Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Digital Immortality of the Future – Or, Advancements in Brain Emulation Research

By Kathy Bui

This post was written as part of a class assignment from students who took a neuroethics course with Dr. Rommelfanger in Paris of Summer 2016.

Kathy Bui is a 4th year undergraduate at Emory University, majoring in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology and Psychology. She hopes to pursue a PhD in neurobiology after graduation. Her current interests include social justice topics of class disparities and human health rights. 

Introduction: “How do you want to be remembered?” 

The fear of our looming death has haunted us since human life began. It’s not hard to believe that the quest of human immortality has not changed since Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality in 22nd century BC. However, with the technological strides in conjunction with ambitious billionaires, the cure to death may be closer than we think. Life expectancy has been steadily increasing over decades, and yet, Americans seem to look forward to the inevitable prospect of immortality. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 44% of Americans would want to extend their life to age 120 if given the opportunity [1, 2].

An integral part of human life is our biological death. We have sought to create artworks, legends, monuments that would outlive us – to show that we have made a mark on this world. In fact, they have: the Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt, the Pantheon in Rome, and the Nanchan Temple in Wutai are only a few examples of the remaining buildings, surviving for centuries beyond their makers.

Interestingly enough, there is something else that has not only survived but is growing and expanding beyond expectation: the internet [3]. The internet allows us to preserve some of our memories by uploading photos onto our Instagram accounts, retaining videos of our adventures on YouTube, and keeping full-length conversations on our Gmail accounts. Now, what if we could upload all of our memories online – every meeting, every action, every decision? What if we could upload our brain – the compass of our thoughts and emotions – online? Let’s take it a step further as human innovation always does: digital immortality through brain emulation. 

Image courtesy Wikimedia.
According to Anders Sandberg, a research associate at Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, the idea is “to take a particular brain, scan its structure in detail at some resolution, construct a software model of the physiology that is so faithful to the original that, when run on appropriate hardware, it will have an internal causal structure that is essentially the same as the original brain” [4]. This may seem like bizarre science fiction. However, this goal may not so far off in the distant future. In 2011, Dmitry Itskov, a Russian entrepreneur, found the 2045 Initiative, a project working with a network of global scientists towards cybernetic immortality by “[creating] an artificial brain in which to transfer the original individual consciousness” [5, 6]. Massive computational power and multiple brain scans are rapidly developing these holistic large-scale computational brain models and algorithms, making it possible to upload the entirety of our memories onto the computer in the future [3, 7, 8]. Immortality, what once was a historical precedent failure, is becoming a feasible and inevitable feature to human life – which we should be allowed to pursue if we see death as a mass epidemic. 

Immediate ethical questions to consider 

It will not be our technology that will limit us but our ethical guidelines for brain emulation research. A string of ethical questions beg from this topic: 
  • Should we be testing animals for brain emulation research? 
    • With brain emulation research, animal experiments will be required. The progression of the research will most like start with in vitro experiments followed by experimentation of invertebrates and eventually, to primates before we can emulate human brains [4]. However, the question lies more with: how much suffering is necessary for this research? Quantifying and justifying suffering is difficult in itself and will vary depending on the study. Animal experimentation for brain emulation research should continue to fall under the current status quo animal research ethics guideline [10]. However, poor outcomes of the animal model brain emulation should halt human brain emulation research. 
  • Who owns the brain emulation products? 
    • In animal brain emulations, the company that funds the experiments owns the products, results, and intellectual property of the research. In human brain emulations, all parties involved: the company who owns the technology, the original, and the upload will inherently handle the memories but ownership should reside in the original and the upload, assuming both have the same consciousness. Technically, the company should only be able to use the information however they want (the same terms when we upload files on Google Drive) but they do not own it [11]. In a study, the participants and researcher should own that data after the study is complete.
  • How do you upload a continuous stream of memories without the invasion of privacy? On the same train of thought, can the memories be sorted out? 
    • By uploading a continuous stream of memories, the consenting person is waiving his/her right to the privacy of the memories. Human brain emulation requires the entirety of the memories, so it should not be dissected and picked apart [3]. Since people are the components of their experiences, there should not be experiences added or removed. Otherwise, there is the risk of the emulated brain not representing the original human. 
  • Will everyone have an equal chance for immortality? 
    • This boils down to the question of access. Realistically no, not everyone will have an equal chance, and certainly not when the technology is first available – especially if this research is privately funded [5, 6]. The rich will have access to digital immortality first, and this limited access will widen the gap between rich and poor [9]. Even if the technology became more affordable, the rich will continue to have the most advanced updates while the rest receive the trickle-down of the technology. However, this does not mean we should not continue to pursue this technology. If one group’s lives cannot be elongated, this does not mean we should not elongate the other group’s lives.
  • Do the uploads get the same rights as humans? 
    • Yes, the uploads should get the same rights as originals’ rights because they are the extension of the previous life. This is in the case of the originals who have their rights taken (ex: prison). 

