While generative AI is all the rage right now, what OpenAI, Microsoft, and Google are doing may only be part of the story. There’s also the process of using biology: the idea of using stem cells to create biocomputers that could potentially be smarter and more energy efficient than we’re used to today.
Australian startup Cortical Labs came up on the radar after Amazon CTO Werner Vogels flew to Australia to visit his lab recently, and he even wrote about it, calling it “intriguing.”
Cortical combines synthetic biology and human neurons to develop what it claims is a class of AI, known as ‘Organoid Intelligence (OI)’.
It has now raised a $10 million round of funding led by Horizons Ventures, with participation from LifeX (Life Extension) Ventures (whose launch we covered last year), Blackbird Ventures, Radar Ventures and In-Q-Tel (the venture arm from the CIA).
The company says it is already in the process of fulfilling orders for its technology.
The way it works is that it uses clusters of lab-grown neurons from human stem cells to form what it calls a “DishBrain” which is then wired to hard silicon to create what it describes as a Biological Intelligence Operating System (biOS). ).
Some observers say this is the future of AI because human neurons could be better than any digital AI model for Generalized Intelligence, since they are self-programming and require much less power.
Hon Weng Chong, CEO and founder of Cortical Labs, said in a statement: “The possibilities that a hybrid AI coupled with the synthetic biology model can unlock are limitless, accelerating the possibilities of digital AI in a more powerful and sustainable way.” .
Jonathan Tam of Horizons Ventures said: “Ultimately, being able to use these systems to better understand and eventually harness how neurons display intelligence will open up a host of applications, including a revolution in personalized medicine and disease detection.”
Cortical Labs’ technology first appeared in the scientific journal Neuron in October 2022, showing that neurons in a petri dish can be encouraged to play the computer game Pong.
This sounds trivial, but as Weng Chong told me over email, this could enable the development and testing of new drugs and therapies, plus “if you take your blood and turn it into neurons, this drug discovery becomes even more customizable: the results would be tailored specifically for you only.”
He also says that the competition in the space is low: “It doesn’t compete directly with anything because this is the first of its kind that is pioneering the field of Organoid Intelligence. Organoid Intelligence has the potential to learn faster and use much less power than any other existing AI system. GPT is so smart because it ingested the entire internet, yet you or I don’t have to for us to have good conversational skills.”
“It has been at least 10 years since Geoff Hinton and Alex Krizhevsky installed a GPU to do Deep Learning that we have gotten to where we are today. We are still in the early days of this technology,” he added.
In the short term, he says one immediate application is to effectively drip a new drug onto cells to test it: if the cells can’t play Pong anymore, you know the drug isn’t working: “Not only is efficacy better determinable, but cognitive side effects (brain fog) can also be elucidated, as we now have a potential assay for cognition in the form of neurons playing the game Pong.”
He says the technology could also be used to study dementia and even test the ‘brute force’ of compounds we have discovered using quantum computing and generative AI.
And potentially later in the future “if the number and complexity of these neurons were scaled, the end result would be familiar to us as fully embodied organisms, such as a cat, dog or human.”
Hold on to your hats, people.