Rather than trying to create software and hardware that mimics the way the brain works, an emerging field of research seeks to coax nature’s most powerful computing technology — biological neural networks — into carrying out computations.
This possibility has only just become tractable thanks to recent advances in organoids: simplified and miniaturised versions of organs created using stem-cell technology. Small conglomerations of human neurons have replicated some of the form and function of our brains.7 Now, researchers are investigating whether these organoids could be used to create new hybrid computing technologies that combine biological and electronic components.8
Early experiments have shown that neural cultures can be taught to play videogames or show features of reservoir computing.91011 If the technology can be scaled up it could have applications in AI and robotics, brain-machine interfaces and could even help us discover the algorithms that power the brain. Significant advances will be needed first, however, including an ability to engineer larger and more sophisticated organoids, interface with them reliably, and understand how they learn and compute.12 Reproducibility and standardisation are major issues currently, as small changes in the environment can significantly impact activity. There are also ethical concerns around when, and whether, more sophisticated organoids could be thought of as conscious entities in their own right.13