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A computer made of neurons

Wetware: when technological progress is inspired by human biology.

by Amanda Saint
07 September 2020
5 min read
byAmanda Saint
07 September 2020
5 min read

The ongoing development of more advanced artificial intelligence (AI) technologies is now merging human neurons with computers, so that they have neural networks that can develop like brains do, making new pathways and learning new skills.

A new revolution

Known as wetware computing, it uses the technology of human biology alongside the metal and plastic hardware of computers as people currently know them. There are many different research projects around the world that are examining different ways of merging man and machine for a range of uses.

In a 2019 article for the Institute for the Future, Steve M. Potter, an adjunct associate professor at the University of Georgia's Laboratory of NeuroEngineering, predicted that there is a wetware revolution on the way. Since 1996, Potter has been involved in cutting-edge research into the "possibilities for hardware-enhanced cognition in people, as well as wetware-enhanced processing in computers." So, a two-way development of intelligence between humans and computers that builds on the strengths of each other.

The machine man binomial

Oshiorenoya Agabi and Benjamin Sadrian founded the start-up Koniku in Berkeley, California, which has developed a prototype 64-neuron silicon chip using lab-grown neurons that have been created by editing human DNA strands. The chip uses biomimicry technology to copy how nature works.

The hope is to develop a bomb-sniffing drone that mimics a bee's acute sense of smell. The drones will then be used to sniff out explosives up to several kilometres away. Other applications for this drone include surveying farmland, refineries and manufacturing plants —places where health and safety can be measured with an enhanced sense of smell. Koniku is also developing technology to provide airport and event security ways to replace sniffer dogs.

New interfaces for the human brain

Meanwhile, over at Google, the Brain Team is involved in many different research projects to understand the human brain more fully, including one entitled, Fusing Interfaces with Matter, Humans and Machines. This project is focusing on how "sensing, display, actuation and computation can integrate more intimately with matter, humans and machines." Research is led by Alex Olwal, PhD, who gave a keynote on the subject at a 2018 event, and it's expected to deliver radically different next-generation interfaces for the everyday technology currently in use. How this is going to happen is currently under wraps as the technology is developed.

In addition, Elon Musk's Neuralink is focused on creating brain-machine interfaces (BMIs), which may help to restore impaired sensory or motor function, and may be used in the treatment of neurological disorders. Rather than creating a computer with human parts, they have been developing an electrode array packaged into a small implantable device containing custom chips, which is inserted into the brain.

According to their research, BMIs have been shown to help people control computer cursors, robotic limbs and speech synthesizers. Previously they have been limited by the number of neural messages they could decode and by the size of the implants. But Neuralink has made advances in both these areas and is testing the implants in rodents with the aim of making them viable for humans in the future.

Ethical dilemmas

When biology is merged with machine, there will always be ethical conversations to be had—particularly when inserting human neurons into computers. In an interview, Agabi from Koniku Medium gave to he dismissed the concerns that other scientists working in neuroscience had about whether a neuron-silicon hybrid might become too smart and somehow go rogue.

A scientist featured in the same article, William L. Ditto, had stopped all his research into neuron-silicon chips because of his worries about this, saying that any computer using these chips should have a kill switch installed as mandatory. Ditto believes whole-heartedly that this is a very real possibility, and anyone developing these systems should take precautions now before it's too late and the computer "wakes up."

It seems that Koniku customers share this concern as Agabi revealed that the product they have developed, KonikoreTM, does have a kill switch installed at their customers' request. He wouldn't elaborate on how it works. Though addressing potential ethical inquiries will likely continue in a broader sense, it seems that the predicted wetware revolution is beginning, and these early developments merging human biological technology with computers, and also engineering ways for hardware to work in conjunction with the human body, are just the beginning of it.

The author: Amanda Saint

Journalist specialising in stories about renewable energy, climate change, smart cities, sustainability, and urbanization.