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Not-So-Artificial Intelligence

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    Scientists grew a mini-brain that can play a simple video game. (Cortical Labs)
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    The video game Pong is a digital version of table tennis. (Interfoto/Alarmy)
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    A researcher holds DishBrain on a chip. (Cortical Labs)
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    This microscope image shows neural cells growing on a computer chip. (Cortical Labs)
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    This image shows neural cells. The different colors mark different types of cells. (Cortical Labs)
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WORLDteen | Ages 11-14 | $35.88 per year

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Have you ever wanted to play videogames all day? What if that was the only thing your brain could do?

That’s already the case for DishBrain. Made of 800,000 lab-grown human brain cells, this mini-brain exists for one purpose: to play Pong, the 1972 Atari classic.

Scientists grew the first “mini-brains” in 2013. (See Brains in a Dish.) Now a team in Melbourne, Australia, has shown that a tiny lab-grown brain can perform tasks.

“We’ve never before been able to see how the cells act in a virtual environment,” says Dr. Brett Kagan, lead author of the study.

Pong works like digital table tennis. Players move paddles to hit a square representing a ping pong ball. If you’re unfamiliar, don’t worry. You’ll catch on quick. DishBrain learned to play in just five minutes.

The Melbourne team created the mini-brain from mouse brain cells and human stem cells. The cells grew on top of a computer chip. That chip sent signals to the mini-brain.

Real human brains receive all sorts of signals. You know them as the five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. But DishBrain receives just a handful of signals: Where’s the ball? How far is it from the paddles? Did the paddle hit the ball?

In other words? For DishBrain, life is Pong.

If this whole idea gives you the creeps, you’re not alone. Scientists know much about the human brain, but much more remains unknown.

Humans can think and feel in a way animals can’t. We’re made in God’s image. But what about lab-grown human brain cells? Just how “human” are they?

Even experts don’t know what happens in the mind of a mini-brain—if anything. The Melbourne team claims DishBrain has sentience, meaning it can think and feel. Others hesitate to use that word. DishBrain can react to signals, they say, but it doesn’t truly think.

“In truth, we don’t really understand how the brain works,” says Dr. Kagan.

Mini-brains could transform artificial intelligence. Unlike computers, mini-brains can learn on their own. Nobody taught DishBrain how to play Pong. Across the same number of games, DishBrain learned faster than a computer.

Pong is just the beginning. DishBrain’s creators hope this “biological intelligence” will someday accomplish more complex tasks. Scientists could also use DishBrain to test new medicines and gene therapies.

Should scientists press onward to explore brain-powered technology? Or should they think twice before playing games (in this case, literally) with the human brain?

Those questions are a bit more complicated than a game of Pong.

Why? Science can accomplish incredible things—even things scientists themselves don’t understand! But it takes wisdom to know when we’ve gone too far.