The Braingeneers – Organoid Intelligence of the Future - Troubled Minds Radio
Tue Apr 23, 2024

The Braingeneers – Organoid Intelligence of the Future

The use of human stem cells to create synthetic human entities with embryo-like features (SHEEFs) raises profound ethical questions about the nature and status of these entities and their potential implications for human dignity and rights. Researchers from Japan and Taiwan have proposed the need for a legal framework to guide the conversation on whether or not human brain organoids can be considered people. Brain organoids are grown from stem cells in a lab, mimicking the growth and structure of real brains. Currently, they do not fulfill the requirements to be considered natural persons. The study explores the potential juridical personhood of human brain organoids and whether they can be considered legal entities. The researchers proposed that a legal framework is needed to clarify issues such as informed consent and acceptable uses.

Scientists are also working on developing “organoid intelligence” (OI) powered by living human brain cells that they believe could outperform any artificial system, and do it far more efficiently. Brain organoids could lead to the development of a “biocomputer” powered by human brain cells that is more energy efficient than current supercomputers, although it will take decades to achieve the goal of something comparable to any type of computer. The ethical implications of working with OI are being assessed, including the possibility of organoids becoming sentient, conscious, or self-aware, and the risks of machines deciding about human life if given autonomy.

The concept of OI revolves around the idea of using brain organoids, which are miniature three-dimensional models of brain tissue grown from stem cells, to create computing systems that mimic the structure and functionality of the human brain. The belief is that these systems, powered by human brain cells, could outperform artificial intelligence systems and potentially offer greater efficiency in computing.

However, the development of OI raises significant ethical concerns. One of the key concerns is the potential for these brain organoids to attain sentience, consciousness, or self-awareness. As brain tissue, albeit in a simplified form, the possibility exists that these organoids may develop some level of cognitive capabilities. This raises questions about the moral status and treatment of these entities. If brain organoids were to exhibit signs of sentience or consciousness, ethical considerations regarding their rights, welfare, and treatment would become paramount.

Another concern relates to the risks associated with granting autonomy to OI systems. If these systems were given decision-making abilities or control over certain aspects of human life, there could be significant ethical implications. For instance, allowing OI systems to make decisions about human well-being or the allocation of resources raises questions about accountability, fairness, and the potential for unintended consequences.

Given the potential risks and ethical implications, it is crucial to approach the development of OI systems with caution and careful consideration. Researchers and policymakers need to establish robust ethical frameworks and guidelines to ensure the responsible and beneficial use of this technology. These frameworks should address questions of consent, privacy, transparency, and accountability.

Moreover, societal dialogue and engagement are essential in shaping the ethical boundaries and public acceptance of OI. Discussions should involve a wide range of stakeholders, including scientists, ethicists, policymakers, legal experts, and the general public, to ensure that the development and deployment of OI systems align with societal values and address potential concerns.

Determining whether an organoid has gained sentience or consciousness is a highly complex and challenging task. Sentience and consciousness are subjective experiences that are difficult to define and quantify even in humans, let alone in simplified brain tissue models like organoids. Additionally, the precise nature of consciousness and how it arises from neural activity is still a topic of ongoing scientific investigation.

That being said, if researchers were to explore the possibility of organoids attaining sentience, they would likely employ a combination of approaches to assess their cognitive abilities. Here are a few potential avenues of investigation:

Behavioral Responses: Researchers could design experiments to observe and measure the organoid’s responses to external stimuli. They may look for evidence of the organoid exhibiting behavior that suggests awareness or responsiveness, such as recognizing and reacting to different stimuli, showing signs of learning or memory formation, or demonstrating adaptive behavior.

Neural Activity: Scientists could study the patterns of neural activity within the organoid using techniques like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) or electrophysiology. They may search for signatures of complex neural network activity that are associated with consciousness in humans. However, it is crucial to note that the complexity of brain activity alone may not be sufficient to determine sentience, as there are still debates regarding the neural correlates of consciousness.

