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How lab-grown human brains could be the key to solving the datacenter energy crisis

Neural network illustration:
2 minute read
Neural network illustration: Shutterstock

One of the huge problems facing the world's growing use of computing in all its forms is matching the energy needs of the vast datacenters that power it. That's where biocomputing comes in...

Swiss start-up, FinalSpark, has launched an online platform that provides access to 16 human brain organoids, giving researchers and organisations that want to test the capabilities of biocomputing  access to their network for around $500 a month.

The organoids are grown from induced pluripotent stem cells derived from human skin. These are used to build a living structure consisting of approximately 10 thousand living neurons, which results in a sphere roughly 0.5 mm in diameter. These Neurospheres have actually been around for some decades now and are typically used for biomedical research, looking at the way that brain diseases function, and general unpicking of some of the mysteries that are style inherent in our understanding of how the human brain works.

FinalSpark uses them for computations in what it is keen to highlight is a purely non-medical, engineering objective, to construct a new type of computer processors. The neurospheres are kept on electrical devices to allow sending and receiving electrical signals to and from neurons.


Each neurosphere is roughly 5mm across and contains 10,000 neurons

So, apart from any number of lurid pulp fiction reasons that one to mind, why would anybody do that?

The simple answer is energy. Life on Earth is roughly 4 billion years old, appearing 500 million years after the planet formed, with the first multicellular organisms appearing anywhere between 3 and 3.5 billion years ago. That has given it a lot of time to optimise things, and one of the major advantages of biocomputing is that networks of neurons process  information with much less energy than digital computers.

Indeed, researchers have estimated that living neurons can use over 1 million times less energy than the current generation of digital processors. "When we compare them with the best computers currently in the world, such as Hewlett Packard Enterprise Frontier, we can easily see that for approximately the same speed and 1000 times more memory, the human brain uses 10-20 W, as compared to the computer using 21 MW," writes the company.

This is a huge difference and explains why just so many people are getting excited about biocomputing. And, because they are derived from human tissue, such Neurosphere-based networks are happy to run at a conventional human body temperature of 37 degrees. Cooling issues? What cooling issues?

There is, obviously, a long way to go with the technology yet and there is one problem that is yet to be solved. While a silicon chip will last you decades (though arguably is obsolescent much quicker than that), the Neurospheres have a limited lifespan. Initially this was only a few hours, but FinalSpark reports that various improvements, especially related to the microfluidics setup, have extended this to up to 100 days in one of the best cases.

The hope will be that either that can extended further or the Neurosphere production becomes cheap enough that they can be swapped in and out on a constant basis. Otherwise, the phrase 'My computer's just died on me," will take on a whole new meaning...

Tags: Technology