Artificial intelligence seems to be like thatbut a team of scientists claims that something called “organoid intelligence,” or OI, powered by living human brain cells, could one day outperform any artificial system and do so far more efficiently.
Organoids are three-dimensional lumps of biological tissue that scientists have been growing and experimenting with for years. Researchers led by Johns Hopkins University Professor of Environmental Health Sciences Thomas Hartung are working with brain organoids that could lead to the development of a “biocomputer” powered by human brain cells.
“We are at a point where the technologies to achieve actual biocomputers have matured,” Hartung told me via email. “The hope is that some of the remarkable functions of the human brain can be realized as OI, such as its ability to make quick decisions based on incomplete and conflicting information (intuitive thinking).”
Hartung and colleagues reveal a sweeping vision for the future of OI on Tuesday in the journal Frontiers in Science.
The team includes scientists from Cortical Labs, who made headlines last year by creating a dish full of living brain cells that quickly.
Using organoids grown from cells is advantageous to scientists because it does not require human or animal testing. Hartung has been creating functional brain organoids since 2012 using human skin cells that have been reprogrammed into a state similar to embryonic stem cells. They can then be used to form brain cells and eventually organelles with functioning neurons and other features that can support basic functions such as memory and continuous learning.
“This makes it possible to study how the human brain works,” Hartung said in a statement. “Because you can start to manipulate the system by doing things that you ethically can’t do with human brains.”
A living computer
He and his colleagues envision assembling brain organoids into new forms of biological computing hardware far more energy efficient than current supercomputers.
“The brain is still unmatched by modern computers,” Hartung said. “Frontier, Kentucky’s newest supercomputer, is a 6,800-square-foot, $600 million facility. Just last June, it exceeded the computing capacity of a single human brain for the first time – but using a million times more energy.”
Hartung acknowledges that computers are faster at processing numbers and data, but maintains that brains remain superior when it comes to complex logical problems.
“Computers and brains are not the same thing, although we have tried to make computers more brain-like since the beginning of the computer age. OI’s promise is to add some new qualities.”
Concepts such as biological computers and organoid intelligence may lead to new ethical discussions in the library. Talk of organoids becoming conscious, sentient, or self-aware and the resulting implications have been going on for years, even though the technology is considered immature at the moment.
“There is probably no technology without unintended consequences,” Hartung told me. “Although it is difficult to rule out such risks, as long as people control the input and output, and the feedback to the brain about the consequences of its output, people have control. However, like AI, the problem comes as soon as we give AI/OI autonomy. Machines, whether based on silicon or cellular machines, should not decide human life.”
Members of the research team with expertise in bioethics are working to assess the ethical implications of working with OIs.
Organoid intelligence and biocomputers will soon pose no threat to AI or human brains grown the old-fashioned way. But Hartung believes it’s time to start scaling up the production of brain organoids and train them with AI to overcome some of the shortcomings of our existing silicon systems.
“It will take decades before we reach the goal of something comparable to any type of computer,” Hartung said. “But if we don’t start creating funding programs for that, it’s going to be a lot harder.”