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Scientists have linked up two silicon-based artificial neurons with a biological one across multiple countries into a fully-functional network. Using standard internet protocols, they established a chain of communication whereby an artificial neuron controls a living, biological one, and passes on the info to another artificial one.
We’ve talked plenty about brain-computer interfaces and novel computer chips that resemble the brain. We’ve covered how those “neuromorphic” chips could link up into tremendously powerful computing entities, using engineered communication nodes called artificial synapses.
As Moore’s law is dying, we even said that neuromorphic computing is one path towards the future of extremely powerful, low energy consumption artificial neural network-based computing—in hardware—that could in theory better link up with the brain. Because the chips “speak” the brain’s language, in theory they could become neuroprosthesis hubs far more advanced and “natural” than anything currently possible.
This month, an international team put all of those ingredients together, turning theory into reality.
The three labs, scattered across Padova, Italy, Zurich, Switzerland, and Southampton, England, collaborated to create a fully self-controlled, hybrid artificial-biological neural network that communicated using biological principles, but over the internet.
The three-neuron network, linked through artificial synapses that emulate the real thing, was able to reproduce a classic neuroscience experiment that’s considered the basis of learning and memory in the brain. In other words, artificial neuron and synapse “chips” have progressed to the point where they can actually use a biological neuron intermediary to form a circuit that, at least partially, behaves like the real thing.
That’s not to say cyborg brains are coming soon. The simulation only recreated a small network that supports excitatory transmission in the hippocampus—a critical region that supports memory—and most brain functions require enormous cross-talk between numerous neurons and circuits. Nevertheless, the study is a jaw-dropping demonstration of how far we’ve come in recreating biological neurons and synapses in artificial hardware.
And perhaps one day, the currently “experimental” neuromorphic hardware will be integrated into broken biological neural circuits as bridges to restore movement, memory, personality, and even a sense of self.
The Artificial Brain Boom
One important thing: this study relies heavily on a decade of research into neuromorphic computing, or the implementation of brain functions inside computer chips.
The best-known example is perhaps IBM’s TrueNorth, which leveraged the brain’s computational principles to build a completely different computer than what we have today. Today’s computers run on a von Neumann architecture, in which memory and processing modules are physically separate. In contrast, the brain’s computing and memory are simultaneously achieved at synapses, small “hubs” on individual neurons that talk to adjacent ones.
Because memory and processing occur on the same site, biological neurons don’t have to shuttle data back and forth between processing and storage compartments, massively reducing processing time and energy use. What’s more, a neuron’s history will also influence how it behaves in the future, increasing flexibility and adaptability compared to computers. With the rise of deep learning, which loosely mimics neural processing as the prima donna of AI, the need to reduce power while boosting speed and flexible learning is becoming ever more tantamount in the AI community.
Neuromorphic computing was partially born out of this need. Most chips utilize special ingredients that change their resistance (or other physical characteristics) to mimic how a neuron might adapt to stimulation. Some chips emulate a whole neuron, that is, how it responds to a history of stimulation—does it get easier or harder to fire? Others imitate synapses themselves, that is, how easily they will pass on the information to another neuron.
Although single neuromorphic chips have proven to be far more efficient and powerful than current computer chips running machine learning algorithms in toy problems, so far few people have tried putting the artificial components together with biological ones in the ultimate test.
That’s what this study did.
A Hybrid Network
Still with me? Let’s talk network.
It’s gonna sound complicated, but remember: learning is the formation of neural networks, and neurons that fire together wire together. To rephrase: when learning, neurons will spontaneously organize into networks so that future instances will re-trigger the entire network. To “wire” together, downstream neurons will become more responsive to their upstream neural partners, so that even a whisper will cause them to activate. In contrast, some types of stimulation will cause the downstream neuron to “chill out” so that only an upstream “shout” will trigger downstream activation.
Both these properties—easier or harder to activate downstream neurons—are essentially how the brain forms connections. The “amping up,” in neuroscience jargon, is long-term potentiation (LTP), whereas the down-tuning is LTD (long-term depression). These two phenomena were first discovered in the rodent hippocampus more than half a century ago, and ever since have been considered as the biological basis of how the brain learns and remembers, and implicated in neurological problems such as addition (seriously, you can’t pass Neuro 101 without learning about LTP and LTD!).
