A prototype computer has been revealed at the TEDGlobal conference in Tanzania that fuses live neurons from mice stem cells into a silicon chip. The system could be used to find bombs through their smell, potentially replacing security systems currently found in airports, and may even be able to detect illnesses such as cancer.
Nigerian neuroscientist Oshiorenoya Agabi is the founder of Silicon Valley-based start-up Koniku, which is building the modem-sized Koniku Kore (pictures of the device can't yet be publicly revealed). The 10-person company started in 2015 and has already raised $1 million in funding and $10 million in revenue.
"We merged synthetic neurobiology with traditional silicon technology with the goal of fixing urgent real-world problems," said Agabi.
While computers can perform tasks humans struggle with, such as complex maths problems, there are many cognitive functions, including recognizing smells, where the brain performs much better and without requiring the massive amount of power a silicon-based processor would need.
"Biology is technology. Bio is tech," Agabi told those at the conference. "Our deep learning networks are all copying the brain [....] You can give the neurons instructions about what to do - in our case, we tell it to provide a receptor that can detect explosives."
The Koniku Kore could also be used to detect illnesses in the same way a dog can smell cancerous cells. It may be able to sense markers of a disease in the air molecules that a patient gives off, according to the BBC.
Keeping the neurons alive outside of lab conditions has proved challenging, but Agabi says they can survive for months and believes that similar future technologies will last much longer. "We think that the processing power that is going to run the robots of the future will be synthetic biology-based and we are laying the foundations for that today," he said.