It is the year 2030 and we are at the world’s largest technology conference, CES in Las Vegas. A crowd gathers to watch a major tech company unveil its new smartphone. The CEO (CEO) takes the stage and announces the Nyooro, which contains the most powerful processor ever seen in a cell phone. The Nyooro can perform a staggering quintillion operations per second – that’s a thousand times faster than 2020 smartphone models. It’s also ten times more energy efficient, with a battery that lasts ten days.
A journalist asks: “What technological advance has allowed this enormous increase in performance?”. The CEO replies: “We have created a new biological chip with human neurons grown in the laboratory. These biochips are better than silicon because they can change their internal structure, adapting to the user’s usage pattern and leading to huge efficiency gains..”
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Another journalist asks: “Aren’t there ethical issues with computers using human brain matter?”
Though name and setting are fictitious, this is an issue that we have to deal with now. In December 2021, Melbourne-based Cortical Labs grew clusters of neurons (brain cells) that were incorporated into a computer chip. The resulting hybrid chip works because both the brain and the neurons share a common language: electricity.
In silicon computers, electrical signals travel along metal wires that link the various components. In the brain, neurons communicate with each other using electrical signals through synapses (junctions between nerve cells). In Cortical Labs’ Dishbrain system, neurons are grown on silicon chips. These neurons act as the cables of the system, connecting the different components. The biggest advantage of this approach is that neurons can change their shape, grow, replicate, or die in response to system demands.
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Dishbrain could learn to play the arcade video game Pong faster than conventional artificial intelligence (AI) systems. Dishbrain developers explained: “Nothing like it existed before… It’s a completely new way of being. A fusion of silicon and neuron”.
Cortical Labs thinks its hybrid chips could hold the key to the kinds of complex reasoning that current computers and AI can’t produce. Another company that makes computers from lab-grown neurons, Koniku, believes its technology will revolutionize several industries, including agriculture, healthcare, military technology and airport security. Other types of organic computers are also in the early stages of development.
Although silicon computers have transformed society, they are still outmatched by the brains of most animals. For example, a cat’s brain contains 1,000 times more data storage than the average iPad and can use this information a million times faster. The human brain, with its trillions of neural connections, is capable of performing 15 quintillion operations per second.
This can only be matched today by massive supercomputers that use huge amounts of power. The human brain only consumes about 20 watts of power, the same as a light bulb. It would take 34 coal-fired power plants generating 500 megawatts per hour to store the same amount of data that a human brain contains in modern data storage centers.
Tissues, cells and donations
The cultivation of neurons raises questions about donor consent.
The companies don’t need brain tissue samples from donors, but can simply grow the neurons they need in the lab from ordinary skin cells using stem cell technologies. Scientists can create cells from blood samples or skin biopsies to turn them into a type of stem cell that can become any type of cell in the human body.
However, this raises questions about donor consent. Do the people who provide tissue samples for research and technological development know that they could be used to make neural computers? Do they need to know for their consent to be valid?
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People will undoubtedly be much more willing to donate skin cells for research than their brain tissue. One of the obstacles to brain donation is that the brain is considered to be linked to your identity. But in a world where we can grow mini-brains from virtually any type of cell, does it make sense to make this kind of distinction?
If neural computers become commonplace, we will face other issues related to tissue donation. In Cortical Lab research with Dishbrain they found that human neurons were faster at learning than those of mice. Could there also be differences in performance depending on which neurons are used? Could Apple and Google be able to make lightning-fast computers using the neurons of today’s best and brightest? Could someone get tissue from deceased geniuses like Albert Einstein to make specialized, limited-edition neural computers?
The Case of Henrietta Lacks
These questions are highly speculative, but touch on broader issues of exploitation and compensation. Let’s think about the Henrietta Lacks scandalan African-American woman whose cells were used extensively in medical and commercial research without her knowledge or consent.
Henrietta’s cells continue to be used in applications that generate huge amounts of revenue for pharmaceutical companies (including recently the development of COVID vaccines). The Lacks family has yet to receive any compensation.. If a donor’s neurons end up being used in products like the imaginary Nyooro, should they be entitled to part of the profits made from those products?
Another key ethical consideration for neural computers is whether they could develop some form of consciousness and experience pain. Would neural computers be more likely to have experiences than silicon-based ones? In the Pong video game experiment, Dishbrain is exposed to noisy and unpredictable stimuli when he gets the answer wrong (the racket misses the ball) and to predictable stimuli when he gets it right. It is at least possible that a system like this will begin to experience unpredictable stimuli as pain and predictable ones as pleasure.
“The fully informed consent of donors is of paramount importance. Any donor must have the opportunity to reach a compensation agreement as part of this process and her bodily autonomy must be respected without coercion.”, declared the scientific director of Cortical Labs, Brett Kagan.
“As recently discussed in a study, there is no evidence that neurons in a plate have any qualitative or conscious experience, so they cannot be distressed and, having no pain receptorsThey can’t feel it. Neurons have evolved to process information of all kinds, being left completely unstimulated, as is currently done all over the world in laboratories, is not a natural state for a neuron. All of this work allows neurons to behave as nature intended at its most basic level.”, he added.
Humans have used animals to perform physical labor for thousands of years, despite often negative experiences for the animals. Would it be more ethically problematic to use organic computers for cognitive work than to use an ox to pull a cart?
We are in the early stages of neural computing and we have time to think about these questions. We must do this before products like Nyooro go from science fiction to stores.