Does a brain in a dish have moral rights?

Cortical Labs, Media releases

Inventors of brain-cell-based computer work with international team of ethicists exploring ethical applications of bio-computing

No longer limited to the realm of science fiction, bio-computing is here, so now is the time to start considering how to research and apply this technology responsibly, an international group of experts says.

The inventors of DishBrain have partnered with bioethicists and medical researchers to map such a framework to help define and address the problem in a paper published in Biotechnology Advances.

“Combining biological neural systems with silicon substrates to produce intelligence-like behaviour has significant promise, but we need to proceed with the bigger picture in mind to ensure sustainable progress,” says lead author Dr Brett Kagan, Chief Scientific Officer of biotech start-up Cortical Lab. The group were made famous by their development of DishBrain – a collection of 800,000 living brain cells in a dish that learnt to play Pong.

While philosophers have for centuries pondered concepts of what makes us human or conscious, co-author and Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, Professor Julian Savulescu, warns of the urgency to determine practical answers to these questions.

“We haven’t adequately addressed the moral issues of what is even considered ‘conscious’ in the context of today’s technology,” he says.

“As it stands, there are still many ways of describing consciousness or intelligence, each raising different implications for how we think about biologically based intelligent systems.”

The paper cites early English philosopher Jeremy Bentham who argued that, with respect to the moral status of animals, “the question is not, ‘can they reason?’ nor, ‘can they talk?’ but, ‘can they suffer?’”.

“From that perspective, even if new biologically based computers show human-like intelligence, it does not necessarily follow that they have moral status,” says co-author Dr Tamra Lysaght, Director of Research at the Centre for Biomedical Ethics, National University of Singapore.

“Our paper doesn’t attempt to definitively answer the full suite of moral questions posed by bio-computers, but it provides a starting framework to ensure that the technology can continue to be researched and applied responsibly,” says Dr Lysaght.

The paper further highlights the ethical challenges and opportunities offered by DishBrain’s potential to greatly accelerate our understanding of diseases such as epilepsy and dementia.

“Current cell lines used in medical research predominately have European-type genetic ancestry, potentially making it harder to identify genetic-linked side effects,” says co-author Dr Christopher Gyngell, Research Fellow in biomedical ethics from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and The University of Melbourne.

“In future models of drug screening, we have the chance to make them more sufficiently representative of the real-world patients by using more diverse cell lines, and that means potentially faster and better drug development.”

The researchers point out that it is worth working through these moral issues, as the potential impact of bio-computing is significant.

“Silicon-based computing is massively energy-hungry with a supercomputer consuming millions of watts of energy. By contrast, the human brain uses as little as 20 watts of energy – biological intelligences will show similar energy efficiency,” says Dr Kagan.

“As it stands, the IT industry is a massive contributor to carbon emissions. If even a relatively small number of processing tasks could be done with bio-computers, there is a compelling environmental reason to explore these alternatives.”


  • Tom Carruthers, Australian media contact, +61 404 404 026,
  • Brett Kagan, Chief Scientific Officer, Cortical Labs, +61 434 688 983,

The paper is available at


The technology, opportunities, and challenges of Synthetic Biological Intelligence

Brett J. Kagan a,, Christopher Gyngellb,c, Tamra Lysaghtd, Victor M. Coled, Tsutomu Sawaie,f, Julian Savulescub,c,d,g

a Cortical Labs, Melbourne, VIC, Australia
b Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, Melbourne, VIC, Australia
c The University of Melbourne, Melbourne, VIC, Australia
d Centre for Biomedical Ethics, Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National University of Singapore, Singapore
e Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Hiroshima University, Hiroshima, Japan
f Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Biology (ASHBi), Kyoto University, Kyoto, Japan
g Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom


Integrating neural cultures developed through synthetic biology methods with digital computing has enabled the early development of Synthetic Biological Intelligence (SBI).

Recently, key studies have emphasized the advantages of biological neural systems in some information processing tasks. However, neither the technology behind this early development, nor the potential ethical opportunities or challenges, have been explored in detail yet. Here, we review the key aspects that facilitate the development of SBI and explore potential applications.

Considering these foreseeable use cases, various ethical implications are proposed. Ultimately, this work aims to provide a robust framework to structure ethical considerations to ensure that SBI technology can be both researched and applied responsibly.