A Nigerian, Oshi Agabi, has unveiled a computer based not on silicon but on mice neurons at the TEDGlobal conference in Tanzania.
BBC reported that the system has been trained to recognise the smell of explosives and could be used to replace traditional airport security, he said.
Eventually the modem-sized device, dubbed Koniku Kore – a system is made from a mixture of living neurons and silicon, with sensors that can detect and recognise smells – could provide the brain for future robots.
Experts said that making such systems mass-market was challenging.
All of the big tech firms, from Google to Microsoft, are rushing to create artificial intelligence modelled on the human brain.
While computers are better than humans at complex mathematical equations, there are many cognitive functions where the brain is much better: training a computer to recognise smells would require colossal amounts of computational power and energy, for example.
Mr Agabi is attempting to reverse-engineer biology, which already accomplishes this function with a fraction of the power it would take a silicon-based processor.
“Biology is technology. Bio is tech,” he says. “Our deep learning networks are all copying the brain.”
The device could also be used to detect illness by sensing markers of a disease in the air molecules that a patient gives off.
The prototype was shown off at TED in a video of it being taken out of the laboratory. He said, “This device can live on a desk and we can keep them alive for a couple of months,” he said.
“We think that the processing power that is going to run the robots of the future will be synthetic biology-based and we are laying the foundations for that today.”
Agabi’s start-up company, Koniku, was launched over a year ago and has raised $1m (£800,000) in funding.
He says the company is already making profits of $10m upwards and has customers in the aviation and pharmaceuticals industries.