Intelligence in a Dish

Dr Thomas Hartung tells the story of the first time he presented the paper at American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 2016, and said that they are physiologically active – “they are thinking”.
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Yes, you read that right! Professor Thomas Hartung from John Hopkins University along with his team of scientists are arguing that “organoid intelligence”, or OI, could be the next step of computing. These systems would be powered by living human brain cells. Three dimensional (3D) clumps of biological tissues, which are called Organoids, are leading to the development of “biocomputers”, efficient computers powered by human brain cells. It’s a “brainy idea” (pun intended) that could revolutionise the way we approach computing, and even AI.

Researchers are pushing the limits of what these small, brain-like structures can achieve. Speaking to AIM, Hartung said that by combining an organoid with 10 million neuronswhich is around the size of a zebrafish brain—and high computing hardware, we could create a biocomputer that uses the decision-making power of neurons for a new kind of AI.

“They are Thinking”

Hartung tells the story of the first time he presented the paper at American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 2016 and said that they are physiologically active—“they are thinking”. Everyone was shocked and said that they are conscious. “Since then, my constant answer has beenYes, they are thinking, but there is nothing to think about, as there is no input and output.

Hartung’s group was the fourth group to produce brain organoids, but is the first one to actually mass produce them. “This was critical for toxicology and pharmacology,” he explained. According to researchers, the most significant breakthroughs in OI could have a profound impact on human medicine. Brain organoids, created from skin samples of individuals with neural disorders, could be used to test how various medications and environmental factors affect them.

The team has three pillars that they are focused on. First is building the organoids. Second is bio engineering and perfusion of electrophysiology, and the third is about data analysis and AI. “The fourth pillar introduced to us is ethics, as we are scratching on topics which are possibly very ethical.”

Ethics, Of Course

Any talk of any AI development these days has to be viewed from the lens of ethics. Same is the case with OI. But this field raises some pretty significant ethical qualms, if not legal. What happens if these tiny brain structures become sentient, conscious or self-aware, as they are derived from a human-brain anyway? It’s a conversation that’s been going on for years, but Hartung believes that as long as humans maintain control over input, output and feedback, they can avoid any unintended consequences.

Hartung and his team are working with bioethicists to ensure that the development of OI is carried out in a responsible way. They don’t see biocomputers replacing human brains or AI any time soon, but they do believe that increasing production of brain organoids and training them with AI could help humans overcome certain limitations of their current systems.

Source: John Hopkins University

On the other hand, the approach offers endless possibilities. Hartung quips, “With OI, we could study the cognitive aspects of neurological conditions and put our brains to the test. For instance, we could compare the memory formation in organoids taken from healthy individuals versus those with Alzheimer’s and attempt to patch up any deficiencies. Or, we could experiment with whether certain substances, like pesticides, can cause learning or memory difficulties.”

Hartung defines OI as the ability to reproduce cognitive functions such as learning and sensory processing in a lab-grown human-brain model. This will enable researchers to manipulate the system in ways that are not ethically possible with human brains. “The first application is about understanding, learning, and memory, and this is actually the most important for development of neurosciences.” 

Not Outperform, But Compliment AI

Sure, computers can crunch numbers faster than a speeding bullet, but when it comes to complex logic problems, brains are still the ones to beat. “Computers and the brain are not the same,” Hartung explains. “The promise of OI is to add some new qualities to AI”. 

Hartung shares a very unique perspective in this context. “Installing a brain in a computer would require a lot of energy. This is because the brain is good at making decisions on incomplete datasets—what we call intuition. For example, a child can distinguish cats and dogs after seeing ten pictures, but we need several hundreds to do that with AI, which means more data sets.”

Hartung said that the brain is capable of progressive learning, meaning we can permanently add data. “After we learn how the brain does it, we can bring it into computing. That does not mean installing a biological piece into a computer but only leveraging ‘human type of thinking’ into systems.”

Source: CNN

Moreover, talking about AGI, he explained that we are still scratching the surface of it. 

“If we use the terms sentience and intelligence, we have to ask what form of sentience we talk about”. 

As long as the tissues do not react to the input they receive, we cannot ask for any type of consciousness. “Ethically, if the systems are sentient, we have to consider if it is suffering or not. And if it is, do we have any responsibility for it? How much more does it need to be than what humans have towards a mouse?”

However, the brain organoids currently used by Hartung contain only about 50,000 cells each, which is too small for OI. To achieve OI, the number of cells in the organoids would need to be increased to 10 million, he said. Each organoid has about the same number of cells one would find in a fruit fly’s nervous system and is the equivalent of about 800 megabytes of memory storage.

Phew! Long Way To Go

Hartung agrees that the technology is still in its early stages. Communicating with the organoids and receiving readouts of their cognitive functions still requires further research. Currently, the team has developed a brain-computer interface, which they say is similar to an electroencephalogram (EEG) cap for organoids. It is a flexible shell densely covered with tiny electrodes that can pick up signals from the organoid and transmit signals to it.

But then potential is infinite. “It will take decades before we see anything comparable to today’s computers,” Hartung admits. “But if we don’t start investing in this technology now, we’ll be kicking ourselves in the future.” So, get ready to welcome our new brain-based overlords—but don’t worry, we’ll be keeping a close eye on them.

On similar lines, recently, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, announced that they are launching their new BioHub in Chicago after running their first one in San Francisco. The research will be building miniature sensors for understanding how tissues interact with each other and then send the signals to measure and understand the information in living tissues. This process is for figuring out cures for diseases and taking necessary preemptive steps. 

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Mohit Pandey
Mohit dives deep into the AI world to bring out information in simple, explainable, and sometimes funny words. He also holds a keen interest in photography, filmmaking, and the gaming industry.

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