Living tissue will power new super-fast ‘hybrid’ computers

Researchers are working on integrating nanotechnology with biological materials to create more powerful computers, medical tools and even prosthetics.

Scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced this week that they have built a hybrid system out of a mixture of biological and manmade materials.

This is enabling them to build prototypes of what they’re calling bio-nano-electronic devices.

“Electronic circuits that use these complex biological components could become much more efficient,” said Aleksandr Noy, a lead scientist on the project, in a statement.

The platform, according to the laboratory, is based on nanowires that are coated in lipids, which are essential structural components of living cells.

By combining the nanowires with the lipids, the resulting platform becomes more complex, which enables the hybrid material to convert signals much faster than today’s most powerful computers.

Various scientific teams are working to combine computer and electronic technology with biological materials.

This past spring, MIT researchers announced they had combined nanotechnology with genetically engineered viruses to build batteries that could power hybrid cars and cell phones.

The viruses, which infect bacteria but are harmless to humans, build the positively and negatively charged ends of lithium-ion batteries.

The batteries, according to MIT, have the same energy capacity and power performance as state-of-the-art rechargeable batteries that are being considered to power plug-in hybrid cars and personal electronic devices.

In January 2008, scientists in the U.S. and Japan announced that they had successfully used a monkey’s brain activity to control a humanoid robot.

The research may only be a few years away from helping paralyzed people walk again by enabling them to use their thoughts to control exoskeletons attached to their bodies, Miguel Nicolelis, a lead researcher on the project, said at the time.

And about a year ago, Justin Rattner, CTO and a senior fellow at Intel Corp. said that perhaps as early as 2012 the lines between human and machine intelligence would begin to blur.

Rattner also said that by 2050 or so, computing will be less about launching applications and more about living with computers woven into most daily activities.

Moth-brained robot

Higgins from the University of Arizona has many spectacular accomplishments in his credit – some of them in the field of bio-robotics.

Late in 2007, he successfully built a robot that is guided by the brain and eyes of a moth.

Higgins strapped a hawk moth to the 12-inch-tall robot on wheels and then put electrodes in neurons that deal with sight in the moth’s brain.

Then the robot responded to what the moth was seeing — when something approached the moth, the robot would move out of the way.

Higgins explained that he had been trying to build a computer chip that would do what brains do when processing visual images. He found that a chip that can function nearly like the human brain would cost about $60,000.

“At that price, I thought I was getting lower quality than if I was just accessing the brain of an insect which costs, well, considerably less,” he said. “If you have a living system, it has sensory systems that are far beyond what we can build. It’s doable, but we’re having to push the limits of current technology to do it.”

This organically guided, 12-in.-tall robot on wheels may be pushing the technology envelope right now, but it’s just the seed of what is coming in terms of combining living tissue with computer components, according to Higgins.

“In future decades, this will be not surprising,” he said.

“Most computers will have some kind of living component to them. In time, our knowledge of biology will get to a point where if your heart is failing, we won’t wait for a donor. We’ll just grow you one. We’ll be able to do that with brains, too. If I could grow brains, I could really make computing efficient.”

While the moth is physically attached to the robot at this point, Higgins said he expects that one day only the brain itself will be needed.

“Can we grow a brain that does what we want it to do? Can I grow an eye with a brain connected to it and have it do what I need it to do? Can I engineer an organism and hook it into my artificial system?” he asked.

“Yes, I really think this is coming. There are things biology can do so much better. Think of a computer that can be both living and nonliving. We’d be growing tissue that has no more intelligence than a liver or a heart. I don’t see ethical issues here.”

He does see an ethical line, though.

“Our goal is not to hook up primate brains to a robot,” said Higgins. “There’s the possibility, when you start to tap into brains, for all sorts of evil applications. There are certainly all these ethical issues when you start talking about human and primate brains.”

Higgins said he expects that these future hybrid systems will take the form of a visual sensor that sits on the front of an automobile and keeps the vehicle from rear-ending another car.

He also envisions them being embedded in military robots that can go into a hot zone, see the enemy and actually sniff out land mines. And hybrid systems could be used to make people with spinal cord injuries mobile again.

Will future desktops and laptops have organic parts?

Why not, said Higgins. “Computers now are good at chess and Word and Excel, but they’re not good at being flexible or interacting with other users,” he added. “There may be some way to use biological computing to actually make our computers seem more intelligent.”


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