Take one part old school materialism and judiciously mix with two parts new school neuroscience, and you get the latest release from the Future of Humanity Institute: The Whole Brain Emulation Roadmap. This is incredibly heady stuff, pardon the pun, and I admit to being fascinated by the implications of digitally emulating a human brain. But my inner techno-skeptic urges temperance of my enthusiasm.
Consider this statement made In the opening section on why the research is important, under the header “Individuality”:
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”.
It would seem, then, that the braintrust behind the roadmap is openly acknowledging that this is in part an immortality project. Provided concerns about “individual identity” can be met, brain emulation would allow us to live forever (though sipping your favorite Cabernet would be a little harder, unless that can be digitized as well). I’m certain that Ernest Becker would be snickering while reading about how neuroscience can allegedly provide the ultimate ‘denial of death.’
The document is thick and rich and well worth perusing. For those inclined, you’ll learn about applications and implications of topics like “nanodissasembly” and “nondestructive scanning.” And the neural mapping discussion is fascinating all on its own. But perhaps nothing in this tome is as thought inspiring as statements concerning the inevitable collision of whole brain emulation and the concept of free will – which the researchers seem to indicate can be handled by inputting “sufficient noise in the simulation,” followed by this statement:
Hidden variables or indeterministic free will appear to have the same status as quantum consciousness: while not in any obvious way directly ruled out by current observations, there is no evidence that they occur or are necessary to explain observed phenomena.
Which I take to mean, it’s not really a concern. I can’t help but find this a curious way to treat a problem that has been a top three topic of Western philosophy for centuries.
As a matter of working through the technical feasibility of a theoretically possible project, the Roadmap is weighty stuff. But before revision 2.0 comes out, I think the authors need to consult a broader range of qualified thinkers on topics that deserve far more deliberation and concern than they’ve given them.
Brain map graphic is from The Book of Life: The Spiritual and Physical Constitution of Man (1912)