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In just half a decade, neuromorphic devices—or brain-inspired computing—already seem quaint. The current darling? Artificial-biological hybrid computing, uniting both man-made computer chips and biological neurons seamlessly into semi-living circuits.
It sounds crazy, but a new study in Nature Materials shows that it’s possible to get an artificial neuron to communicate directly with a biological one using not just electricity, but dopamine—a chemical the brain naturally uses to change how neural circuits behave, most known for signaling reward.
Because these chemicals, known as “neurotransmitters,” are how biological neurons functionally link up in the brain, the study is a dramatic demonstration that it’s possible to connect artificial components with biological brain cells into a functional circuit.
The team isn’t the first to pursue hybrid neural circuits. Previously, a different team hooked up two silicon-based artificial neurons with a biological one into a circuit using electrical protocols alone. Although a powerful demonstration of hybrid computing, the study relied on only one-half of the brain’s computational ability: electrical computing.
The new study now tackles the other half: chemical computing. It adds a layer of compatibility that lays the groundwork not just for brain-inspired computers, but also for brain-machine interfaces and—perhaps—a sort of “cyborg” future. After all, if your brain can’t tell the difference between an artificial neuron and your own, could you? And even if you did, would you care?
Of course, that scenario is far in the future—if ever. For now, the team, led by Dr. Alberto Salleo, professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford University, collectively breathed a sigh of relief that the hybrid circuit worked.
“It’s a demonstration that this communication melding chemistry and electricity is possible,” said Salleo. “You could say it’s a first step toward a brain-machine interface, but it’s a tiny, tiny very first step.”
The study grew from years of work into neuromorphic computing, or data processing inspired by the brain.
The blue-sky idea was inspired by the brain’s massive parallel computing capabilities, along with vast energy savings. By mimicking these properties, scientists reasoned, we could potentially turbo-charge computing. Neuromorphic devices basically embody artificial neural networks in physical form—wouldn’t hardware that mimics how the brain processes information be even more efficient and powerful?
These explorations led to novel neuromorphic chips, or artificial neurons that “fire” like biological ones. Additional work found that it’s possible to link these chips up into powerful circuits that run deep learning with ease, with bioengineered communication nodes called artificial synapses.
As a potential computing hardware replacement, these systems have proven to be incredibly promising. Yet scientists soon wondered: given their similarity to biological brains, can we use them as “replacement parts” for brains that suffer from traumatic injuries, aging, or degeneration? Can we hook up neuromorphic components to the brain to restore its capabilities?
Buzz & Chemistry
Theoretically, the answer’s yes.
But there’s a huge problem: current brain-machine interfaces only use electrical signals to mimic neural computation. The brain, in contrast, has two tricks up its sleeve: electricity and chemicals, or electrochemical.
Within a neuron, electricity travels up its incoming branches, through the bulbous body, then down the output branches. When electrical signals reach the neuron’s outgoing “piers,” dotted along the output branch, however, they hit a snag. A small gap exists between neurons, so to get to the other side, the electrical signals generally need to be converted into little bubble ships, packed with chemicals, and set sail to the other neuronal shore.
In other words, without chemical signals, the brain can’t function normally. These neurotransmitters don’t just passively carry information. Dopamine, for example, can dramatically change how a neural circuit functions. For an artificial-biological hybrid neural system, the absence of chemistry is like nixing international cargo vessels and only sticking with land-based trains and highways.
“To emulate biological synaptic behavior, the connectivity of the neuromorphic device must be dynamically regulated by the local neurotransmitter activity,” the team said.
Let’s Get Electro-Chemical
The new study started with two neurons: the upstream, an immortalized biological cell that releases dopamine; and the downstream, an artificial neuron that the team previously introduced in 2017, made of a mix of biocompatible and electrical-conducting materials.
Rather than the classic neuron shape, picture more of a sandwich with a chunk bitten out in the middle (yup, I’m totally serious). Each of the remaining parts of the sandwich is a soft electrode, made of biological polymers. The “bitten out” part has a conductive solution that can pass on electrical signals.
