Human Brain Organoids

In June this year I was invited to Oxford University by the International Neuroethics Society for a symposium on human brain organoids and other novel entities. As you can imagine it was a fascinating afternoon and another one of those moments when I felt as if science fiction could never be as strange as the real science itself.

There was talk of gastruloids, novel entities and chimeras. We discussed how to measure consciousness, the ethical valuation of moral status, developing a human brain inside an animal and that the closer we get to human brain surrogates the more pressing the ethical issues become.

You can read all about the symposium and watch some videos on the neuroethics society website.

Here’s a taster from the summary:

“Human brain organoids are miniature ‘brain structures’ that can be generated from stem cells. These have the capacity to produce new, complex and developing neuronal tissue and have the potential to provide neuroscientists with models of parts of a functioning human brain for research.

Transplanting a human brain organoid into the brain of a rat could provide more information. It could show how the organoid works in the context of a full brain. But brain organoids are limited by their lack of blood supply. Inside a rat’s brain, the organoid might be able to use the rat’s blood supply and grow larger. Either way, the result is a human/non-human chimera: a creature whose tissue is part human, part rat. Could that mean that the rat could acquire human characteristics?

Human brain organoids might transform neuroscience. At a time when we so urgently need to understand the brain to help relieve vast amounts of human suffering, perfecting this approach might be a crucial part of that endeavor.  But can the ethics and regulation keep pace with the science?”

It was one of the weirdest afternoons I’ve had in a long time and to prove I was really there, the photo at the top of the post is me holding a human brain organoid in a bottle.

When will humans change?

In the words of Frederik Pohl, my job as a science fiction author is, “to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.”

I’m sure we all have mixed feelings about the future of robotics and artificial intelligence.  I certainly do and it’s such a broad subject that it’s no surprise emerging technologies and science generates big questions. What human activity we value and what it means to be human might not be new questions, but this could be the moment to assess them again.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been spending even more time than usual thinking and reading about robots and artificial intelligence. I’ve outlined some brief thoughts below, but there’s way too much to put into a short blog post like this and others have written whole books about it, not least Max Tegmark in his book Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. Continue reading

Strange Brains, Alien Minds

It’s been a very busy few months, you just need to look at my events page to see what I mean. Guess what? Every time I’ve set aside some time to sit down and write a few words about my experiences something else crops up and the chance slip by.

Although it’s a bit late, here’s a very short reflection on my ongoing collaboration with King’s College London and the Human Brain Project. It’s called ‘Transforming Future Science through Science Fiction.’ Continue reading