Organoids at work. Credit: Smirnova, et. alia.

OI May Be the New AI

Kim Bellard

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In the past few months, artificial intelligence (AI) has suddenly seemed to come of age, with “generative AI” showing that AI was capable of being creative in ways that we thought was uniquely human. Whether it is writing, taking tests, creating art, inventing things, making convincing deepfake videos, or conducting searches on your behalf, AI is proving its potential. Even healthcare has figured out a surprising number of uses.

It’s fun to speculate about which AI — ChatGPT, Bard, DeepMind, Sydney, etc. — will prove “best,” but it turns out that “AI” as we’ve known it may become outdated. Welcome to “organoid intelligence” (OI).

I’d been vaguely aware of researchers working with lab-grown brain cells, but I was caught off-guard when Johns Hopkins University researchers announced organoid intelligence (a term they coined) as “the new frontier in biocomputing and intelligence-in-a-dish.” Their goal:

…we present a collaborative program to implement the vision of a multidisciplinary field of OI. This aims to establish OI as a form of genuine biological computing that harnesses brain organoids using scientific and bioengineering advances in an ethically responsible manner.

Their video:

“Computing and artificial intelligence have been driving the technology revolution, but they are reaching a ceiling,” said Thomas Hartung, the leader of the initiative. “Biocomputing is an enormous effort of compacting computational power and increasing its efficiency to push past our current technological limits.” Professor Hartung pointed out that only last year a supercomputer exceeded the computational capacity of a single human brain — “but using a million times more energy.”

“We are at a moment in time, where the technologies to achieve actual biocomputing have matured,” Professor Hartung told CNET’s Eric Mack. “The hope is that some of the remarkable functionalities of the human brain can be realized as OI, such as its ability to take fast decisions based on incomplete and contradictive information (intuitive thinking)…Computers and the brain are not the same, even though we tried making computers more brain-like from the beginning of the computer age. The promise of OI is to add some new qualities.”

It remains to be seen what those “new qualities” might be.

Last year members of the team reported getting a dish of living brain cells — an earlier form of organoids — to teach itself how to play Pong. “And I would say that replicating this experiment with organoids already fulfills the basic definition of OI. From here on, it’s just a matter of building the community, the tools, and the technologies to realize OI’s full potential,” Professor Hartung believes.

The researchers are now working on how to “communicate” with the organoids — sending information and reading what they re “thinking.” Professor Hartung explained: “We developed a brain-computer interface device that is a kind of an EEG cap for organoids…It is a flexible shell that is densely covered with tiny electrodes that can both pick up signals from the organoid, and transmit signals to it,”

Still, we’re a long way to get existing arrangements of organoids to true OI. “They are too small, each containing about 50,000 cells. For OI, we would need to increase this number to 10 million,” Professor Hartung explained. “It will take decades before we achieve the goal of something comparable to any type of computer. But if we don’t start creating funding programs for this, it will be much more difficult.”

The researchers are already excited about medical applications. They can produce organoids from adult tissues, and use them to study neurological disorders. According to Professor Hartung: “With OI, we could study the cognitive aspects of neurological conditions as well, For example, we could compare memory formation in organoids derived from healthy people and from Alzheimer’s patients, and try to repair relative deficits. We could also use OI to test whether certain substances, such as pesticides, cause memory or learning problems.”

Study coauthor and co-investigator Lena Smirnova added:

We want to compare brain organoids from typically developed donors versus brain organoids from donors with autism. The tools we are developing towards biological computing are the same tools that will allow us to understand changes in neuronal networks specific for autism, without having to use animals or to access patients, so we can understand the underlying mechanisms of why patients have these cognition issues and impairments.

If you were already worried about the ethical issues involved with computer-based AI approaching something that seems like sentience, imagine how much more troubling it will be when it is a bunch of human brain cells trying to convince you it thinks and feels. The research team claims to be aware of the issues. Professor Hartung says:

A key part of our vision is to develop OI in an ethical and socially responsible manner. For this reason, we have partnered with ethicists from the very beginning to establish an ‘embedded ethics’ approach. All ethical issues will be continuously assessed by teams made up of scientists, ethicists, and the public, as the research evolves.

Oh, OK, then.

The researchers are definitely ambitious:

Ultimately, we aim toward a revolution in biological computing that could overcome many of the limitations of silicon-based computing and AI and have significant implications worldwide. Specifically, we anticipate OI-based biocomputing systems to allow faster decision-making (including on massive, incomplete, and heterogenous datasets), continuous learning during tasks, and greater energy and data efficiency. Furthermore, the development of “intelligence-in-a-dish” offers unparalleled opportunities to elucidate the biological basis of human cognition, learning, and memory, together with various disorders associated with cognitive deficits — potentially aiding the identification of novel therapeutic approaches to address major global unmet needs.

That’s the kind of revolution it will take to get to a 22nd healthcare system.

It’s been said before, including by me, that if the 20th century was the century of computers, the 21st century will be the century of biology, including genomics, DNA computers, biocomputing, synthetic biology, and now, it would seem, OI. By the end of the century we may look back at today’s AI like someone in 1999 looked at radio in 1923: OI may be to AI as the Internet was to early radio.

Or the organoids may never progress much past Pong.

AI technology is evolving much faster than our culture is ready for, and our laws and regulations are trailing further. That’s the thing about technology: just when you’ve gotten used to a new technology, something newer has come along. So enjoy playing with ChatGPT, pat yourself on the back if you’ve thought of ways to use AI in your business, but don’t stop looking ahead. Like at OI.

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Kim Bellard

Curious about many things, some of which I write about — usually health care, innovation, technology, or public policy. Never stop asking “why” or “why not”!