Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Saturday, October 3, 2009

"We need whole brain emulation"

I'm liveblogging the Singularity Summit today and tomorrow. I'll forgo an introductory post on the summit for now, and just get right into the talk that's just begun, "The time is now: As a species and as individuals we need whole brain emulation" by Randal Koene, a European neuroengineer and the proprieter of MindUploading.org. (An abstract of his talk and a bio are available here.)

Koene says we have an urgent need to "do something," because of the constant threat of human extinction from a variety of sources. He also says the we constantly suffer from incapacity, decrepitude, and death. We may think this is just the way life is, and it's inevitable, but we can't deny that it causes a lot of suffering (he's repeated twice now that suffering causes suffering). We have a noble purpose, he says, to decrease human suffering.

He's outlining anti-aging technologies, but says those don't solve our basic fragility. They also don't do anything about our intellectual limitations. And they don't prevent "traumatic incidents" (that is, accidents and injuries). The "inescapable conclusion," the "only way to solve the problem," he says, is to eliminate our dependence on a single "substrate."

Koene is now describing what "any cryonicist" will tell you, which is that there are two kinds of death: biological and information-theoretic death. He's outlining again the problems with trying to solve biological death: it's a "game of whack-a-mole" because we're trying to solve all sorts of different manifestations of the same basic problem of biological decline.

We can avoid all of these problems if we can copy the information in the mind. We can back it up in multiple places — we can "take that which is most precious to us, and move it to different environments." He says all of the old fantasies of space travel and biospheres are ancient technology — no need to build all that physical stuff when we can just download our minds into new bodies.

Standard boo-limitations yay-Matrix boilerplate so far (he's had a couple of slides with pictures of The Matrix up so far). Now he's getting into more technical stuff.

Now he's outlining how whole brain emulation (WBE) will allow neuroscientists to test out treatments for all sorts of neurological disorders. This seems a step back from saying that treating biological ailments isn't where we should be concentrating our efforts.

Koene is talking about using WBE to validate algorithms based on the brain. Maybe I missed something. This seems like a step backward too: why do we need to test emulations if we already have more sophisticated emulations?

Okay, I got it now: he's arguing that we need the WBE to test out potential designs for devices to modify the brain itself.

Koene's talk is over. He had some nifty 3D brain animations. But nothing particularly new here.

He's taking questions now. Someone asked about a "meme" in his presentation, which is why we should use WBE to test clinical treatments instead of human brains. (Apparently "meme" now just means "claim.") Koene says this will allow us to treat things that we don't want to risk treating on real humans. The questioner asks why whole-brain-emulated persons shouldn't have the same rights not to be experimented upon as real humans. Koene says he doesn't see why they shouldn't. The questioner says this answer is perfect, and the audience erupts in applause. Something tells me they're applauding for the rights of artificial intelligences rather than for a rousing bioethics joust. Koene doesn't seem to have noticed that his claim that there is no ethical difference between the emulation and the real human is oddly in tension with his having just said that it's better to experiment on the emulation.

A couple of questioners are now debating with Koene about continuity between a human brain and its copy on a computer. Lots of fun philo of mind confusions here, but nothing of note.

And the question period is over...

1 comment:

  1. About clinical testing in emulation rather than human subjects: If damage is done, you can back out / undo. This was in fact part of the answer Koene gave at the talk.

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