Blog: I Came, I Saw, I Robot
Analysis on brain uploading and its ethical consequences
There was a time were the idea of looking at someone’s face and talking to them on a screen was so inconceivable. Yet today, skype exists and it doesn’t represent the effort for pushing technology to new limits. Futuristic ideas can often at times be seen as impossible, such as skype 100 years ago. AI, humanoid robots, and just about anything else that would make someone say “yeah not won’t be possible” will soon be possible. Discussing these future technologies are important because once they are implemented, there needs to be an understanding about the effects of using the technology in a certain way. You can encapsulate this idea into the phrase, “just because we can do, doesn’t mean we should”. Let’s focus our attention to brain upload technology. This technology concerns the adoption of computation with human brains. This can include parsing brain waves into 1s and 0s, brain implants, and storing consciousness.
Discussion on Feasibility
Before discussing ethical quandaries, it’s important to understand what stage of development this technology is in. This has been an increasingly popular field of research with many countries beginning to invest relevant amounts of money into the area. Many startups are popping up as well, some even have waiting lines and are being profitable. Nectome is a notable one that plans to freeze old, rich people’s brains to be used in the future where they can be brought back(Regalado, 2012). They’ve also been working in the related field of memory retrieval.
This technology will come sooner than the public expects. We believe this because there are currently big science undergoings that are directly or indirectly working towards these technologies. As of now, there are 5 institutions dedicated to the study of mapping the human brain.
- Human Brain Project
- Blue Brain
- Brain/MINDS (Japan)
- China Brain Project
- The Brain Initiative
Although the main mission of these institutions is to map the brain for advancement cognitive health, many of them it is also have side project of simulating the human brain. The timeline of Blue Brain has been very successful. In the past few years it has successfully created a full mapping of a rodent brain (2018). They project that they will have a full human brain mapping in the next ten years.
On the other hand there are promising advances into the technology of mind substrate uploading. As summarized by Sim Bamford, there are many projects that have shown that parts of the brain can be substituted with electronic parts (Bamford, 2012). The specific experiment that he cites describes a team of scientists that took a mouse brain and turned off a brain connecting two parts such that the mouse could not perform a certain task. After that they connected the two parts with electric components and shows that the mouse could now perform the task. As a prototype this is a highly promising example of what is currently technologically possible. From a futurist perspective brain uploading would be likened to taking this technology and progressively replacing brain parts with electric components. Sooner or later this brain would be completely electric and you have your proverbial uploaded brain.
Discussion on ethical concerns
This immediately opens up a world of possibilities and issues. Many are hesitant of Nectome’s idea, but others see potential. If it works, it will have essentially created immortality for those who have access to it. This brings up the first point when involving the concept of extended life. Who should be allowed access to it? As of now, only the wealthy have any way of accessing it. At some point, cutting down someone’s life to only one ‘body’ worth of time will feel unfair. Should it be government controlled and equal access? Or will this be in the same vein of privatized health care? These are questions that should be hopped onto early as they’ll be key to the ethics of this technology.
Less obvious are the burdens for the naturally occurring citizens given this concept comes to fruition. If it’s a long time before the technology to bring life back to the brains in storage, is it fair to have that job fall on the next generation? Furthermore, who’s to blame if they can’t bear the burden? Is it mass-genocide if the plug has to be pulled or if an intern trips on it and the power goes out? Should the new life be put in a digital place or squared off area, to not have future generations conflict with the them? A lot of these questions seem far off, but when dealing with technology as important as saving people’s consciousnesses, it’s important to be precise?
Mind uploading technology is the concept of sending experiences to the brain. This is done by using some sort of apparatus (Science Feature). The following sections are case studies that include criminal ethical concerns that involve mind uploading technology.
Case: The Self-Erasing Murderer
In this case we’ve already reached a point where consciousnesses are as easy to come across as a download file. A horrible murderer who has uploaded his brain got his revenge on those who convicted him. Afterwards, he overwrote his brain with that of a monk. He was an entirely different person at his core and because of that, could not be convicted again for his crimes.
Case: The Memory Blackmailers
Image a form of espionage that allows people to take the virtually experiences of others to understand their experiences and thoughts. Melanie Chiu-Li is an activist who has her memories copied by the Yakuza. They were able to find a memory to exploit so that Melanie would stop pursing the Yakuza.
In preparing for our student led lecture and during the presentation we noticed that the same sentiment was prevalent: what is the point of talking about this? The main concern was that this topic is too far fetched and too futuristic to take seriously. Our response to this is that brain uploading while is a futuristic topic offers a very fertile ground for discussion on impactful computing topics.
In a more pragmatic perspective it is never too early to begin talking about the consequences of new technologies. If tech has taught us something is that it advances in unpredictable leaps and bounds. The converse is true for the law making that is necessary to insure the safe adoption of new technologies. For example, the first practical seat belt, the 3-point seat belt, was invented in 1958 by Nils Bohlin but it wasn’t until 1995 that the majority of the states in USA has implemented mandatory seat belt laws (Moore, 2011 ). If anything this is a story that shows that the earlier we can discuss new technology, the earlier that we can convince the public and lawmakers of important truths about said new technology. As we have shown, brain uploading could give rise to a multitude of subtle ethical concerns so the earlier we begin these conversations the better.
2011 Williams John Moore “The Hotly Contested History of the Seat Belt” retrieved from:
Csaba Erö*, Marc-Oliver Gewaltig†, Daniel Keller and Henry Markram “A Cell Atlas for the Mouse Brain” 2018 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fninf.2018.00084
Bamford, S. (2012). A framework for approaches to transfer of a mind’s substrate. International Journal of Machine Consciousness, 4(01), 23–34.
Regalado, A., & Regalado, A. (2018, April 05). A startup is pitching a mind-uploading service that is “100 percent fatal”. Retrieved from https://www.technologyreview.com/s/610456/a-startup-is-pitching-a-mind-uploading-service-that-is-100-percent-fatal/
Science Feature: The Perils of Mind Uploading. (2011, September 23). Retrieved from https://sciencefiction.com/2011/09/05/science-feature-the-perils-of-mind-uploading/