What if instead of trying to make AI more brain-like, we went straight to the source?
The human brain has long been an inspiration for artificial intelligence (AI). This strategy was quite effective, as seen by the astounding accomplishments of AI, which range from detecting specific diseases to writing poetry.
Yet, the original design still performs better than machines in many areas. For this reason, it is possible to “prove our humanity” using meaningless online image quizzes.
What if we went right to the source rather than attempting to make AI more brain-like?
Researchers from a variety of fields are striving to develop new biocomputers that use three-dimensional cultures of brain cells known as brain organoids as biological hardware. In the journal Frontiers in Science, they explain how they plan to reach this goal.
Organoid intelligence (OI) is the name given to this emerging multidisciplinary topic, according to Johns Hopkins University professor Thomas Hartung.
“A community of top scientists has gathered to develop this technology, which we believe will launch a new era of fast, powerful, and efficient biocomputing.”
What exactly are brain organoids, and why would using them as computers be beneficial?
One example of laboratory-grown cell culture is brain organoids. While not being “mini brains,” brain organoids share important characteristics of brain structure and function, including neurons and other brain cells that are crucial for mental tasks like learning and memory. Moreover, organoids have a three-dimensional structure while most cell cultures are flat. This makes 1,000 times more cells in the culture, so neurons can make many more connections.
Assuming that brain organoids are indeed an accurate simulation of brains, what makes them suitable for use as computers? Computers are, after all, more intelligent and quick than human brains.
“While silicon-based computers are certainly better with numbers, brains are better at learning,” Hartung answers.
For instance, AlphaGo [the AI that defeated the top Go player in the world in 2017] was taught using information from 160,000 games. To experience all of these games, a person would need to play for five hours a day for more than 175 years.
Not only are brains better at learning, but they also use less energy. For instance, more energy is used teaching AlphaGo than would be required to support an active adult for ten years.
As much as 2,500 terabytes of information may be stored in a brain, according to Hartung. We can no longer fit more transistors onto a single little chip, and this indicates that silicon computers are nearing their physical limitations. But, the brain is structured very differently. There are roughly 1015 connection sites connecting its approximately 100 billion neurons. It has a huge power advantage over our present technology.
What might biocomputers with organoid intelligence look like?
Hartung says that for OI, the brain organoids we have now need to be made bigger.
“They are too small, each containing about 50,000 cells. For OI, we would need to increase this number to 10 million,” he adds.
In addition, the authors are working on technology that will allow them to transmit the organoids information and read out what they are “thinking.” The authors want to create novel stimulation and recording devices as well as modify techniques from other scientific fields, including bioengineering and machine learning.
“We developed a brain-computer interface device that is a kind of an EEG cap for organoids, which we presented in an article published last August.”
According to Hartung, it is a flexible shell that is densely covered with small electrodes that can both receive and send impulses to the organoid.
According to the authors, OI will ultimately include a variety of stimulation and recording devices. They will coordinate interactions across networks of linked organoids that carry out increasingly difficult calculations.
Organoid intelligence may prevent and cure neurological disorders
The potential of OI extends to medical as well as computers. Brain organoids may now be created from adult tissues thanks to a ground-breaking method developed by Noble Laureates John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka. This implies that researchers may create customized brain organoids from skin samples taken from people with neurological illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease. Afterwards, they may do a variety of tests to look into how chemicals, drugs, and genetic factors may affect these disorders.
According to Hartung, “With OI, we could study the cognitive aspects of neurological conditions as well.”
For instance, in order to address relative deficiencies, we may compare memory development in organoids produced from Alzheimer’s patients versus healthy individuals. Also, we may utilize OI to determine if particular chemicals, like pesticides, impair memory or learning.
Considering ethical implications
The creation of human brain organoids with the ability to learn, remember, and interact with their surroundings presents difficult ethical qualms. Might they, for instance, achieve awareness, even in a primitive form? Might there be pain or suffering for them? And what rights would individuals have with respect to brain organoids created using their cells?
These difficulties are ones that the writers are quite aware of. The development of OI in an ethical and socially responsible way is a crucial component of Hartung’s vision.
“For this reason, we have partnered with ethicists from the very beginning to establish an ‘embedded ethics’ approach. All ethical issues will be continuously assessed by teams made up of scientists, ethicists, and the public, as the research evolves.”
How far away are we from the first intelligent organoid?
OI is still in its early stages, but a newly released research by Dr. Brett Kagan of the Cortical Laboratories, one of the article’s co-authors, offers proof of concept. His team demonstrated that a typical, flat brain cell culture can pick up the Pong video game.
“Their team is already testing this with brain organoids,” Hartung adds.
“And I would say that replicating this experiment with organoids already fulfills the basic definition of OI. From here on, it’s just a matter of building the community, the tools, and the technologies to realize OI’s full potential,” he concludes.
Image Credit: Getty