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Meet the sci-fi startup building computer chips with real biological neurons

There’s a great deal of innovation embedded in today’s cutting-edge computer chips, but not much of it is as out-of-the-box as the thinking that’s driving Australian startup Cortical Labs. The company, like so many startups with artificial intelligence in mind, is building computer chips that borrow their neural network inspiration from the biological brain. The difference? Cortical is using actual biological neurons, taken from mice and humans, to make their chips.

“We’re building the first hybrid computer chip which entails implanting biological neurons on silicon chips,” Hon Weng Chong, CEO and co-founder of Cortical Labs, told Digital Trends.

This is done by first extracting neurons in two different ways, either from a mouse embryo or by transforming human skin cells back into stem cells and inducing those to grow into human neurons.

“We then grow those neurons in our laboratory on high density CMOS-based multi-electrode devices that contain 22,000 electrodes on tiny surfaces no larger than 7mm squared,” Chong continued. “These neurons form neural networks which then start to spontaneously fire electrical signals, after a two-week incubation period, that is picked up by our multi-electrode device. The multi-electrode device is also able to provide electrical stimulation.”

Cortical Labs
Cortical Labs

The researchers aren’t the first to develop neural networks based on real neurons. Recently, scientists in the U.K., Switzerland, Germany, and Italy fired up a working neural network that allowed biological and silicon-based artificial brain cells to communicate with one another over an internet connection. A California startup called Koniku, meanwhile, is building silicon chips, created using mouse neurons, which are able to sense certain chemicals.

For now, research like Cortical Labs’ is still in a relatively early proof-of-concept stage. According to a recent article in Fortune, Cortical Labs’ current approach has less processing power than a dragonfly brain. That means that, for now, it’s pursuing humbler ambitions than its eventual goal.

“While we’re still in the process of building the hybrid computer chip, right now we’re focused on shaping our neurons’ behavior to play a game of [Atari’s] Pong,” Chong said. “That’s our next big milestone, which will provide a proof-of-concept similar to DeepMind’s demonstration [in 2013] of its A.I. playing Breakout.”

Commercialization is still “a number of years away,” Chong continued. But he’s convinced it could be a game-changer. “When we eventually take our final product to market we believe it will have a wide array of applications across robotics, cloud computing, and computer brain interfaces,” he said. “This does not include industries that we might not have thought about yet because of the novelty of such a computation paradigm.”

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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