Five Questions About Synthetic Biological Intelligence
Earlier this year, when the appearance of ChatGPT and other large language model (LLM) based artificial intelligence systems broke onto the scene, even some of the most cynical AI experts and futurists were shocked, having not anticipated that this level of rapid advancement in AI systems to come about so quickly.
So, are we on the cusp of another intelligence “shock?”
Scientific researchers around the world are investigating the potential of using “synthetic biology” to create intelligent systems.
One research laboratory in Australia even claims that it has grown neuron cells in a dish that were able to learn and play the game “Pong” in a matter of minutes.
Is this the future of AI, or is this a party trick?
Should we be focused on another potentially breakthrough technology in biology?
If it’s real, what are the ethical considerations?
We take a deeper look at what all this means in this Formaspace laboratory report.
1. What is “Synthetic Biological Intelligence” and What Can it Do for Us?
Perhaps you’ve not heard the term “synthetic biological intelligence” before – what is this exactly?
Let’s start by defining what we mean by “synthetic biology.”
You may recall when research teams, such as the Broad Institute, in the mid-2010s introduced the concept of an “organ-on-a-chip” – a cell culture device made of living cells that could grow to develop tissues at a larger (e.g. organ) scale that allows researchers to better understand biological processes, such as tissue development, organ physiology, and disease etymology.
This technology has advanced significantly.
This year, a team of researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Isreal published a paper in the journal Cell announcing the development of “synthetic” mouse embryos that developed a beating heart, nerve cord, and “brain” – all created without using a fertilized egg. Their work was corroborated in a paper published in Nature by a team from the University of Cambridge in the UK and Caltech in California.
Researchers at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia (in partnership with the startup Cortical Labs) have also created a synthetic biological organism – but, instead of recreating a natural organ, they have focused on developing “synthetic biological intelligence” by growing about 800,000 brain cells in a dish, dubbed “DishBrain.”
Their first test, as mentioned above, was to successfully teach the brain cells how to play the arcade game Pong.
2. Is SBI Real, or is this Science Fiction?
Brain cells growing in a dish that can play video games seems pretty far-fetched – and publishing very casual lab tour videos on TikTok probably doesn’t help boost the confidence levels of older scientists.
Indeed, if this article was published on April 1st, you might think, ah ha! This is nothing but an April Fool’s joke.
Or, if you are an original Star Trek fan, you might recall episode 16 of the second TV series, “The Gamesters of Triskelion” (available on streaming platforms such as Apple TV+). This campy, far-fetched episode featured Captain James Kirk fighting for his life in the arena against a glamazon alien. Kirk’s fate (and those of his Starship Enterprise crewmates) was left up to the life-or-death decisions made by three primary color glowing “brains” housed in a giant bell jar.
In this science fiction scenario, the alien civilization had turned over their free will decision-making to the “brain” trust under glass.
But could brain cells growing in such conditions develop some form of intelligence? What about a higher level of “sentience” or “consciousness?”
How can we be convinced this is real and not a hoax?
3. Will SBI Become a Commonplace Technology?
Our first piece of evidence that synthetic biological intelligence could become a real, useful technology is a video simulation of the brain neurons playing Pong.
Brain neurons on a chip can successfully play the arcade game Pong. Video from Cortical Labs, Melbourne, Australia.
But is that sufficient evidence?
To allay the concerns that “DishBrain” is a real experiment – and not a hoax – we can review two research papers published by the team at Monash University and Cortical Labs.
The first, “In vitro neurons learn and exhibit sentience when embodied in a simulated game-world,” was published in the journal Neuron, which shows that both mouse and human brain neurons “learned” from the experiences over time.
The second paper, “Critical dynamics arise during structured information presentation within embodied in vitro neuronal networks,” published in August 2023, investigates the way the mouse or human brain cells process information to reach “neural critical” levels (described as an “avalanche” of neuron activity) during intensive “thinking” activities, such as gameplay.
Cortical Labs Founder Dr. Hon Weng Chong discusses how the idea of teaching brain cells to play the arcade game Pong came about – and his views on the progress of building biological computing chips.
Increased funding is another indication that this research could become the foundation for mainstream computing technology.
The Australian National Intelligence and Security Discovery Research Grants Program has awarded the Monash University/Cortical Labs team nearly USD 400,000 to support creating a biological computer that relies on “living” biological brain cells to make calculations, with the intent of merging the fields of synthetic biology and artificial intelligence to create advanced programmable biological computing platforms that could exceed the performance of silicon-based hardware.
To encourage the speedy adoption of this technology, the team at Cortical Labs has devised a prototype computing module that incorporates a self-contained tray housing human brain cells, allowing researchers in other labs to experiment with the technology.
4. Is Synthetic Biology a Pathway to Artificial General Intelligence (AGI)?
AGI, short for Artificial General Intelligence, is the holy grail that is hotly pursued by today’s generation of AI researchers.
To be clear, there is still much debate if computers will ever achieve AGI, e.g. become as intelligent as humans, or perhaps more intelligent, or even much much much more intelligent.
But today’s technology falls far short.
However, synthetic biology may offer a shortcut, or at least help solve some of the outstanding issues facing AI researchers.
In February 2023, a group of 21 American researchers published their thoughts about what they termed “Organoid Intelligence” (or OI for short) in Frontiers in Science.
Although they are coining a different term (OI versus SBI), they make the same point as the Australian team – biological-based computing may be the way forward – potentially offering “faster decision-making, continuous learning during tasks, and greater energy and data efficiency.”
These last points – greater energy and data efficiency – may turn out to be the most important.
Our current silicon hardware approach to creating artificial intelligence systems is very energy intensive. For example, training OpenAI’s GPT-3 large language model reportedly consumed as much energy as used by 120 households in a year.
Our brains, on the other hand, are remarkably frugal energy savers; the human brain is thought to use the energy equivalent of an LED lightbulb.
Given the extraordinary power requirements of conventional silicon computing hardware, turning to synthetic biological intelligence-based systems might be the only sustainable way forward to achieving AGI.
5. Are Synthetic Biological Intelligence Systems “Ethical”?
Our final question is whether employing this type of synthetic biological intelligence is ethical or not.
To date, most of the concern about AI systems has been whether they can successfully fool us into thinking they are human or not (the Turing Test).
But when you add living brain cells into the mix, whether human or mouse cells, that may cross an uncomfortable Rubicon. (We can’t forget the controversy over using Stem cell lines that were derived from fetuses.)
Adding fuel to the fire, what would happen if synthetic biological systems could achieve “sentience” or “consciousness?”
Could these cells feel pain or fear death? Or could we simply chuck “DishBrain” down the drain when its useful life is over?
These are the types of questions that policy researchers Ana S. Iltis and Kirstin R.W. Matthews at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy have been investigating in their August 2023 paper, “Ethical, legal, regulatory, and policy issues concerning embryoids: a systematic review of the literature.”
Iltis and Matthews conclude there is much work to be done: we need to calibrate our response to justify embryoid research, clarify the moral status and ethical significance of human embryoids, identify their permissible uses, and create an appropriate regulatory and oversight framework.
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