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3d rendering of Human cell or Embryonic stem cell microscope background.
3d rendering of Human cell or Embryonic stem cell microscope background.

Are the Brain Cells in a Dish That Learned Pong Conscious?

Human-derived organoids learned faster than AI and always outperformed mouse-derived organoids in terms of volley length, raising troubling questions

Recently, science media were abuzz with a remarkable story about minibrains (mouse and human brain cells in a dish) learning to play the video game Pong:

Scientists have successfully taught a collection of human brain cells in a petri dish how to play the video game “Pong” — kind of.

Researchers at the biotechnology startup Cortical Labs have created “mini-brains“ consisting of 800,000 to one million living human brain cells in a petri dish, New Scientist reports. The cells are placed on top of a microelectrode array that analyzes the neural activity.

“We think it’s fair to call them cyborg brains,” Brett Kagan, chief scientific officer at Cortical Labs and research lead of the project, told New Scientist.

Tony Tran, “Researchers teach human brain cells in a dish to play “Pong”” at Futurism (December 17, 2021)

What’s happening here? Well, a lot of things.

Here’s the basic idea: What if instead of building artificial intelligence with computer chips, we use human brains? This is the inspiration behind Cortical Labs. It uses miniature “brains” called organoids, which are cells grown from human-induced pluripotent stem cells. These brains are then plugged into computer chips. The company’s first proof of concept is to have the brains “play” Pong.

But how does this happen? How do these brains understand what is happening to a great enough degree that they can respond coherently?

The details of the work can be found in their preprint. The scientists at Cortical Labs propose a theory called the free energy principle (FEP). The theory states the brain always seeks to minimize the error between its predictions and observations, either by changing its predictions or changing its observations by acting on the environment.

For training purposes, the brain is sent a noisy signal for incorrect behavior. If the FEP theory is correct, then the brain will modify its behavior in order to avoid noisy signals, and this is what the scientists observed. When the brains received the noisy signal after missing the pong ball, the brains adapted to move the paddle to deflect the ball. Over a lengthy training period the brains improved the volley lengths, demonstrating that the brains do learn.

A couple other interesting results from the research. First, human-derived organoids always outperform mouse-derived organoids in terms of volley length. Second, even without negative feedback, when the paddle missed the pong ball, the organoids still learn to increase volley length.

The scientists hypothesize that this is because long volleys are more predictable than the random resets generated when the paddle misses the pong ball.

Overall, fascinating research. But, it raises the troubling question, are these brains conscious? The brains certainly are learning, and insofar as the brain has to be conscious in order to learn, then this implies the brains are indeed conscious. And what if this technology becomes mainstream and we have embedded human brains powering our home appliances?

We have billions, if not trillions, of computational devices around our world. If each also had a conscious human brain running the device, then the population of enslaved brains would outnumber the human population, leading to the possibility of a worldwide revolt of the appliances. And what if the brains powered our nuclear weapons? We might need to think twice about yelling mean things at our computer when it shows us the blue screen of death, or
it could very well rain down nukes of death out of the blue!

It’s worth noting that this research does not involve human embryonic stem cells (embryo humans harvested for research). These human-induced pluripotent stem cells are derived from adult stem cells that have been altered to behave like human embryonic stem cells.

If these stem cells can be turned into conscious human brains, the very nature of consciousness is challenged. We normally assume one body = one consciousness. Yet if the cells of a human body can be turned into a new conscious brain, one body can produce a nearly unlimited number of conscious human brains. That is literally mind-boggling!

The ethical dimension of the organoid research — largely ignored in the news — is the reverse light it casts on the value of human life. A number of organoid experiments do use human embryonic stem cells. If we are worried about the consciousness of the derived organoids, are we likewise worried about the consciousness of the beings from whom the stem cells are derived? We dehumanize them through terminology, calling them “fertilized eggs” or “blastocysts.” Yet these little collections of cells are far more likely to turn into conscious human brains than the organoids in the scientific experiments. So, if the organoids are worthy of significant ethical concern, then shouldn’t this ethical concern apply to an even greater degree to the mini humans from which the stem cells are harvested?

Note: Brain organoids are often derived from human embryonic stem cells, as described at the US National Library of Medicine here and here and at Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology (here and here).


You may also wish to read: University of Chicago biochemist: All living cells are cognitive. James Shapiro’s recent paper points out, with examples, that bacteria meet the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “cognitive.” Future debates over origins of intelligence, consciousness, etc., may mainly feature panpsychists vs. theists rather than materialists vs. theists.

Note: Because the organoids are described as a Matrix theme in some quarters, you may also wish to read: The Matrix Resurrections: The studio is making us do this! Mark Zuckerberg, eat your heart out. If there is one word to describe this movie, that word is Meta. Agent Smith — now a cooperate bigwig — informs Neo that they are making the Matrix Trilogy, now a video game, into a new franchise, with or without his consent. (Gary Varner)


Eric Holloway

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Eric Holloway is a Senior Fellow with the Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence, and holds a PhD in Electrical & Computer Engineering from Baylor University. A Captain in the United States Air Force, he served in the US and Afghanistan. He is the co-editor of Naturalism and Its Alternatives in Scientific Methodologies.

Are the Brain Cells in a Dish That Learned Pong Conscious?