So it’s perhaps especially salient that one of the first artificial-brain hybrid networks recapitulated this classic result.
To visualize: the three-neuron network began in Switzerland, with an artificial neuron with the badass name of “silicon spiking neuron.” That neuron is linked to an artificial synapse, a “memristor” located in the UK, which is then linked to a biological rat neuron cultured in Italy. The rat neuron has a “smart” microelectrode, controlled by the artificial synapse, to stimulate it. This is the artificial-to-biological pathway.
Meanwhile, the rat neuron in Italy also has electrodes that listen in on its electrical signaling. This signaling is passed back to another artificial synapse in the UK, which is then used to control a second artificial neuron back in Switzerland. This is the biological-to-artificial pathway back. As a testimony in how far we’ve come in digitizing neural signaling, all of the biological neural responses are digitized and sent over the internet to control its far-out artificial partner.
Here’s the crux: to demonstrate a functional neural network, just having the biological neuron passively “pass on” electrical stimulation isn’t enough. It has to show the capacity to learn, that is, to be able to mimic the amping up and down-tuning that are LTP and LTD, respectively.
You’ve probably guessed the results: certain stimulation patterns to the first artificial neuron in Switzerland changed how the artificial synapse in the UK operated. This, in turn, changed the stimulation to the biological neuron, so that it either amped up or toned down depending on the input.
Similarly, the response of the biological neuron altered the second artificial synapse, which then controlled the output of the second artificial neuron. Altogether, the biological and artificial components seamlessly linked up, over thousands of miles, into a functional neural circuit.
So…I’m still picking my jaw up off the floor.
It’s utterly insane seeing a classic neuroscience learning experiment repeated with an integrated network with artificial components. That said, a three-neuron network is far from the thousands of synapses (if not more) needed to truly re-establish a broken neural circuit in the hippocampus, which DARPA has been aiming to do. And LTP/LTD has come under fire recently as the de facto brain mechanism for learning, though so far they remain cemented as neuroscience dogma.
However, this is one of the few studies where you see fields coming together. As Richard Feynman famously said, “What I cannot recreate, I cannot understand.” Even though neuromorphic chips were built on a high-level rather than molecular-level understanding of how neurons work, the study shows that artificial versions can still synapse with their biological counterparts. We’re not just on the right path towards understanding the brain, we’re recreating it, in hardware—if just a little.
While the study doesn’t have immediate use cases, practically it does boost both the neuromorphic computing and neuroprosthetic fields.
“We are very excited with this new development,” said study author Dr. Themis Prodromakis at the University of Southampton. “On one side it sets the basis for a novel scenario that was never encountered during natural evolution, where biological and artificial neurons are linked together and communicate across global networks; laying the foundations for the Internet of Neuro-electronics. On the other hand, it brings new prospects to neuroprosthetic technologies, paving the way towards research into replacing dysfunctional parts of the brain with AI chips.”
Image Credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay Continue reading
Penicillin, one of the greatest discoveries in the history of medicine, was a product of chance.
After returning from summer vacation in September 1928, bacteriologist Alexander Fleming found a colony of bacteria he’d left in his London lab had sprouted a fungus. Curiously, wherever the bacteria contacted the fungus, their cell walls broke down and they died. Fleming guessed the fungus was secreting something lethal to the bacteria—and the rest is history.
Fleming’s discovery of penicillin and its later isolation, synthesis, and scaling in the 1940s released a flood of antibiotic discoveries in the next few decades. Bacteria and fungi had been waging an ancient war against each other, and the weapons they’d evolved over eons turned out to be humanity’s best defense against bacterial infection and disease.
In recent decades, however, the flood of new antibiotics has slowed to a trickle.
