The emergence of “bio-computing,” a technology that uses biological parts as hardware in computational devices, marks a significant leap in the field of science and technology. This revolutionary approach combines biological neural systems with silicon substrates to create intelligent behavior in machines, essentially giving computers a brain. However, experts are now urging society to pause and consider the ethical implications of this technology.
The creators of DishBrain, a device composed of 800,000 live brain cells in a dish that have learned to play the game Pong, have joined forces with bioethicists and medical scientists to establish guidelines for the exploration and utilization of bio-computing technology. According to Dr. Brett Kagan, the chief scientific officer of biotech start-up Cortical Lab and the lead author of the study, while the combination of biological and silicon systems has immense potential, it is crucial to consider the bigger picture and ensure sustainable progress.
The ethical dimensions of bio-computing raise profound philosophical questions about human consciousness and the definition of life itself. Questions about what constitutes consciousness and intelligence in the context of today’s technology remain unanswered. Each definition of consciousness or intelligence brings different implications for how we perceive and utilize biologically based intelligent systems.
Dr. Tamra Lysaght, a co-author of the study and the director of research at the Centre for Biomedical Ethics at the National University of Singapore, refers to the perspective of early English philosopher Jeremy Bentham on animal rights. She suggests that the capacity to suffer is more relevant than reasoning or speech when considering moral status. Therefore, even if biologically based computers exhibit human-like intelligence, it does not automatically grant them moral status. The study provides a starting framework to ensure responsible research and application of bio-computers without definitively answering all the moral questions they pose.
Beyond creating intelligent machines, bio-computing has the potential to revolutionize medicine. DishBrain, for example, could enhance our understanding of diseases such as epilepsy and dementia. Current cell lines used in medical research predominantly have European genetic ancestry, making it challenging to identify genetic-linked side effects. By using more diverse cell lines in future models of drug screening, we can better represent real-world patients, potentially leading to faster and more effective drug development.
In addition to medical benefits, the environmental implications of bio-computing are significant. Traditional silicon-based computing is energy-intensive, with supercomputers consuming millions of watts. In contrast, the human brain operates on a mere 20 watts of energy. By utilizing bio-computers for processing tasks, which have similar energy efficiency to biological intelligences, we can reduce the carbon emissions produced by the IT industry. This provides a compelling environmental reason to explore alternatives to silicon-based computing.
The study on bio-computing is published in the journal Biotechnology Advances. As this field continues to advance, it is crucial for society to actively engage in discussions around ethics, consciousness, and the responsible use of this powerful technology. By setting guidelines and frameworks, we can ensure that bio-computing progresses in a sustainable and ethical manner while unlocking its enormous potential in various fields, from medicine to environmental conservation.