Gazzola, Saif leading new $15M NSF project


Aaron Seidlitz, CS Illinois

Professors Gazzola and Saif
MechSE professors Mattia Gazzola (left) and Taher Saif.

The National Science Foundation awarded a 7-year, $15 million project to a multi-university team led by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). The resulting ground-breaking and path-finding research, titled “Mind in Vitro - Computing with Living Neurons,” will imagine computers and robots that are human designed, but living.

The entirety of this effort fits within the conceptual framework of the NSF Expeditions in Computing program, which was created more than a decade ago by the Foundation’s Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) to build off past successes and afford its research community new, ambitious opportunities to pursue.

This Expedition – just one of two to be awarded this year – will seek answers to a host of new and fundamental questions: Can computing systems be built out of living neurons? Can they achieve basic hallmarks of cognition such as learning, attention, curiosity or creativity, so pervasive in biology yet elusive in modern computing? How do we design and fabricate the envisioned ‘wetware’? How do we understand its language? How do we think of software in terms of emergence rather than prescribed logic?

The resulting technology will have profound, lasting impact in virtually every field related to information processing, robotics, health and medicine, with deep ramification across human knowledge.

It has the potential to revolutionize neuroscience, with radically new behavioral models.

“In this Expedition we imagine computers and robots that are human designed, but living. That can be programmed, but whose behaviors are not specified – and instead, emerge. These systems will grow, heal, learn and explore. They will open a new space of possibilities yet to be imagined,” said Mattia Gazzola, Mind in Vitro co-director and professor with Mechanical Science & Engineering at Illinois.

In addition to Gazzola, the project features co-directors Nancy M. Amato, Abel Bliss Professor of Engineering and Illinois Computer Science Department Head at UIUC; and Taher Saif, Edward William and Jane Marr Gutgsell Professor, Mechanical Science & Engineering at UIUC.

Also, the project includes Assessment lead Aileen Reid, Professor for the School of Education at UNC Greensboro; Ethics lead Nicole Martinez, Assistant Professor with the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, Department of Pediatrics at Stanford University; and Amato as Outreach and Education lead.

Teams of researchers and students will collaboratively develop the science and technology to fabricate, model, program, scale and embody biological processors.

Their work will unfold across four thrusts, structured around what makes a system compute and act:

  1. Wetware – led by Hyun Joon Kong, Robert W. Schaefer Professor, Chemical Biomolecular Engineering at UIUC – will integrate neural cultures on an engineered platform that provides input/output interfaces.
  2. Architecture – led by Josep Torrellas, Saburo Muroga Professor, Illinois Computer Science at UIUC – will create a programmable substrate to support useful computations.
  3. Programming – led by Lawrence Rauchwerger, Professor, Illinois Computer Science at UIUC – will develop a software stack and a programming model to configure and run the substrate.
  4. Robotic Embodiment – led by Gazzola and Saif – will demonstrate multi-sensory processing and probe the emergence of rudimentary cognitive traits in motile biological robots.

The following individuals compose the rest of this research team: Rashid Bashir, Grainger Distinguished Chair in Engineering, Dean, The Grainger College of Engineering at UIUC; John M. Beggs, Professor, Physics at Indiana University Bloomington; Karin Dahmen, Condensed Matter Physics Professor at UIUC; John Rogers, Louis Simpson and Kimberly Querrey Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Biomedical Engineering and Neurological Surgery at Northwestern University; Sepideh Sadaghiani, Assistant Professor, College of Liberal Arts & Science, Department of Psychology at UIUC; Ivan Soltesz, James R. Doty Professor of Neurosurgery and Neurosciences at Stanford University; and Lav R. Varshney, Associate Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering at UIUC.

This project will also serve as a catalyst of ethics research. Its evocative power will excite students from all backgrounds about computing.

Excitement around this project will be leveraged to initiate and grow a Mind in Vitro community, through internships, workshops, seminars, and a dedicated mini-curriculum. Art-of-Science exhibitions in massive public spaces will allow us to connect with a broad and diverse audience. Finally, full commitment to open science is core, and protocols, software, hardware, and educational material will all be made freely available.

“This Expedition captures the imagination, and I’m sure it will accelerate interest in STEM fields in general—and computing in particular,” said Susan A. Martinis, Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation at UIUC. “This type of collaborative, creative work really speaks to our research mission at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, driving student experiences and community engagement, and powering innovation and positive change locally, nationally, and globally.”

Through the NSF Expeditions in Computing program, the Mind in Vitro - Computing with Live Neurons Expedition will open a new space of possibilities in computing yet to be imagined over the next seven years.

The multidisciplinary and multi-institutional effort will draw from expertise at The Grainger College of Engineering  and the Institute for Genomic Biology at UIUC, and its partner institutions: Indiana University, Northwestern University, Stanford University and UNC Greensboro.

This team collectively offers the resources and opportunities necessary for this program. UIUC has major laboratories that provide state-of-the-art computing (National Center for Supercomputing Applications), cell culturing and imaging (Institute for Genomic Biology, Beckman Institute), fabrication (Micro and Nanotechnology Lab), and characterization (Materials Research Lab) capabilities. Stanford’s Wu Tsai Neuroscience Institute has cutting-edge technology for neural circuit manipulation. Northwestern’s Institute for Bioelectronics provides world-class bio/nanofabrication abilities. IU is home to the Gill Center for Biomolecular Science and the Network Science Institute.