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Bio-computing: Should a brain in a dish have moral rights?

Bio-computing, a concept once confined to the pages of a sci-fi novel, is now a burgeoning reality. 

Breakthroughs in this field of technology could redefine our understanding of intelligence, consciousness, and moral rights. 


The biotech start-up Cortical Lab has pioneered a fascinating development: the DishBrain. 

This remarkable innovation comprises 800,000 living brain cells that have demonstrated the ability to learn to play the game Pong. 

Led by Dr. Brett Kagan, the team believes that the fusion of biological neural systems with silicon could bring about intelligence-like behavior. 

However, with such breakthroughs come the critical questions of sustainability and ethics.

Does a brain in a dish have moral rights?

Study co-author Professor Julian Savulescu, warns of the urgency to determine practical answers to the question of what makes us human or conscious.

“We haven’t adequately addressed the moral issues of what is even considered ‘conscious’ in the context of today’s technology,” said Savulescu.

“As it stands, there are still many ways of describing consciousness or intelligence, each raising different implications for how we think about biologically based intelligent systems.”

Moral status: Consciousness or suffering?

The researchers draw inspiration from Jeremy Bentham. He argued that, with respect to the moral status of animals, “the question is not, ‘can they reason?’ nor, ‘can they talk?’ but, ‘can they suffer?’”

Dr. Tamra Lysaght from the National University of Singapore said that even if bio-computers exhibited human-like intelligence, their moral rights aren’t automatically ensured.

“Our paper doesn’t attempt to definitively answer the full suite of moral questions posed by bio-computers, but it provides a starting framework to ensure that the technology can continue to be researched and applied responsibly,” said Dr Lysaght.

Medicine’s new frontier

Beyond ethical considerations, the DishBrain also presents tangible advancements in medical research. The technology could potentially revolutionize our understanding of conditions like epilepsy and dementia. 

“Current cell lines used in medical research predominately have European-type genetic ancestry, potentially making it harder to identify genetic-linked side effects,” said study co-author Dr Christopher Gyngell from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and The University of Melbourne.

“In future models of drug screening, we have the chance to make them more sufficiently representative of the real-world patients by using more diverse cell lines, and that means potentially faster and better drug development.”

The green promise of bio-computing

Another compelling reason to explore bio-computing is its potential environmental impact. The researchers noted that it is worth working through moral issues, as this potential impact is significant.

“Silicon-based computing is massively energy-hungry with a supercomputer consuming millions of watts of energy. By contrast, the human brain uses as little as 20 watts of energy – biological intelligences will show similar energy efficiency,” said Dr Kagan.

“As it stands, the IT industry is a massive contributor to carbon emissions. If even a relatively small number of processing tasks could be done with bio-computers, there is a compelling environmental reason to explore these alternatives.”

The research is published in the journal Biotechnology Advances.

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