“Quantum computing has tried to solve that problem by developing computers which can do multiple computations at once, but they’ve had problems scaling it.
“Life has had three-and-a-half billion years to think about the hardware, so by using living components in the bio-computer we hope a lot of the problems will be already ironed out by three-and-a-half billion years of evolution.”
To explore the possibilities, Dr Nicolau created tiny bio-computers made out of cells from rabbit muscle, pig brains and even bacteria, combined with synthetic nano-components.
The living cells were able to “explore” a problem set for them by the researchers and arrive at a solution by themselves.
Dr Nicolau said it seemed using bacteria as the biological component of the tiny computers was most effective.
“Bacteria have several advantages — one is that they self-repair; two is that they are resilient bastards, it’s very hard to damage or kill them even if you want to; and three is they self-replicate,” he said.
“So if you think about building something that has to get bigger as the question or problem gets bigger, you want something that self-replicates because you don’t have to keep feeding stuff in — it just grows by itself with the problem.”
Additionally, Dr Nicolau said, because bacteria were complete organisms, unlike single cells from larger animals, they could exercise a degree of “free will”, which made the computational ability even greater.
He said the next phase would be to try to test the limits of what the bio-computers could do, giving them increasingly difficult problems to try to solve.
The limits of that process veer into the realm of science fiction, but Dr Nicolau said we were a long way off developing a computer that could think up an answer to life, the universe and everything.
“Humans reason, whereas AI systems don't. So broadly, the idea is to build computers that can reason and be intelligent in the way that we are intelligent," he said.
“So my big hope is that bio-computers will be the way towards this holy grail of reasoning and artificial intelligence.”
Dr Nicolau was last year awarded a $978,125 Australian Research Council Future Fellowship, and is splitting his time between QUT and Oxford University.
His full paper on his research has been published in the Royal Society’s Interface Focus journal.