An NSF Expedition in Computing

Can computing systems be built out of living neurons? Can they achieve basic hallmarks of cognition such as learning, attention, curiosity, or creativity, so pervasive in biology yet elusive in modern computing? This Expedition imagines computers and robots that are human-designed but living. That can be programmed, but whose behaviors are not specified, and instead, emerge. These systems will grow, heal, learn and explore. They will open a new space of possibilities yet to be imagined.

By shifting from digital, rigid architectures to plastic cellular substrates, speed, accuracy, and exactness are traded off for statistical robustness, extreme parallelism, healing, growth, and superior energy efficiency. Rather than Boolean logic, these post-von Neumann systems will harness the compositional dynamics of billions of neural elements to generate 'out-of-the-box', emergent forms of computations. They will interface with muscles and sensors, to give rise to organic machines able to probe their environment and explore it. This technology will have profound, lasting impact in virtually every field related to information processing, robotics, health, and medicine, with deep ramification across human knowledge. Modern deep-networks implemented on power-hungry supercomputers may be dwarfed by bio-computing systems the size of an apple and running on sugar. Neuroscience could be revolutionized, with radically new behavioral models. Ethics research will be catalyzed. The legacy will be the inception of an in-vitro third form of ‘intelligence’, separate from AI and animal.

Building on recent advances in the engineering of multi-cellular constructs, insights into their dynamics via statistical physics, and guidance from information theory, this Expedition will develop the science and technology to fabricate, model, program, scale and embody biological processors. Research will unfold across four thrusts, structured around what makes a system compute and act: (1) Wetware – integrate neural cultures on engineered platforms; (2) Architecture – create a programmable substrate to support useful computations; (3) Programming – develop a software stack and a programming model to configure and run the substrate; (4) Robotic embodiment – demonstrate multi-sensory processing and probe the emergence of rudimentary cognitive traits in motile biological robots. A robust in-design ethics program will be pervasive of all aspects of research. The evocative power of this Expedition will excite students from all backgrounds and at all levels about computing. This will be leveraged to grow a Mind in Vitro community, through internships, workshops, seminars, and a dedicated mini-curriculum. Art-of-Science exhibitions in massive public spaces will allow us to connect with a broad and diverse audience. Finally, full commitment to open science is core, and protocols, software, hardware, and educational material will all be made freely available.

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