The biological cell sits close to the first electrode. When activated, it dumps out boats of dopamine, which drift to the electrode and chemically react with it—mimicking the process of dopamine docking onto a biological neuron. This, in turn, generates a current that’s passed on to the second electrode through the conductive solution channel. When this current reaches the second electrode, it changes the electrode’s conductance—that is, how well it can pass on electrical information. This second step is analogous to docked dopamine “ships” changing how likely it is that a biological neuron will fire in the future.
In other words, dopamine release from the biological neuron interacts with the artificial one, so that the chemicals change how the downstream neuron behaves in a somewhat lasting way—a loose mimic of what happens inside the brain during learning.
But that’s not all. Chemical signaling is especially powerful in the brain because it’s flexible. Dopamine, for example, only grabs onto the downstream neurons for a bit before it returns back to its upstream neuron—that is, recycled or destroyed. This means that its effect is temporary, giving the neural circuit breathing room to readjust its activity.
The Stanford team also tried reconstructing this quirk in their hybrid circuit. They crafted a microfluidic channel that shuttles both dopamine and its byproduct away from the artificial neurons after they’ve done their job for recycling.
Putting It All Together
After confirming that biological cells can survive happily on top of the artificial one, the team performed a few tests to see if the hybrid circuit could “learn.”
They used electrical methods to first activate the biological dopamine neuron, and watched the artificial one. Before the experiment, the team wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Theoretically, it made sense that dopamine would change the artificial neuron’s conductance, similar to learning. But “it was hard to know whether we’d achieve the outcome we predicted on paper until we saw it happen in the lab,” said study author Scott Keene.
On the first try, however, the team found that the burst of chemical signaling was able to change the artificial neuron’s conductance long-term, similar to the neuroscience dogma “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Activating the upstream biological neuron with chemicals also changed the artificial neuron’s conductance in a way that mimicked learning.
“That’s when we realized the potential this has for emulating the long-term learning process of a synapse,” said Keene.
Visualizing under an electron microscope, the team found that, similar to its biological counterpart, the hybrid synapse was able to efficiently recycle dopamine with timescales similar to the brain after some calibration. By playing with how much dopamine accumulates at the artificial neuron, the team found that they loosely mimic a learning rule called spike learning—a darling of machine learning inspired by the brain’s computation.
A Hybrid Future?
Unfortunately for cyborg enthusiasts, the work is still in its infancy.
For one, the artificial neurons are still rather bulky compared to biological ones. This means that they can’t capture and translate information from a single “boat” of dopamine. It’s also unclear if, and how, a hybrid synapse can work inside a living brain. Given the billions of synapses firing away in our heads, it’ll be a challenge to find-and-replace those that need replacement, and be able to control our memories and behaviors similar to natural ones.
That said, we’re inching ever closer to full-capability artificial-biological hybrid circuits.
“The neurotransmitter-mediated neuromorphic device presented in this work constitutes a fundamental building block for artificial neural networks that can be directly modulated based on biological feedback from live neurons,” the authors concluded. “[It] is a crucial first step in realizing next-generation adaptive biohybrid interfaces.”
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Assuming that the emergence of consciousness in artificial minds is possible, those minds will feel the urge to create art. But will we be able to understand it? To answer this question, we need to consider two subquestions: when does the machine become an author of an artwork? And how can we form an understanding of the art that it makes?
Empathy, we argue, is the force behind our capacity to understand works of art. Think of what happens when you are confronted with an artwork. We maintain that, to understand the piece, you use your own conscious experience to ask what could possibly motivate you to make such an artwork yourself—and then you use that first-person perspective to try to come to a plausible explanation that allows you to relate to the artwork. Your interpretation of the work will be personal and could differ significantly from the artist’s own reasons, but if we share sufficient experiences and cultural references, it might be a plausible one, even for the artist. This is why we can relate so differently to a work of art after learning that it is a forgery or imitation: the artist’s intent to deceive or imitate is very different from the attempt to express something original. Gathering contextual information before jumping to conclusions about other people’s actions—in art, as in life—can enable us to relate better to their intentions.
