Monash research that fuses human brain cells with AI secures national defence funding

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A Monash University-led research into growing human brain cells onto silicon chips, with new continual learning capabilities to transform machine learning, has been awarded almost AUD 600,000 under the National Intelligence and Security Discovery Research Grants Program.

The new research program, run by Associate Professor Adeel Razi, from the Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health, in collaboration with Melbourne start-up Cortical Labs, involves growing around 800,000 brain cells living in a dish, which are then “taught” to perform goal-directed tasks.

The team’s discovery last year garnered widespread notice for the brain cells’ capacity to play the simple computer game Pong, which is similar to tennis.

The associate professor explained that the research project’s work using lab-grown cells embedded in silicon chips, “merges the fields of artificial intelligence and synthetic biology to create programmable biological computing platforms.”

“This new technology capability in future may eventually surpass the performance of existing, purely silicon-based hardware,” he said.

Razi added, “The outcomes of such research would have significant implications across multiple fields such as, but not limited to, planning, robotics, advanced automation, brain-machine interfaces, and drug discovery, giving Australia a significant strategic advantage.”

The professor also highlighted why the project was funded by the Australian grant body, owing it to the next generation of machine learning applications, such as self-driving cars and trucks, autonomous drones, delivery robots, as well as intelligent handheld and wearable devices. 

He said that these new technologies “will require a new type of machine intelligence that is able to learn throughout its lifetime,” which means machines can acquire new skills without compromising old ones, adapt to changes, and apply previously learned knowledge to new tasks – all while conserving limited resources such as computing power, memory, and energy.

The research’s aim is to grow human brain cells in a laboratory dish, dubbed the DishBrain system, to understand the different biological mechanisms that underlie lifelong continual learning.

“We will be using this grant to develop better AI machines that replicate the learning capacity of these biological neural networks. This will help us scale up the hardware and methods capacity to the point where they become a viable replacement for in silico computing,“ Associate Professor Razi concluded.