Biocomputers and mind reading: top 6 scientific breakthroughs of 2023

The biggest scientific sensations of 2023 — about the discovery of a room-temperature superconductor and alien mummies — turned out to be false. Real discoveries did not create information explosions, but at least six of them can change our lives. So, in 2023, human brain cells started working on a silicon chip, the first mind-reading devices appeared, and artificial intelligence (AI) began diagnosing diseases using the retina.

invites you to learn about the six most significant scientific breakthroughs for humanity announced in 2023.

February 2023: organoid intelligence

Organoids are colonies of artificially grown cells that are smaller, simplified versions of organs.. Scientists have found a way to connect a human brain organoid consisting of 10 million neurons (the size of an aquarium fish brain) with electronics and create a biocomputer from it. This initiative is called “organoid intelligence” (OI).

The first functional biocomputer called Brainoware appeared in December. Engineers and neuroscientists at Indiana University (USA) connected a brain organoid to a silicon wafer with a thousand microelectrodes and trained Brainoware to recognize speech in two days. The biocomputer was able to identify the voices of eight people with 78% accuracy and confirmed that the concept of OI could be realized.

The strength of the biocomputer is its ability to learn independently, better than that of AI.. Its main disadvantage is its short service life. The growth and vital activity of an organoid is extremely difficult to maintain with the current development of technology. However, even with a short service life, biocomputers will find application in medicine. Scientists hope to use them to study neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease.

March 2023: map of the insect brain

An international team from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Cambridge has published the most complete and extensive map of the brain of a living creature — the larva of the Drosophila fruit fly.. The diagram shows 3,106 neurons of 93 different types and 548,000 connections between them (synapses).

The brain of a Drosophila larva is the size of a poppy seed.. To create the map, thousands of layers were cut from it and scanned with an electron microscope, and then each cell was identified in the resulting images. It took 12 years, the efforts of 250 people and $40 million.

Scientists are confident that a map of the insect's brain will help unravel the mysteries of the much similar, but a million times more complex human brain, consisting of 86 billion neurons.. Having a 3D diagram, scientists will soon identify neural structures in it that are responsible for decision making, learning, and navigation. Then, by comparing areas of the diseased brain with the sample, researchers will understand where and what is damaged in mental disorders and genetic mutations.

May-2023: non-invasive mind reading

Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin presented an AI system for decoding thoughts. She translates into text what a person hears or says to himself during a brain scanning procedure in an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machine.. The system does not yet decipher thoughts perfectly: it confuses pronouns and word order in sentences. But it captures and conveys the essence of what a person is thinking about.

By the end of the year, several other teams of researchers were able to achieve similar results without the use of bulky and expensive fMRI machines.. Australian University of Technology Sydney demonstrates a mind-reading cap. Non-invasive electrodes built into it capture brain impulses, and an AI algorithm called DeWave generates text from them.

Although the decoder cap's accuracy «leaves much to be desired,» it is rapidly improving and could soon help stroke and paralysis patients connect with the world.. Such a cap can also be used to control bionic prostheses and robots.

June -2023: artificial human embryo

Human cloning experiments are strictly prohibited in most countries of the world.. But the UK allows artificially fertilized embryos to be created and stored in vitro for no more than 14 days, after which the embryo must be implanted or destroyed.

Taking advantage of this legal loophole, scientists from the University of Cambridge have learned to create a two-week-old human embryo artificially by reprogramming a single stem cell. This was announced at the annual meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research.

Two-week-old embryos measuring a tenth of a millimeter. They don't have a beating heart or the beginnings of a brain.. There are only cells that form the placenta, the gall bladder and the embryo itself. Researchers call artificial embryos «embryo-like structures» and hope to use them to study the earliest stages of human development. Further experiments on them will show how to prevent early miscarriages and treat infertility more effectively.. Ultimately, the research appears to pave the way for sperm- and egg-free childbirth.. The stem cell child will be an exact genetic copy of its parent.

September 2023: AI diagnosis of diseases using the retina

Researchers at University College London have announced the creation of a revolutionary AI model for early diagnosis and prevention of disease in new patients.. The neural network, called RETFound, processed 1.6 million photographs of the retina and learned to identify many ailments from them.

RETFound can already give a patient a one-year prediction of the onset of eye diseases, including glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy, with impressive accuracy.. In addition, the neural network is trained to make predictions for three years about the occurrence of heart failure, heart attack, stroke and Parkinson’s disease based on a retinal image.

December 2023: DNA nanorobots

Researchers from New York University and China's Ningbo University have demonstrated programmable, self-replicating nanorobots made from just four strands of DNA.. In response to externally controlled temperature and ultraviolet light, these robots capture other DNA fragments and create exact copies of themselves from them.

The size of DNA robots is about 100 nanometers. This is a thousand times less than the thickness of a human hair. Scientists want to use these babies to produce drugs inside human cells. They also hope to “train” DNA robots to search for and destroy cancer cells in human blood vessels.

Read also: “Thermonuclear fusion and reviving the dead: top 10 scientific breakthroughs of 2022”