But the artist and you share something far more important than cultural references: you share a similar kind of body and, with it, a similar kind of embodied perspective. Our subjective human experience stems, among many other things, from being born and slowly educated within a society of fellow humans, from fighting the inevitability of our own death, from cherishing memories, from the lonely curiosity of our own mind, from the omnipresence of the needs and quirks of our biological body, and from the way it dictates the space- and time-scales we can grasp. All conscious machines will have embodied experiences of their own, but in bodies that will be entirely alien to us.
We are able to empathize with nonhuman characters or intelligent machines in human-made fiction because they have been conceived by other human beings from the only subjective perspective accessible to us: “What would it be like for a human to behave as x?” In order to understand machinic art as such—and assuming that we stand a chance of even recognizing it in the first place—we would need a way to conceive a first-person experience of what it is like to be that machine. That is something we cannot do even for beings that are much closer to us. It might very well happen that we understand some actions or artifacts created by machines of their own volition as art, but in doing so we will inevitably anthropomorphize the machine’s intentions. Art made by a machine can be meaningfully interpreted in a way that is plausible only from the perspective of that machine, and any coherent anthropomorphized interpretation will be implausibly alien from the machine perspective. As such, it will be a misinterpretation of the artwork.
But what if we grant the machine privileged access to our ways of reasoning, to the peculiarities of our perception apparatus, to endless examples of human culture? Wouldn’t that enable the machine to make art that a human could understand? Our answer is yes, but this would also make the artworks human—not authentically machinic. All examples so far of “art made by machines” are actually just straightforward examples of human art made with computers, with the artists being the computer programmers. It might seem like a strange claim: how can the programmers be the authors of the artwork if, most of the time, they can’t control—or even anticipate—the actual materializations of the artwork? It turns out that this is a long-standing artistic practice.
Suppose that your local orchestra is playing Beethoven’s Symphony No 7 (1812). Even though Beethoven will not be directly responsible for any of the sounds produced there, you would still say that you are listening to Beethoven. Your experience might depend considerably on the interpretation of the performers, the acoustics of the room, the behavior of fellow audience members or your state of mind. Those and other aspects are the result of choices made by specific individuals or of accidents happening to them. But the author of the music? Ludwig van Beethoven. Let’s say that, as a somewhat odd choice for the program, John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No 4 (March No 2) (1951) is also played, with 24 performers controlling 12 radios according to a musical score. In this case, the responsibility for the sounds being heard should be attributed to unsuspecting radio hosts, or even to electromagnetic fields. Yet, the shaping of sounds over time—the composition—should be credited to Cage. Each performance of this piece will vary immensely in its sonic materialization, but it will always be a performance of Imaginary Landscape No 4.
Why should we change these principles when artists use computers if, in these respects at least, computer art does not bring anything new to the table? The (human) artists might not be in direct control of the final materializations, or even be able to predict them but, despite that, they are the authors of the work. Various materializations of the same idea—in this case formalized as an algorithm—are instantiations of the same work manifesting different contextual conditions. In fact, a common use of computation in the arts is the production of variations of a process, and artists make extensive use of systems that are sensitive to initial conditions, external inputs, or pseudo-randomness to deliberately avoid repetition of outputs. Having a computer executing a procedure to build an artwork, even if using pseudo-random processes or machine-learning algorithms, is no different than throwing dice to arrange a piece of music, or to pursuing innumerable variations of the same formula. After all, the idea of machines that make art has an artistic tradition that long predates the current trend of artworks made by artificial intelligence.