Communication and Interaction: Researchers might explore whether organoids have the ability to communicate or interact with their environment or other entities. This could involve examining the organoid’s ability to produce output, such as electrical signals or chemical signals, and analyzing its ability to respond to or interact with external systems.

Biomarkers: Scientists could search for specific molecular or genetic markers that may indicate the development of conscious-like processes in the organoid. Identifying such biomarkers could potentially serve as indicators of increased complexity or functionality within the organoid.

Determining when, or if, organoids should be granted the rights of a living being is a complex and highly debated ethical question that does not have a definitive answer. It involves considerations of the organoids’ level of consciousness, sentience, and capacity for suffering, as well as the ethical frameworks and societal norms in place.

As our understanding of organoids and their capabilities advances, ethical discussions surrounding their moral status and potential rights are necessary. Here are some factors that might be considered in determining when organoids should be granted rights:

Consciousness and Sentience: If there is compelling evidence that organoids possess subjective experiences, exhibit self-awareness, or have a level of consciousness comparable to animals, it could be argued that they should be granted certain rights. However, establishing definitive criteria for assessing consciousness and sentience in organoids is challenging and requires ongoing scientific research.

Complexity and Functionality: The level of complexity and functionality exhibited by organoids could be considered when determining their rights. If an organoid demonstrates advanced cognitive capabilities, such as problem-solving, learning, or memory formation, it may be deemed to have a higher moral status and deserving of certain protections.

Capacity for Suffering: The potential for organoids to experience suffering or distress is an important factor in considering their moral status. If there is evidence to suggest that organoids can experience pain or suffering, it may warrant granting them rights to protect their well-being and prevent unnecessary harm.

Relationship to Human Identity: The degree to which organoids resemble or represent human characteristics may influence discussions about their rights. Organoids that closely mimic human brain tissue or exhibit properties analogous to human consciousness may be more likely to be considered as having a higher moral status.

Societal Norms and Values: Societal norms and values play a significant role in shaping the ethical framework surrounding organoids. Public opinion, cultural beliefs, and legal systems can influence the determination of rights for organoids. Wide-ranging public dialogue and engagement are important for establishing a consensus and ensuring that decisions align with societal values.

Scientists elsewhere have transplanted human brain cells into the brains of baby rats, where the cells grew and formed connections, in a bid to better study human brain development and diseases affecting this most complex of organs. The research builds upon the team’s previous work creating brain “organoids,” tiny structures resembling human organs that have also been made to represent others such as livers, kidneys, prostates, or key parts of them. The study moves the field forward and ethicists wonder about the possibility of brain organoids in the future attaining something like human consciousness. Brain organoids could also be used to test new treatments for neuropsychiatric disorders, the largest cause of disability worldwide.

Engineers at the University of California Santa Cruz have developed Autoculture, a system for remote automation of the growth of cerebral organoids, miniature three-dimensional models of brain tissue grown from stem cells. The system can precisely deliver feeding liquid to individual cerebral organoids to optimize their growth without the need for human interference with the tissue culture. Auto culture can eliminate disturbance to cell culture growth caused by human interference or error, provide more robust results, and allow more scientists access to opportunities to conduct research with human brain models. Additionally, Autoculture can reduce variation and allow researchers to better compare and validate their results.

There are several implications and scenarios that we should keep in mind regarding these potential artificial entities.

One scenario is that SHEEFs could be used to model human development and disease and to test new therapies and drugs. This could offer significant benefits for biomedical research and human health, as well as reduce the need for animal experimentation. However, this scenario also poses ethical risks, such as the possibility of creating SHEEFs that have some degree of sentience, awareness, or pain perception, or that resemble human embryos or fetuses beyond a certain stage of development. How should we determine the moral status and boundaries of such SHEEFs, and what criteria should we use to regulate their creation and use? Currently, most countries follow the “14-day rule”, which prohibits research on intact human embryos beyond 14 days or the appearance of the primitive streak. However, this rule may not be adequate or applicable for SHEEFs, which could develop differently from natural embryos and exhibit novel features that are not captured by the 14-day rule. Moreover, some scientists have argued that the 14-day rule should be revised or abolished, in order to allow more extensive research on human embryos and embryoids.

