Consciousness in a Petri Dish
Some experiments raise the question of whether clumps of cells and isolated brains might be sentient. But would scientists even recognize that?
Hundreds of miniature brains, each about the size of a sesame seed, float in Petri dishes in Alysson Muotri's laboratory. Such "brain organoids" have become a familiar sight in many research institutions that study properties of the brain. Muotri, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), sometimes tests them in unusual ways: He's already connected them to walking robots, injected Neanderthal genes into their DNA, shot them into orbit, and used them as a model for development artificial intelligence systems used.
One of his experiments attracted even more attention than the others. In 2019, Muotri's team published a study on brain organoids derived from human stem cells. The researchers had allowed the structures to grow for ten months and observed their electrical activity. After some time, the clumps of cells began producing brain waves similar to those in the brains of premature babies. The patterns persisted for months before the team stopped the experiment.
Such coordinated neural activity is considered a feature of conscious experience. The observation therefore raises a multitude of moral and philosophical questions. Is it ethical to allow organoids to reach such an advanced stage of development? Are sentient cell clumps en titled to special treatment and additional rights? And is it even possible to create consciousness from scratch?…