‘Biocomputers’ could be developed within our lifetime, scientists say

Johns Hopkins researchers expect ‘organoid intelligence’ to create computers that are faster, more efficient and more powerful than silicon-based computing and artificial intelligence.

The Johns Hopkins research team has outlined their plan for the development of a ‘biocomputer’ that could create faster, more efficient, and more powerful computers. 

They called this type of technology “organoid intelligence” (OI), as it is powered by living human brain cells. 

“Computing and artificial intelligence have been driving the technology revolution, but they are reaching a ceiling,” said Thomas Hartung, the leader of the research team. “Biocomputing is an enormous effort of compacting computational power and increasing its efficiency to push past our current technological limits.”

Organoids are three-dimensional clumps of biological tissue that scientists have been growing and experimenting with for years, to avoid resorting to human or animal testing.

However, Hartung’s team believes that the full potential of organoids has not yet been explored. His team is looking into whether this biological material could be used as hardware, to alleviate energy-consumption demands of supercomputing and leverage the capabilities of the human brain. 

Magnified image of a brain organoid produced in Thomas Hartung’s lab, dyed to show neurons in magenta, cell nuclei in blue, and other supporting cells in red and green.

Magnified image of a brain organoid produced in Thomas Hartung’s lab, dyed to show neurons in magenta, cell nuclei in blue, and other supporting cells in red and green. / Jesse Plotkin/Johns Hopkins University

Image credit: Jesse Plotkin/Johns Hopkins University

Hartung has been creating functional brain organoids since 2012 using human skin cells that are reprogrammed into an embryonic stem-cell-like state.

Each organoid contains about 50,000 cells, about the size of a fruit fly’s nervous system. They can then be used to form brain cells and, eventually, organoids with functioning neurons and other features that can sustain basic functions like memory and continuous learning. 

“This opens up research on how the human brain works,” Hartung said. “Because you can start manipulating the system, doing things you cannot ethically do with human brains.”

The Johns Hopkins team includes scientists from Cortical Labs, which made headlines last year for creating a dish full of live brain cells that quickly taught itself to play the original video game ‘Pong’

Although organoid intelligence and biocomputers won’t replace silicon-based computing and AI in the near future, Hartung believes it’s important to dedicate time and money to support this type of research in order to breakthrough some of the shortcomings of our existing silicon systems.

“It will take decades before we achieve the goal of something comparable to any type of computer,” Hartung said. “But if we don’t start creating funding programs for this, it will be much more difficult.”

To assess the ethical implications of working with organoid intelligence, a diverse consortium of scientists, bioethicists and members of the public have been embedded within the team.

The team’s findings have been published in the journal Frontiers in Science.

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Original Source: https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2023/03/biocomputers-could-be-developed-within-our-lifetime-scientists-say/

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