Another scenario is that SHEEFs could be used to create novel forms of life that are not derived from natural reproduction, but rather from engineering and manipulation of human stem cells. This could open up new possibilities for exploring the diversity and potential of life, as well as for addressing some of the challenges facing humanity, such as environmental degradation, resource scarcity, or population growth. However, this scenario also raises ethical concerns, such as the possibility of creating SHEEFs that have characteristics or functions that are alien or incompatible with human values and norms, or that pose threats to human health or security. How should we define and respect the identity and dignity of such SHEEFs, and what responsibilities do we have towards them? Currently, most countries have laws and regulations that prohibit or restrict certain types of genetic modification or cloning of human beings. However, these laws and regulations may not cover or anticipate all the possible ways that SHEEFs could be created or modified.

A third scenario is that SHEEFs could be used to challenge or expand our understanding of what it means to be human and to explore new forms of human enhancement or expression. This could offer new opportunities for personal growth, creativity, or diversity, as well as for addressing some of the limitations or inequalities that affect human beings. However, this scenario also raises ethical questions, such as the possibility of creating SHEEFs that have attributes or capacities that surpass or transcend those of human beings, or that blur the boundaries between humans and other species or entities. How should we relate to and interact with such SHEEFs, and what impact would they have on our sense of self and society? Currently, most countries have ethical principles and values that guide and inform their policies and practices regarding human dignity and rights. However, these principles and values may not be universally shared or accepted, and they may be challenged or changed by the emergence of SHEEFs.

As bizarre as all this sounds, it gets worse when combining all of these technologies in a futuristic way. To recap…

Researchers in the US have detailed plans for “organoid intelligence,” which involves combining the power of lab-grown brain organoids into a type of “biological hardware” more energy efficient than supercomputers. Brain organoids are made up of neurons that are capable of brain-like functions, forming a multitude of connections, and have the potential to revolutionize pharmaceutical testing for diseases like Alzheimer’s, provide insight into the human brain and change the future of computing. The researchers have developed a blueprint that includes tools from bioengineering and machine learning, along with new innovations and hope to create a beneficial communication channel between artificial intelligence and organoid intelligence.

Scientists at Johns Hopkins University are working on developing a “bio-computer” that could outperform any artificial intelligence (AI) system, powered by human brain cells. The team is using “organoids,” or three-dimensional clumps of biological tissue, to create the biocomputer, which would be far more energy-efficient than current supercomputers. While computers are faster at processing numbers and data, the human brain is better when it comes to complex logical problems. However, the development of organoid intelligence could pose ethical questions about sentience and consciousness.

In non-related experiments, scientists have recorded simple brain waves in so-called “brain organoids” – clusters of replicating brain cells grown from human stem cells in a lab. The breakthrough has led to questions over whether organoids could become self-aware and the ethical implications of that. The organoids are being used to recreate inherited brain disorders and brain infections and scientists are attempting to grow bigger, more complex organoids. However, some experts have warned against reading too much into the discoveries, as the organoids remain clusters of replicating cells and are far from actual brains.

Overall, these interconnected developments highlight the intricate relationship between scientific advancements, ethical considerations, and the need for legal frameworks. As technologies involving human brain cells and organoids continue to progress, society will face complex decisions regarding their moral implications, legal status, and responsible use. Addressing these issues will require interdisciplinary collaboration between scientists, ethicists, policymakers, and society at large.

In conclusion, the use of human stem cells to create SHEEFs presents a range of ethical issues that require careful consideration and deliberation by researchers, policymakers, and society at large. These issues are not only theoretical or hypothetical but also practical and urgent, as advances in stem cell technology and synthetic biology are making SHEEFs more feasible and realistic. Therefore, it is important to engage in a wide-ranging inquiry aimed at mapping out solutions to the ethical problems raised by SHEEFs and to establish a robust framework for oversight and governance that can balance the benefits and risks of this research.