, consciousness as applied to organoids and there seems to be a general consensus that brain organoid systems could one day exhibit the premise of sentience, consciousness and the type of general intelligence usually associated with humans.

“This emerging field must take a vigorous approach to addressing the ethical and moral issues that come with this type of scientific advancement and must do so before the technology crashes into the moral abyss.” noted one of the interviewees.

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