Building Brain Cell-Powered Computers: The AI Startup Aiming to Rival Nvidia

**Building Biological Computers: A New Frontier in Technology**
At Cortical Labs, CEO Hon Weng Chong and his team have made significant advancements in the field of biological computers. By training human brain cells on a computer chip to play the classic video game Pong, Chong is developing technology that has the potential to revolutionize the tech industry. In this article, we will explore the innovative work being done at Cortical Labs and the potential applications of biological computers.

**Attracting Attention from Industry Giants**
Chong received a surprise call from Amazon’s chief technology officer, Werner Vogels, expressing interest in Cortical Labs’ unique innovation. Vogels was fascinated by the DishBrain, a computer chip powered by living human brain cells that had been trained to play Pong using minimal energy. This caught Vogels’ attention as the energy consumption and heat output of traditional data centers and cloud providers are significant costs. Chong recognized the groundbreaking potential of his technology, envisioning its ability to outperform AI systems while significantly reducing energy consumption.

**Merging Human Learning and Processing Power**
Chong’s vision extends beyond playing video games. By combining the extraordinary learning capacity of human brains with the processing power of silicon chips, Cortical Labs aims to develop biological computers that can perform tasks more efficiently than current AI systems. Chong believes that his innovative technology could have numerous applications, ranging from drug testing for brain diseases to reducing energy consumption in AI training.

**Seeking Investment and Partnerships**
In April, Cortical Labs secured a $10 million funding round, led by Horizons Ventures and featuring notable investors such as In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the Central Intelligence Agency. With this fresh injection of capital, Cortical Labs plans to start generating revenue by the end of the year, with the launch of its biological computers. Bit Bio, a spinoff of the University of Cambridge, has already partnered with Cortical Labs to test its product. Additionally, Cortical Labs intends to offer cloud services by the end of 2024, allowing companies to program brain cells for various tasks.

**Challenges and Future Prospects**
While Cortical Labs has made significant progress, it faces several challenges. Scientists have been attempting to merge living cells with silicon for two decades to create a human-brain-like AI system, but no one has achieved a biological computer that can rival a conventional one. Cortical Labs is one of the few companies attempting to commercialize biological computers, alongside California-based Koniku, which combines living cells with computer chips for various applications. However, experts like Madeline Lancaster, a researcher at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, remain skeptical, citing the lack of significant advancements in the computing power of lab-grown brain cells.

**Navigating Ethical Concerns**
Apart from technical obstacles, Cortical Labs must also address ethical issues related to its technology. Questions arise regarding the consciousness and ability to feel pain or pleasure in lab-grown brain cells. Cortical Labs claims that its brain cells are “sentient” and responsive to sensory impressions. To address ethical concerns, the company has been collaborating with bioethicists and engaging in conversations with society.

**The “Body in a Box”**
Cortical Labs’ biological computer is aptly referred to as a “body in a box.” The human brain cells used in the technology are engineered from adult stem cells sourced from skin or blood samples. These cells are integrated into a chip and housed within a shoe box-like device. Inside the device, the cells receive nutrients and air while waste is removed. The brain cells function as the central processing unit (CPU) of the biological computer.

**Training Brain Cells for Pong and Beyond**
To train the brain cells to play Pong, Cortical Labs connected the hybrid chip to a computer running the game. The cells made their own decisions based on electrical signals representing the position and proximity of the ball to the paddle. Through feedback from these signals, the cells learned to improve their performance. Beyond gaming, Cortical Labs believes its biological computer could revolutionize drug testing for neurological disorders. By analyzing the brain cells’ performance in programs like Pong, researchers could gain insights into the efficacy and side effects of drugs. Cortical Labs hopes to partner with pharmaceutical companies to replace animal testing with human cell-based experiments.

**Reducing Energy Consumption**
In addition to medical applications, Cortical Labs’ biological computers have the potential to significantly reduce energy consumption in AI training. Traditional AI systems require substantial amounts of electricity and cooling to process vast amounts of data. For example, training OpenAI’s GPT-3 consumed over a gigawatt-hour of electricity, equivalent to powering 120 homes for a year. In contrast, the human brain operates on about 20 watts, roughly the energy needed to power an LED light bulb. By utilizing biological computers, Cortical Labs could cut energy consumption for AI training by a factor of 10 or more.

**The Road Ahead**
Despite the challenges ahead, Chong remains optimistic about Cortical Labs’ future. He acknowledges the significant technical barriers and the need to develop both hardware and software capabilities. Chong views Cortical Labs as a future leader in the industry, enabling other companies and startups to build upon their technology. In the next five years, he hopes to see multiple successful businesses utilizing Cortical Labs’ innovations.

In conclusion, Cortical Labs is on the cutting edge of biological computer technology. By training human brain cells on a computer chip, Chong and his team are pioneering a new era in computing. While challenges remain, the potential applications of biological computers are vast. From revolutionizing drug testing to reducing energy consumption, Cortical Labs’ innovative technology has the power to reshape the tech industry.

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