Their development is uneconomical for drug companies, and the low-hanging fruit has long been picked. We’re now facing the emergence of strains of super bacteria resistant to one or more antibiotics and an aging arsenal to fight them with. Gone unchallenged, an estimated 700,000 deaths worldwide due to drug resistance could rise to as many as 10 million in 2050.
Increasingly, scientists warn the tide is turning, and we need a new strategy to keep pace with the remarkably quick and boundlessly creative tactics of bacterial evolution.
But where the golden age of antibiotics was sparked by serendipity, human intelligence, and natural molecular weapons, its sequel may lean on the uncanny eye of artificial intelligence to screen millions of compounds—and even design new ones—in search of the next penicillin.
Hal Discovers a Powerful Antibiotic
In a paper published this week in the journal, Cell, MIT researchers took a step in this direction. The team says their machine learning algorithm discovered a powerful new antibiotic.
Named for the AI in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the antibiotic, halicin, successfully wiped out dozens of bacterial strains, including some of the most dangerous drug-resistant bacteria on the World Health Organization’s most wanted list. The bacteria also failed to develop resistance to E. coli during a month of observation, in stark contrast to existing antibiotic ciprofloxacin.
“In terms of antibiotic discovery, this is absolutely a first,” Regina Barzilay, a senior author on the study and computer science professor at MIT, told The Guardian.
The algorithm that discovered halicin was trained on the molecular features of 2,500 compounds. Nearly half were FDA-approved drugs, and another 800 naturally occurring. The researchers specifically tuned the algorithm to look for molecules with antibiotic properties but whose structures would differ from existing antibiotics (as halicin’s does). Using another machine learning program, they screened the results for those likely to be safe for humans.
Early study suggests halicin attacks the bacteria’s cell membranes, disrupting their ability to produce energy. Protecting the cell membrane from halicin might take more than one or two genetic mutations, which could account for its impressive ability to prevent resistance.
“I think this is one of the more powerful antibiotics that has been discovered to date,” James Collins, an MIT professor of bioengineering and senior author told The Guardian. “It has remarkable activity against a broad range of antibiotic-resistant pathogens.”
Beyond tests in petri-dish bacterial colonies, the team also tested halicin in mice. The antibiotic cleared up infections of a strain of bacteria resistant to all known antibiotics in a day. The team plans further study in partnership with a pharmaceutical company or nonprofit, and they hope to eventually prove it safe and effective for use in humans.
This last bit remains the trickiest step, given the cost of getting a new drug approved. But Collins hopes algorithms like theirs will help. “We could dramatically reduce the cost required to get through clinical trials,” he told the Financial Times.
A Universe of Drugs Awaits
The bigger story may be what happens next.
How many novel antibiotics await discovery, and how far can AI screening take us? The initial 6,000 compounds scanned by Barzilay and Collins’s team is a drop in the bucket.
They’ve already begun digging deeper by setting the algorithm loose on 100 million molecules from an online library of 1.5 billion compounds called the ZINC15 database. This first search took three days and turned up 23 more candidates that, like halicin, differ structurally from existing antibiotics and may be safe for humans. Two of these—which the team will study further—appear to be especially powerful.
Even more ambitiously, Barzilay hopes the approach can find or even design novel antibiotics that kill bad bacteria with alacrity while sparing the good guys. In this way, a round of antibiotics would cure whatever ails you without taking out your whole gut microbiome in the process.
All this is part of a larger movement to use machine learning algorithms in the long, expensive process of drug discovery. Other players in the area are also training AI on the vast possibility space of drug-like compounds. Last fall, one of the leaders in the area, Insilico, was challenged by a partner to see just how fast their method could do the job. The company turned out a new a proof-of-concept drug candidate in only 46 days.
The field is still developing, however, and it has yet to be seen exactly how valuable these approaches will be in practice. Barzilay is optimistic though.
“There is still a question of whether machine-learning tools are really doing something intelligent in healthcare, and how we can develop them to be workhorses in the pharmaceuticals industry,” she said. “This shows how far you can adapt this tool.”
Image Credit: Halicin (top row) prevented the development of antibiotic resistance in E. coli, while ciprofloxacin (bottom row) did not. Collins Lab at MIT Continue reading