Machinic art is a term that we believe should be reserved for art made by an artificial mind’s own volition, not for that based on (or directed towards) an anthropocentric view of art. From a human point of view, machinic artworks will still be procedural, algorithmic, and computational. They will be generative, because they will be autonomous from a human artist. And they might be interactive, with humans or other systems. But they will not be the result of a human deferring decisions to a machine, because the first of those—the decision to make art—needs to be the result of a machine’s volition, intentions, and decisions. Only then will we no longer have human art made with computers, but proper machinic art.
The problem is not whether machines will or will not develop a sense of self that leads to an eagerness to create art. The problem is that if—or when—they do, they will have such a different Umwelt that we will be completely unable to relate to it from our own subjective, embodied perspective. Machinic art will always lie beyond our ability to understand it because the boundaries of our comprehension—in art, as in life—are those of the human experience.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
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A few years back, DeepMind’s Demis Hassabis famously prophesized that AI and neuroscience will positively feed into each other in a “virtuous circle.” If realized, this would fundamentally expand our insight into intelligence, both machine and human.
We’ve already seen some proofs of concept, at least in the brain-to-AI direction. For example, memory replay, a biological mechanism that fortifies our memories during sleep, also boosted AI learning when abstractly appropriated into deep learning models. Reinforcement learning, loosely based on our motivation circuits, is now behind some of AI’s most powerful tools.
Hassabis is about to be proven right again.
Last week, two studies independently tapped into the power of ANNs to solve a 70-year-old neuroscience mystery: how does our visual system perceive reality?
The first, published in Cell, used generative networks to evolve DeepDream-like images that hyper-activate complex visual neurons in monkeys. These machine artworks are pure nightmare fuel to the human eye; but together, they revealed a fundamental “visual hieroglyph” that may form a basic rule for how we piece together visual stimuli to process sight into perception.
In the second study, a team used a deep ANN model—one thought to mimic biological vision—to synthesize new patterns tailored to control certain networks of visual neurons in the monkey brain. When directly shown to monkeys, the team found that the machine-generated artworks could reliably activate predicted populations of neurons. Future improved ANN models could allow even better control, giving neuroscientists a powerful noninvasive tool to study the brain. The work was published in Science.
The individual results, though fascinating, aren’t necessarily the point. Rather, they illustrate how scientists are now striving to complete the virtuous circle: tapping AI to probe natural intelligence. Vision is only the beginning—the tools can potentially be expanded into other sensory domains. And the more we understand about natural brains, the better we can engineer artificial ones.
It’s a “great example of leveraging artificial intelligence to study organic intelligence,” commented Dr. Roman Sandler at Kernel.co on Twitter.
ANNs and biological vision have quite the history.
In the late 1950s, the legendary neuroscientist duo David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel became some of the first to use mathematical equations to understand how neurons in the brain work together.
In a series of experiments—many using cats—the team carefully dissected the structure and function of the visual cortex. Using myriads of images, they revealed that vision is processed in a hierarchy: neurons in “earlier” brain regions, those closer to the eyes, tend to activate when they “see” simple patterns such as lines. As we move deeper into the brain, from the early V1 to a nub located slightly behind our ears, the IT cortex, neurons increasingly respond to more complex or abstract patterns, including faces, animals, and objects. The discovery led some scientists to call certain IT neurons “Jennifer Aniston cells,” which fire in response to pictures of the actress regardless of lighting, angle, or haircut. That is, IT neurons somehow extract visual information into the “gist” of things.
That’s not trivial. The complex neural connections that lead to increasing abstraction of what we see into what we think we see—what we perceive—is a central question in machine vision: how can we teach machines to transform numbers encoding stimuli into dots, lines, and angles that eventually form “perceptions” and “gists”? The answer could transform self-driving cars, facial recognition, and other computer vision applications as they learn to better generalize.
Hubel and Wiesel’s Nobel-prize-winning studies heavily influenced the birth of ANNs and deep learning. Much of earlier ANN “feed-forward” model structures are based on our visual system; even today, the idea of increasing layers of abstraction—for perception or reasoning—guide computer scientists to build AI that can better generalize. The early romance between vision and deep learning is perhaps the bond that kicked off our current AI revolution.
