Biological computing and related legal considerations

March 09, 2023

As recent innovations in Artificial Intelligence (“AI”) such as ChatGPT ignite debate over issues such as the legal status of non-humans, privacy implications of novel computing abilities, and rights of intelligent systems’ creators over output, similar considerations confront another emerging computing field—one involving human cells. A team of Johns Hopkins scientists recently detailed their efforts to overcome technological limitations AI faces, like systems’ size and efficiency, with biological computing. Otherwise known as “organoid intelligence” (“OI”), biological computing uses neurons in three-dimensional human brain cell cultures to memorize and evaluate inputs.

Debates are already underway in the AI field regarding the legal status of computers and associated rights. For example, in the intellectual property context, courts and patent offices internationally such as in Australia and the United Kingdom are starting to address whether a “thing” such as an AI system can be an inventor and what rights vest in these situations. These and similar questions will undoubtedly apply to OI, and finding solutions may prove even harder than in the AI context because OI blurs the boundary between machine intelligence and human cognition more than does artificial intelligence. For example, OI mimics brain functionality closer than AI; while the latter efficiently collects information, it cannot exhibit significant aspects of sentience, such as reacting to changes in temperature, in ways that OI can. Researchers even acknowledge a growing concern that OI could develop rudimentary forms of consciousness such as experiencing pain. Consequently, scientists in this field have committed to developing OI in a moral, responsible fashion by engaging with the public, ethicists, and scientific community to determine appropriate boundaries for such research.

Regulation surrounding OI is sure to come and will likely tackle key issues such as intellectual property rights associated with output. Additionally, cell donor privacy may need addressing if organoids can reveal health information about the living donor. Notably, privacy regimes around the world treat medical information as particularly sensitive and requiring heightened protection. Lastly, donors may have rights extending past the donation, and such rights have yet to be determined.