The AI immune system that’s changing our understanding of human health

Artificial immune systems are intelligent algorithms based on how the immune system learns and remembers and could transform our ability to protect ourselves from biological – and technological – invaders

Health 31 January 2023

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Replicating the immune system using AI can help reveal how it works


ONE of the most important features of the immune system is that it can learn and remember, a kind of biological intelligence that is rivalled only by the brain. And just like the brain, researchers are attempting to replicate this intelligence artificially, by creating an AI called Artificial Immunological Intelligence (AII) that will improve our understanding of the immune system and could be used in computing to prevent malicious invaders doing harm there too.

The brain’s intelligence is embodied in connections between fixed neurons, whereas the immune system’s is based on transient interactions between mobile immune cells. The principle is the same, however, and both can be replicated in a computer program.

For the past few years, Johannes Textor at Radboud University in the Netherlands and his colleagues have been building AIIs in the form of computer-based populations of simulated T-cells. Each simulated immune cell has unique properties and they collectively learn through reinforcement, with cells that make a positive contribution to eliminating simulated pathogens replicating, and those that don’t dying out.

Already, AII is helping immunologists make progress on some age-old problems. For example, Textor and his colleague Inge Wortel have built an AII to test a long-standing idea in immunology that explains how T-cells learn what is a threat.

Real-life T-cells have surface receptors that recognise proteins or fragments of proteins called peptides displayed on the surface of other cell types. These peptides are …

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