Linkpost for:

I figured this was probably of interest to people here, e.g. for seeing how scientists feel about this type of ethical concern and for thinking about the potential consequences of lab-grown brains. The beginning of the article:

In Alysson Muotri’s laboratory, hundreds of miniature human brains, the size of sesame seeds, float in Petri dishes, sparking with electrical activity. 

These tiny structures, known as brain organoids, are grown from human stem cells and have become a familiar fixture in many labs that study the properties of the brain. Muotri, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), has found some unusual ways to deploy his. He has connected organoids to walking robots, modified their genomes with Neanderthal genes, launched them into orbit aboard the International Space Station, and used them as models to develop more human-like artificial-intelligence systems. Like many scientists, Muotri has temporarily pivoted to studying COVID-19, using brain organoids to test how drugs perform against the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. But one experiment has drawn more scrutiny than the others. 

In August 2019, Muotri’s group published a paper in Cell Stem Cell reporting the creation of human brain organoids that produced coordinated waves of activity, resembling those seen in premature babies1 . The waves continued for months before the team shut the experiment down.

New to LessWrong?

New Comment
3 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:32 PM

My first thought was that organoid-sized animal brains are more likely to be conscious than organoids themselves. If we're worried about organoids, we should be even more worried about animals.

I then realized that, AFAIK, we don't know whether qualia like pain and distress are "sophisticated" emotions, requiring a lot of elaborate brain architecture to produce. Qualia might just as easily be "unsophisticated," easy to generate even in a brain organoid. It may be that elaborate brain architectures of evolved animals are useful to filter, shape, and transform those "unsophisticated" qualia into survival-enhancing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. If so, we might worry that brain organoids can feel a lot of qualia, and lack the brain structures animals have that make qualia tolerable.

Yes. But not at sesame-seed size, or at least not in the sense I care about.

I also don't expect sesame-seed-sized organoids made of human cells be much different that if they were made of pig cells, or bird cells. I expect a lot of moral panic to be motivated by baseless human exceptionalism.

But I agree this is a wild story.

Damn! That Muotri guy sounds exactly like a mad-scientist supervillain

For his part, Muotri sees little difference between working on a human organoid or a lab mouse. “We work with animal models that are conscious and there are no problems,” he says. “We need to move forward and if it turns out they become conscious, to be honest I don’t see it as a big deal.”

He even has a classic supervillain backstory

Muotri wants his organoid systems to be comparable, in at least some ways, with human brains, so that he can study human disorders and find treatments. His motivation is personal: his 14-year-old son has epilepsy and autism. “He struggles hard in life,” Muotri says. Brain organoids are a promising avenue, because they recapitulate the earliest stages of brain wiring, which are impossible to study as a human embryo develops. But studying human brain disorders without a fully functioning brain, he says, is like studying a pancreas that doesn’t produce insulin. “To get there, I need a brain organoid model that really resembles a human brain. I might need an organoid that becomes conscious.”