A cluster of neurons in a culture. These neurons spontaneously aggregate when placed in culture generating a cluster of cell bodies (blue) that shoot out neurites rich in microtubules (red and green).
Scientists have connected human brain cells to a computer chip, producing a small cyborg in a petri dish that can execute math calculations and recognize speech.
Dubbed Brainoware, the device comprises of brain cells intentionally produced from human stem cells, which have been encouraged to develop into a brain-like tissue. This mini-brain organoid is then joined up to traditional hardware where it works as a physical reservoir that can record and recall the information it gets from the computer inputs.
The researchers sought to examine the possibility of utilizing the efficiency of the human brain’s design to accelerate computer devices. The advent of artificial intelligence (AI) has greatly boosted the need for computing power, but it’s somewhat constrained by the energy efficiency and performance of the ordinary silicon processors.
“We wanted to investigate the issue of whether we can harness the organic neural network within the brain organoid for computation. This is only proof-of-concept to prove we can do the job,” Feng Guo, research author and a bioengineer in the Department of Intelligent Systems Engineering at Indiana University, told Tech Xplore.
To exercise the muscles of the hybrid bio-computer, the researchers supplied it with 240 audio samples of humans pronouncing distinct Japanese vowel sounds. Remarkably, the system is capable of learning the different sounds and recognizing them with around 78 percent accuracy.
It was also assigned to forecast a Hénon map, a nonlinear dynamic system in mathematics, which it performed with acceptable accuracy.
Bear in mind that this is nowhere approaching the hyper-intelligent capabilities of ordinary AI systems — the prospect of sentient Frankenstein biocomputers is currently not on the horizon. Nevertheless, for a first-of-its-kind study, the results are fairly encouraging.
“This is a first demonstration of using brain organoids [for computing],” noted Guo. “It’s thrilling to see the possibilities of organoids for biocomputing in the future.”
It contains immense potential, but it also presents some hard ethical considerations. In an accompanying News & Views piece, a trio of researchers not directly connected with the study emphasized that this pioneering work underlines the need to iron out the ethical conundrums of this technology before it really takes off.
“In the next few years, increasingly complex neural systems that can interact with increasingly complex artificial environments are likely to emerge. As the sophistication of these organoid systems develops, it is vital for the community to consider the plethora of neuroethical problems that surround biocomputing systems including human brain tissue,” they write.
“It may be decades before broad biocomputing systems can be constructed, but our research is expected to produce essential insights into the principles of learning, neuronal development, and the cognitive consequences of neurodegenerative disorders,” the scientists write.