“Cells in a dish can play games, but are they aware?”

Team of experts, including Brett Kagan (Dept of Biochemistry & Pharmacology), work to keep new science ethical.

Researchers, including Brett Kagan, Honorary in the Department of Biochemistry & Pharmacology and Chief Scientific Officer at Cortical Labs, have proposed an innovative process for investigating morally relevant states - like consciousness in neural systems - ranging from single cells to whole brains by using simulated environments with cells in a dish.

The paper, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, argues that as technologies rapidly evolve and allow the integration of neural tissue with synthetic computing systems, serious ethical issues must be considered. The big question is do these simulated neural systems - like cells in a dish within a game environment - develop or have the potential to develop traits similar to consciousness?

Image: Cells in a dish, Cortical Labs

Understanding the moral status of these complex neural systems is best done by building up simple tests across systems with multiple levels of biological complexity. This allows us to identify clear metrics of interest and see where phenomena like consciousness may or may not arise.

Brett Kagan (lead author)

The research suggests that by using simplified neural systems in structured computer environments, researchers can systematically investigate from the ground up. They can observe which features of consciousness emerge in these simple systems and this can then inform studies in more complex biological systems, such as animals and humans.

Image: Brett Kagan (left), Cortical Labs

"An iterative process investigating across levels of complexity has three key benefits," said co-author Dr Lomax Boyd of Johns Hopkins University. "It provides new tools to study consciousness metrics; helps identify when biological systems may develop morally relevant states deserving of ethical consideration; and fosters crucial collaboration between scientists and ethicists."

Co-author Professor Julian Savulescu (Director for the Centre for Biomedical Ethics, Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National University of Singapore and Distinguished International Visiting Professor at Melbourne Law School), emphasises: "The development of powerful new technologies must be accompanied by rigorous ethical reflection and guidance. An interdisciplinary, iterative approach integrating scientific and philosophical expertise is essential as we explore the frontiers of embodied neural systems."

This article was originally published by Cortical Labs.

Read the full article on the Journal of Neuroscience