- Whole brain emulation (WBE), the possible future one‐to‐one modelling of the function of the human brain, is academically interesting and important for several reasons:
- Brain emulation is the logical endpoint of computational neuroscience’s attempts to accurately model neurons and brain systems.
- Brain emulation would help us to understand the brain, both in the lead‐up to successful emulation and afterwards by providing an ideal test bed for neuroscientific experimentation and study.
- Neuromorphic engineering based on partial results would be useful in a number of applications such as pattern recognition, AI and brain‐computer interfaces.
- As a long‐term research goal it might be a strong vision to stimulate computational neuroscience.
- As a case of future studies it represents a case where a radical future possibility can be examined in the light of current knowledge.
- The economic impact of copyable brains could be immense, and could have profound societal consequences (Hanson, 1994, 2008b). Even low probability events of such magnitude merit investigation.
- If emulation of particular brains is possible and affordable, and if concerns about individual identity can be met, such emulation would enable back‐up copies and “digital immortality”.
- Brain emulation would itself be a test of many ideas in the philosophy of mind and philosophy of identity, or provide a novel context for thinking about such ideas.
- It may represent a radical new form of human enhancement.
- WBE represents a formidable engineering and research problem, yet one which appears to have a well‐defined goal and could, it would seem, be achieved by extrapolations of current technology. This is unlike many other suggested radically transformative technologies like artificial intelligence1 where we do not have any clear metric of how far we are from success.
- In order to develop ideas about the feasibility of WBE, ground technology foresight and stimulate interdisciplinary exchange, the Future of Humanity Institute hosted a workshop on May 26 and 27, 2007, in Oxford. Invited experts from areas such as computational neuroscience, brain‐scanning technology, computing, nanotechnology, and neurobiology presented their findings and discussed the possibilities, problems and milestones that would have to be reached before WBE becomes feasible.
- The workshop avoided dealing with socioeconomic ramifications and with philosophical issues such as theory of mind, identity or ethics. While important, such discussions would undoubtedly benefit from a more comprehensive understanding of the brain—and it was this understanding that we wished to focus on furthering during the workshop. Such issues will likely be dealt with at future workshops.
- This document combines an earlier whitepaper that was circulated among workshop participants, and additions suggested by those participants before, during and after the workshop. It aims at providing a preliminary roadmap for WBE, sketching out key technologies that would need to be developed or refined, and identifying key problems or uncertainties.
- Brain emulation is currently only a theoretical technology. This makes it vulnerable to speculation, “handwaving” and untestable claims. As proposed by Nick Szabo, “falsifiable design” is a way of curbing the problems with theoretical technology:
…the designers of a theoretical technology in any but the most predictable of areas should identify its assumptions and claims that have not already been tested in a laboratory. They should design not only the technology but also a map of the uncertainties and edge cases in the design and a series of such experiments and tests that would progressively reduce these uncertainties. A proposal that lacks this admission of uncertainties coupled with designs of experiments that will reduce such uncertainties should not be deemed credible for the purposes of any important decision. We might call this requirement a requirement for a falsifiable design. (Szabo, 2007)
- In the case of brain emulation this would mean not only sketching how a brain emulator would work if it could be built and a roadmap of technologies needed to implement it, but also a list of the main uncertainties in how it would function and proposed experiments to reduce these uncertainties.
- It is important to emphasize the long‐term and speculative nature of many aspects of this roadmap, which in any case is to be regarded only as a first draft—to be updated, refined, and corrected as better information becomes available. Given the difficulties and uncertainties inherent in this type of work, one may ask whether our study is not premature. Our view is that when the stakes are potentially extremely high, it is important to apply the best available methods to try to understand the issue. Even if these methods are relatively weak, it is the best we can do. The alternative would be to turn a blind eye to what could turn out to be a pivotal development. Without first studying the question, how is one to form any well‐grounded view one way or the other as to the feasibility and proximity of a prospect like WBE?
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