Ethical and Moral Dimensions of Bio-Computing: Should a Neural Network Cultured in a Dish Have Rights?

by Henrik Andersen

The field of bio-computing, once the realm of speculative fiction, has transitioned into reality, necessitating urgent discussions on its ethical deployment. In a recent academic paper, the team behind DishBrain have joined forces with bioethicists to delve into the ethical ramifications, possible health-related advantages, and environmental benefits of this emerging technology.

Pioneers in the creation of computers based on neural cells are collaborating with an international cohort of ethics experts to scrutinize the ethical aspects of bio-computing.

No longer confined to the pages of science fiction, bio-computing has become a reality, making it imperative to address its ethical considerations and applications, say a group of international specialists.

The developers of DishBrain have worked in conjunction with bioethicists and medical researchers to articulate a comprehensive ethical framework. Their in-depth insights and guidelines for navigating this nascent field are articulated in an article recently published in Biotechnology Advances.

“Integrating organic neural networks with silicon components to generate intelligent-like behaviors holds considerable promise, but it’s essential to operate with a holistic vision to ensure sustainable advancement,” notes Dr. Brett Kagan, Chief Scientific Officer of biotech startup Cortical Lab, who gained notoriety for their work on DishBrain—a construct consisting of 800,000 live neural cells in a dish that has learned to play Pong.

Philosophical and Ethical Considerations

Centuries of philosophical debate have revolved around the nature of human consciousness, but as co-author and Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, Professor Julian Savulescu, points out, there is an immediate need to find actionable solutions to these dilemmas.

“There is a lack of sufficient discussion about the ethical dimensions of what we even deem as ‘conscious’ given the current technological landscape,” he states.

He adds that various definitions of consciousness and intelligence exist, each having distinct ramifications for how we conceptualize bio-based intelligent systems.

The paper references early English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, emphasizing that in the realm of moral standing, the pertinent question isn’t whether entities can reason or communicate, but whether they are capable of suffering.

Medical Advantages and Ethical Dilemmas

The article underscores both the ethical complexities and opportunities presented by DishBrain, especially its potential to expedite our comprehension of ailments such as epilepsy and dementia.

“Prevailing cell lines used in medical research are largely of European genetic descent, which could hinder the identification of genetically linked adverse effects,” comments co-author Dr. Christopher Gyngell, Research Fellow in biomedical ethics at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and The University of Melbourne.

He adds that future drug screening processes could be improved by using a broader range of genetic material, thereby accelerating the development of more effective drugs.

Environmental Impact

The scholars note that the environmental implications of adopting bio-computing should not be ignored.

“The current silicon-based computing paradigm is incredibly energy-intensive, requiring millions of watts for a supercomputer. In contrast, the human brain operates on as little as 20 watts—similar efficiencies could be expected from biological computing,” states Dr. Kagan.

Given the information technology sector’s considerable contribution to carbon emissions, even a minor transition to bio-computing would offer significant environmental advantages.


The paper, “The technology, opportunities, and challenges of Synthetic Biological Intelligence” by Brett J. Kagan, Christopher Gyngell, Tamra Lysaght, Victor M. Cole, Tsutomu Sawai, and Julian Savulescu was published on August 7, 2023, in Biotechnology Advances. DOI: 10.1016/j.biotechadv.2023.108233

The research was financially supported by the Wellcome Trust, the Singapore Ministry of Health’s National Medical Research Council, and the Government of the State of Victoria.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about bio-computing

What is the main subject of the article?

The main subject of the article is the ethical, medical, and environmental implications of bio-computing, with a specific focus on the DishBrain technology.

Who are the key stakeholders involved in the development and ethical considerations of DishBrain?

The key stakeholders are the creators of DishBrain from Cortical Lab, bioethicists, medical scientists, and international ethics experts.

What ethical concerns are being raised in relation to bio-computing?

The article raises questions about the moral and ethical dimensions of bio-computing, such as the notion of consciousness, the moral rights of biologically based computing entities, and the need for a comprehensive ethical framework.

What are the potential medical benefits of DishBrain technology?

The DishBrain technology holds the potential to significantly advance our understanding of diseases like epilepsy and dementia. It also has the potential to diversify the genetic material used in drug screening, which could lead to more effective drug development.

What environmental advantages could bio-computing offer?

The article points out that silicon-based computing is extremely energy-intensive, consuming millions of watts for a supercomputer. Bio-computing, exemplified by the human brain, could be much more energy-efficient, thus reducing the carbon footprint of the information technology sector.

Are there any philosophical perspectives cited in the article?

Yes, the article cites early English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who argued that the question of moral standing should not be whether entities can reason or communicate, but whether they can suffer.

Who funded the research discussed in the article?

The research was funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Singapore Ministry of Health’s National Medical Research Council, and the Government of the State of Victoria.

Where can the full academic paper be found?

The full academic paper was published in Biotechnology Advances and can be accessed through its DOI: 10.1016/j.biotechadv.2023.108233.

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EthicalThinker October 8, 2023 - 6:24 pm

Dr. Savulescu from Oxford’s comments really hit home. We really havent thought enough about what ‘conscious’ means nowadays. It’s high time we tackle these ethical questions.

Med_Researcher October 8, 2023 - 9:29 pm

The medical applications are intriguing, but what about the moral implications? If it’s cells from a human brain, is it too human? where do we draw the line?

TechSavvy_44 October 8, 2023 - 10:49 pm

As a guy in the tech field, gotta say, the energy efficiency part really caught my eye. if this bio-computing thing becomes mainstream, imagine the power savings!

JohnDoe21 October 9, 2023 - 4:44 am

Wow, DishBrain sounds like something straight outta a sci-fi movie. Who woulda thought we’d be talking bout the ethics of a “brain in a dish” in our lifetimes.

GreenFuture October 9, 2023 - 10:44 am

The environmental advantages sound amazing! Silicon-based tech is such a drain on resources. it’s good that we’re exploring alternatives.


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