This magnified image shows a brain organoid produced in Hartung’s lab. The culture was dyed to show neurons in magenta, cell nuclei in blue and other supporting cells in red and green. (Courtesy Jesse Plotkin/Johns Hopkins University)
According to researchers from John Hopkins University and Dr. Brett Kagan, chief scientist at Cortical Labs in Melbourne, who recently oversaw creation of the DishBrain project, in which human cells in a petri dish learned to play Pong, the time has come to build a new kind of computer.
The team describes how biological computers could outperform current electronic computers for some applications while using a tiny portion of the energy needed by current computers and server farms in an article that was published today (March 1) in Frontiers in Science.
They are beginning by creating organoids, which are tiny collections of 50,000 stem-cell-grown brain cells. That is roughly one-third of a fruit fly’s brain capacity.
They want to reach 10 million neurons, which is roughly the same amount of neurons found in a tortoise’s brain. The typical human brain has more than 80 billion neurons, in contrast.
The article emphasizes how, for specific activities, the human brain still outperforms machines by a wide margin. Humans, for instance, only require a small number of samples to learn how to differentiate between two kinds of objects (such as a dog and a cat), whereas AI algorithms require many thousands. Furthermore, the AI that defeated the Go world champion in 2016 had been trained using information from 160,000 games, which is the equal of playing five hours per day for more than 175 years.
In the paper, the authors outline their plan for “organoid intelligence,” or OI, with the brain organoids grown in cell-culture. Although brain organoids aren’t “mini brains,” they share main facets of brain function and structure. Organoids would need to be drastically expanded from around 50,000 cells currently. “For OI, we would need to increase this number to 10 million,” says senior author Prof Thomas Hartung of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Brett and his coworkers at Cortical Laboratories have already shown that it is feasible to build biocomputers from human brain cells. A recent study published in the journal Neuron demonstrated that brain cells in a flat culture could pick up the computer game Pong.
“We have shown we can interact with living biological neurons in such a way that compels them to modify their activity, leading to something that resembles intelligence,” says Kagan of the relatively simple Pong-playing DishBrain. “Working with the team of amazing people assembled by Professor Hartung and colleagues for this Organoid Intelligence collaboration, Cortical Labs is now trying to replicate that work with brain organoids.”
“I would say that replicating [Cortical Labs’] experiment with organoids already fulfills the basic definition of OI,” says Thomas.
“From here on, it’s just a matter of building the community, the tools, and the technologies to realize OI’s full potential,” he said.
“This new field of biocomputing promises unprecedented advances in computing speed, processing power, data efficiency, and storage capabilities—all with lower energy needs,” Brett says. “The particularly exciting aspect of this collaboration is the open and collaborative spirit in which it was formed. Bringing these different experts together is not only vital to optimize for success but provides a critical touch point for industry collaboration.”
Additionally, the technology might make it possible for researchers to conduct experiments to find out how genetic factors, medications, and toxins affect conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and better study personalized brain organoids made from skin or small blood samples of people with the disease.