Brain Emulations Pose Three Massive Moral Questions and a Scarily Practical One

When we can be uploaded and duplicated, our old models of thinking about individuality won't make sense any more.

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There’s a group scientists who believe that when human bodies buckle and vital signs fade, oblivion can still be held at bay. Immortality is the stuff of fiction, but brain emulation — sometimes referred to as “mind uploading” — is the stuff of super speculative science. The idea that nervous systems can be modeled in software so personalities can be ignited (or reignited) in hardware isn’t new exactly, but it’s more probable than it was when Tron debuted in 1981. Some neuroscientists think this could happen within the next 50 years and that the technology might arrive before fully functioning artificial intelligence.

When it does arrive, it will bring a significant number of moral quandaries with it. And the stakes are too high to wait to consider the ethics.

“We don’t want to climb to the heavens on a pile of corpses,” says computational neuroscientist Anders Sandberg, arguably the most public figure on brain emulation, at the Global Future 2045 International Congress.

Can consciousness be replicated?

At the crux of brain emulation is the theory that consciousness will transfer from the anatomical brain to the software model. In the report “Whole Brain Emulation: A Road Map” Sanderg and fellow Oxford University researcher Nick Bostrom write that a brain emulator would be “detailed and correct enough to produce the phenomenological effects of a mind” — that’s experience and consciousness, seen more from a philosophical view than anything else.

Scientifically, consciousness is evidenced by patterns of electrical activity. But it’s ultimately more complicated than that; there’s a metaphysical element. Animals and humans, in some contexts, are considered conscious if they display senses like sentience, wakefulness, and self-consciousness. But it’s hard to have a longer discussion on consciousness without talking about the soul.

Instead of jumping into the rabbit hole of whether digital consciousness can meet biological or psychological theories of identity, Michael Cerullo of the Brain Preservation Foundation argues that brain emulation will force us to create a new definition of consciousness. In a 2015 paper, he describes it as a “psychological branching identity,” a state where “consciousness will continue as long as there is continuity in psychological structure.”

“We are driven to accept the possibility that personal identity can branch into multiple copies, each maintaining a continuity of consciousness with the original,” writes Cerullo in the journal Minds and Machines. “We are at a unique point in history where we need to make decisions about the future of humanity based our best understanding of the philosophy of mind and consciousness.”

But will emulations replicate or host the replicators? When you flicker into being after a post upload, will that still be you? There’s no way to know.


Are we okay with killing a lot of test animals?

Developing brain emulation will definitely require the use of test animals. Sandberg predicts that the earliest attempts will be done on animals with well defined nervous systems, like pond snails and fruit flies, and then move on to vertebrate lab animals, like mice. It’s actually fair to reason that mice will be the first creatures to have their brains emulated: The European Union has invested over a billion Euros into the Human Brain Project, which is trying to fully emulate the brain of a mouse and parts of the human brain by 2023.

Some have argued that the cost of using animals in experimentation is outweighed by scientific returns. But pausing to consider if it’s worth it when experimentation may very well lead to nothing, is important. Sandberg writes: “Indirect theories argue that animals do not merit moral consideration, but the effect of human actions on them does matter…. Our duties towards them are merely indirect duties towards humanity.”


Are emulations equals?

There’s an argument that it will be worth it to learn how to emulate brains, so future research could be done on emulated brains instead. But this begs the question: Does an emulation carry the same moral weight as a “real” animal or human? While in some scenarios brain emulation is a way to further one’s consciousness, in others it’s creating a sub-species of sentient creatures.

In Being No One, neuroethicist Thomas Metzinger questions how human brain emulations could ever come to be without seriously crossing the boundaries of ethics. He writes:

“What today’s ethics committees don’t see is how the first machines satisfying a minimally sufficient set of constraints for conscious experience could be just like mentally retarded infants. They would suffer from all kinds of functional and representational deficits too. But they would now also subjectively experience those deficits. In addition, they would have no political lobby — no representatives in any ethics committee.”

And if we did successfully create brain emulations, we could hypothetically force them to work for us. Carl Shulman of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute predicts that the development of intelligent software equipped with emulated brains would substitute human labor — doubling the size of economies, but also driving down wages for humans. It could also lead to some pretty fucked up practices.

“Brain emulation software could be altered to mimic the effect of drugs, neurosurgery, genetic changes, and other interventions,” Shulman writes. “Experiments with such alterations would likely render emulations cognitively impaired or mentally ill in most cases, but in some cases might result in enhance productivity.”

Can we stomach the risk?

Brain emulations could become our masters instead of our servants. In his paper, Shulman also proposes a future that, if the technologically process isn’t carefully controlled, “rapidly replicating and evolving minds could cause human extinction.” These would be superorganisms the like of Johnny Depp’s Will Caster in Transcendence — hyper-intelligent and omnipresent.


That’s the possible future of uploading brains for the purpose of power — and let’s face it, the people who want to live forever sound suspiciously megalomaniacal. At the conference Transhuman Visions 2014, neuroscientist Randal Koene told the crowed that as a species what we need is to be “effective and influential and creative in a much larger sphere.” What remains to be seen is whether the human enhancements existing in this sphere consequently means the end of humankind.