“Computer” may commonly mean an electronic device that processes a lot of complex information, but it’s worth remembering that the etymology of the word stems from the mid-17th century. Originally, it simply meant “one who calculates”, with no electronics required.
This little bit of history lends itself neatly to a peek into the future of computing. As first spotted by New Scientist, a team from ETH Zurich and the University of Basel are making headways on constructing biocomputers – those made from living cells – and a new paper, in Nature Methods, details their most advanced system to date.
Using nine different cell populations assembled into 3D cultures, the team of synthetic biologists has managed to get them to behave like a very simple electronic computational circuit. Take out the electrical wiring and signaling, and replace them with chemical inputs, and you’ve got a living computer that responds to incoming data and can process it using rudimentary logic gates AND, NOT, and OR.
All digital systems are based on logic gates. Through a NOT gate, for example, a binary input of 1 becomes a 0 at the output. This is all very, very basic stuff, but the fact that a team has managed to get a biological computer to do this is a remarkable achievement.
As far as they know, this achievement is unprecedented. There are several previous examples of biocomputer wizardry, but they’re far more basic: From using DNA to make working transistors to using jellyfish matter to create a bio-pixel display, these are still impressive, but nowhere near as advanced as this team’s logic gate work.
It’s understandable if this all sounds a little jarring, but remember, a computer is merely something that handles data. Our brains, far more complex than (and arguably incomparable to) computers, handle data all the time; we receive sensory stimuli, our neurons process it, and we react accordingly. Is it really so surprising that a handful of cells can act as a primitive computer?