It only seems fair that AI would feed back into vision neuroscience.
Hieroglyphs and Controllers
In the Cell study, a team led by Dr. Margaret Livingstone at Harvard Medical School tapped into generative networks to unravel IT neurons’ complex visual alphabet.
Scientists have long known that neurons in earlier visual regions (V1) tend to fire in response to “grating patches” oriented in certain ways. Using a limited set of these patches like letters, V1 neurons can “express a visual sentence” and represent any image, said Dr. Arash Afraz at the National Institute of Health, who was not involved in the study.
But how IT neurons operate remained a mystery. Here, the team used a combination of genetic algorithms and deep generative networks to “evolve” computer art for every studied neuron. In seven monkeys, the team implanted electrodes into various parts of the visual IT region so that they could monitor the activity of a single neuron.
The team showed each monkey an initial set of 40 images. They then picked the top 10 images that stimulated the highest neural activity, and married them to 30 new images to “evolve” the next generation of images. After 250 generations, the technique, XDREAM, generated a slew of images that mashed up contorted face-like shapes with lines, gratings, and abstract shapes.
This image shows the evolution of an optimum image for stimulating a visual neuron in a monkey. Image Credit: Ponce, Xiao, and Schade et al. – Cell.
“The evolved images look quite counter-intuitive,” explained Afraz. Some clearly show detailed structures that resemble natural images, while others show complex structures that can’t be characterized by our puny human brains.
This figure shows natural images (right) and images evolved by neurons in the inferotemporal cortex of a monkey (left). Image Credit: Ponce, Xiao, and Schade et al. – Cell.
“What started to emerge during each experiment were pictures that were reminiscent of shapes in the world but were not actual objects in the world,” said study author Carlos Ponce. “We were seeing something that was more like the language cells use with each other.”
This image was evolved by a neuron in the inferotemporal cortex of a monkey using AI. Image Credit: Ponce, Xiao, and Schade et al. – Cell.
Although IT neurons don’t seem to use a simple letter alphabet, it does rely on a vast array of characters like hieroglyphs or Chinese characters, “each loaded with more information,” said Afraz.
The adaptive nature of XDREAM turns it into a powerful tool to probe the inner workings of our brains—particularly for revealing discrepancies between biology and models.
The Science study, led by Dr. James DiCarlo at MIT, takes a similar approach. Using ANNs to generate new patterns and images, the team was able to selectively predict and independently control neuron populations in a high-level visual region called V4.
“So far, what has been done with these models is predicting what the neural responses would be to other stimuli that they have not seen before,” said study author Dr. Pouya Bashivan. “The main difference here is that we are going one step further and using the models to drive the neurons into desired states.”
It suggests that our current ANN models for visual computation “implicitly capture a great deal of visual knowledge” which we can’t really describe, but which the brain uses to turn vision information into perception, the authors said. By testing AI-generated images on biological vision, however, the team concluded that today’s ANNs have a degree of understanding and generalization. The results could potentially help engineer even more accurate ANN models of biological vision, which in turn could feed back into machine vision.
“One thing is clear already: Improved ANN models … have led to control of a high-level neural population that was previously out of reach,” the authors said. “The results presented here have likely only scratched the surface of what is possible with such implemented characterizations of the brain’s neural networks.”
To Afraz, the power of AI here is to find cracks in human perception—both our computational models of sensory processes, as well as our evolved biological software itself. AI can be used “as a perfect adversarial tool to discover design cracks” of IT, said Afraz, such as finding computer art that “fools” a neuron into thinking the object is something else.
“As artificial intelligence researchers develop models that work as well as the brain does—or even better—we will still need to understand which networks are more likely to behave safely and further human goals,” said Ponce. “More efficient AI can be grounded by knowledge of how the brain works.”
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