Transhumanism. Image courtesy of Gizmoto.
Overall, recommendations would be for further research into animal experiments before we continue the trajectory towards brain emulation. The best measurable way to see whether the animal’s self is simulated is based on its behaviors (i.e. do the emulated behaviors correspond to intact animal behaviors). Only then can we work towards human brain emulation and see whether the self can be cognitively simulated as well. The prospect of immortality is a heavy topic and should be handled cautiously, even if this debate decelerates our rapid advances towards immortality. If the animal shows depressive or self-harm tendencies, the experiment should halt immediately, following euthanasia – for humane reasons [12, 13]. The outcomes of the brain emulation research on animals will determine whether we should continue to proceed or ban this research. A poor prognosis in the animal model is a key indicator. If the outcomes are fatal or debilitating to the animal during the process of uploading memories, then we should ban brain emulation research. There is a chance for a good animal prognosis, yet a poor translational human prognosis. Of course, the first human experiment must be a success before brain emulation becomes commercially available. So, should brain emulation continue without missteps, then we should see this project to the end because humans will always continue the quest of immortality. Our goal should not decide whether we should ban human brain emulation but to take precautions to make sure the first human brain emulation is safe. 

In addition, federal regulations should specifically address and oversee the privately-funded research on brain emulation and the products of the experiments. There are currently no regulations for this research topic and the consequences [4]. Before the first successful human brain emulation, federal law should grant the uploads all of the rights that the original had, assuming that the upload behaves and thinks exactly the same way as the original. However, if the upload differs from the original, then there should be a period of adjustment to society, and federal law should give pardon to the uploads by giving them access to all the rights a law-abiding citizen has. We must assume the uploads are inherently good and must have rights; otherwise, we will be abusing their human rights. 

These are only a few of the immediate policies we should implement before we continue with the first human brain emulation. Of course, with the advent of the first emulated human brain, there will be further complications that we won’t be able to foresee no matter how much we debate; unfortunately, many of the cases against emulated human brains will have to set precedent to future federal policies. 


1. Pew Research Center. 2013. Living to 120 and Beyond: Americans’ Views on Aging, Medical Advances and Radical Life Extension. Available at: http://www.pewforum.org/2013/08/06/living-to-120-and-beyond-americans-views-on-aging-medical-advances-and-radical-life-extension/ (accessed June 19, 2016).

2. Friedman, L. 2015. 'One of society’s greatest achievements' — in a simple chart of the past 175 years. Insider UK, June 19. Available at: http://uk.businessinsider.com/how-has-life-expectancy-changed-throughout-history-2015-6?r=US&IR=T (accessed June 19, 2016).

3. Parkin, S. 2015. Back-up brains: The era of digital immortality. BBC Future, January 23. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150122-the-secret-to-immortality (accessed June 19, 2016).

4. Anders Sandberg (2014) Ethics of brain emulations, Journal of Experimental & Theoretical Artificial Intelligence, 26:3, 439-457, DOI: 10.1080/0952813X.2014.895113

5. 2045 Initiative. 2012. 2045 Strategic Social Initiative. Available at: http://2045.com/ (accessed June 19, 2016).

6. Bolton, D. 2016. Russian billionaire Dmitry Itskov seeks 'immortality' by uploading his brain to a computer. Independent UK, March 14. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/dmitry-itskov-2045-initiative-immortality-brain-uploading-a6930416.html (accessed June 19, 2016).

7. Beloussov, S. 2016. Digital immortality: How to create an external copy of yourself. Beta News, February 26. Available at: http://betanews.com/2016/02/26/digital-immortality-how-to-create-an-eternal-copy-of-yourself/ (accessed June 19, 2016).

8. Than, K. 2006. The Ethical Dilemmas of Immortality. Live Science, May 23. Available at: http://www.livescience.com/10465-ethical-dilemmas-immortality.html (accessed June 19, 2016).

9. National Academy of Sciences. 2011. Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals. 8th ed. Available at: https://grants.nih.gov/grants/olaw/Guide-for-the-Care-and-use-of-laboratory-animals.pdf (accessed June 19, 2016).

10. Whittaker, Z. 2012. Who owns your files on Google Drive? CNET, April 24. Available at: http://www.cnet.com/news/who-owns-your-files-on-google-drive/ (accessed June 19, 2016).

11. NPR. 2012. What Animals Can Teach Humans About Healing. Available at: http://www.npr.org/2012/06/12/154523594/what-animals-can-teach-humans-about-healing (accessed June 19, 2016).

12. Yuan, X., & Devine, D. (2016). The role of anxiety in vulnerability for self-injurious behaviour: Studies in a rodent model. Behavioural Brain Research, 311, 201-209. doi:10.1016/j.bbr.2016.05.041

Want to cite this post?

Bui, K. (2016). Digital Immortality of the Future – Or, Advancements in Brain Emulation Research. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2016/09/digital-immortality-of-future-or.html

1 comment:

Tamizh Selvan said...

I believe that immortal is not a myth anymore, though many doubts whether is immortality possible even now. This content is one such info for them. Thanks for sharing this in here.