Can computing systems be built out of living neurons? Can they achieve basic hallmarks of cognition such as learning, attention, curiosity or creativity, so pervasive in biology yet elusive in modern computing? In this Expedition we imagine computers and robots that are human designed, but living. That can be programmed, but whose behaviors are not specified, and instead, emerge. These systems will grow, heal, learn and explore. They will open a new space of possibilities yet to be imagined.
By shifting from digital, rigid architectures to plastic, cellular substrates, we trade off speed, accuracy, and exactness for statistical robustness, extreme parallelism, healing, growth, and superior energy efficiency. Rather than Boolean logic, these post-von Neumann systems will harness the compositional dynamics of billions of neural elements to generate 'out-of-the-box', emergent forms of computations. They will interface with muscles and sensors, to give rise to organic machines able to probe their environment, explore it and respond to it.
This Expedition has the potential to have profound, lasting impact on virtually every field related to information processing, robotics, health, and medicine.
- Modern deep-networks implemented on power-hungry supercomputers could be dwarfed by bio-computing systems the size of an apple and running on sugar.
- Neuroscience might be revolutionized with radically new behavioral models.
- Ethics research will be catalyzed by this project.
Its legacy could be the inception of an in-vitro third form of ‘intelligence’, separate from AI and animal.
Building on recent advances in the engineering of multi-cellular constructs, insights into their dynamics via statistical physics, and guidance from information theory, this Expedition will develop the science and technology to fabricate, model, program, scale and embody biological processors. A robust in-design ethics program will be pervasive of all aspects of research.
Research will unfold across four thrusts, structured around what makes a system compute and act:
- Wetware. Integrate neural cultures on an engineered platform that provides input/output interfaces.
- Architecture. Create a programmable substrate to support useful computations.
- Programming. Develop a software stack and a programming model to configure and run the substrate.
- Robotic embodiment. Demonstrate multi-sensory processing and probe the emergence of rudimentary cognitive traits in motile biological robots.
Education & Broadening Participation in Computing
Excitement around this topic forms the cornerstone of a BPC plan with two overarching goals: (1) recruit, educate and mentor a diverse and inclusive workforce in bio-hybrid and traditional CS and (2) broadly advance and share knowledge.
The evocative power of this Expedition will excite students from all backgrounds and at all levels about computing and will be leveraged to grow a Mind in Vitro (MiV) community.
- We will recruit students from groups underrepresented in computing for undergraduate and post-baccalaureate summer MiV research internships and mentor them towards graduate studies.
- A new graduate mini-curriculum will give all MiV graduate students a common background and language.
Full commitment to open science is core, and protocols, software, hardware, and educational material will all be made freely available through our website, virtual seminars, workshops, and an annual MiV Symposium.
Outreach & Convergence Science-Art
The revolutionary nature of this Expedition provides innumerable opportunities to capture the imagination of K-12 students. Mentored by MiV students and postdocs, K-12 students will program demos of MiV bio-robots and observe the impact on the robot’s behavior and reflect on causes and implications.
This Expedition lends itself to creative explorations blending art and science, which we will leverage.
- We will contribute to the Institute for Genomic Biology's highly successful 'Art of Science' program which has exhibitions in massive public spaces, such as Chicago’s O’Hare airport, that will allow us to connect with a broad and diverse audience.
- Building on our existing relationship with the Harvard Museum of Natural History, we will organize an exhibit focused on computing and biology.
We hope you will enjoy this adventure!