27 Jan 2009

Nick Bostrom & Anders Sandberg: Whole Brain Emulation (WBE) (Mental Uploading / Mental Downloading) Introduction

by Corry Shores
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[Perhaps we want to survive the deaths of our bodies. Some posthumanist philosophers argue this is possible by means of certain technological advances, namely, digital replication of our minds. Often this procedure is referred to as "mental uploading," "mental downloading," or "whole brain emulation" (WBE).

There might be ways that we can determine
1) whether or not this is possible, and
2) if so, how it could be accomplished.

Although a skeptic, I believe in this debate. I think that by engaging this argument from a Deleuzean perspective, we can further understand the real nature of human thinking.

My more developed Deleuzean critique of mental uploading can be found here. The following summarizes Nick Bostrom's & Anders Sandberg's new study on whole brain emulation. My commentary is in brackets.]

Nick Bostrom & Anders Sandberg,
"Whole Brain Emulation: A Roadmap"


When we emulate or simulate something, we create a model of it. When that model is a one-to-one copy, it is "isomorphic" to the original. Bostrom & Sandberg define whole brain emulation (WBE) as:

the possible future one‐to‐one modelling of the function of the human brain.

Bostrom & Sandberg categorize different ways mental uploading is academically valuable:

1) WBE has research value.

1a) The field of computational neuroscience tries to accurately model the neural workings of brain systems. Hence whole brain emulation is the "logical endpoint" of these endeavors.
1b) Neuroscientists want to study the brain. If they had a simulation, they could perform tests without tampering with actual people's brains.

1c) For certain functions, we would like computers to think like we do. Having a means to replicate human cognition would serve those ends.

1d) If computational neuroscience had a long-term exciting research goal, they could be stimulated to higher productivity. Devising brain replication technology could be such an inspiring project.

2) WBE would boost economies.

If we had the technology to replicate brain functioning, we could devise technologies that profoundly boost productivity. As well, these technologies would create high-demand products.

3) WBE can digitally immortalize us.

Some argue that a digital replication of our own minds somehow constitutes our selfhood. When our bodies die, we may continue existing on our "back-up copies" by means of the "digital immortality" that this technology promises.

4) WBE gives philosophers new theoretical tools.

4a) By creating artificial minds, we could test many philosophical theories about mind and identity.

4b) This technology "may represent a radical new form of human enhancement" providing material for philosophical debate.

This would be an incredibly difficult technology to develop. Yet, other artificial-intelligence research projects do not always have a definite criteria for success. Whole brain emulation, however, will clearly have succeeded when we produce a perfect isomorphic (one-to-one) replication of human cognition.

In 2007 there was a workshop in Oxford where technical experts discussed the feasibility of brain emulation technology. This text was presented at the workshop. It provides a "roadmap"

sketching out the key technologies that would need to be developed or refined, and identifying key problems or uncertainties.

In order to defend his efforts from skeptics, Bostrom & Sandberg will create a concrete exposition of the advances still needed to complete the technology. This will produce what Nick Szabo calls a "falsifiable design." For, it allows us to form testible hypotheses on the feasibility of the plan. Also, it provides the technology with a clear path of development. Otherwise it might be regarded as mere science fiction.

As well, Bostrom & Sandberg will examine the uncertainties we have regarding this technology, and they will propose experiments to reduce these uncertainties.

Although this work might seem provisional, the worse option is to let these possibilities go unrealized.

Bostrom & Sandberg thank the following people who commented on this work:
John Fiala, Robin Hanson, Kenneth Jeffrey Hayworth, Todd Huffman, Eugene Leitl, Bruce McCormick, Ralph Merkle, Toby Ord, Peter Passaro, Nick Shackel, Randall A. Koene, Rebecca Roache, Stuart Armstrong and Robert A. Freitas Jr.

Sandberg, A. & Bostrom, N. (2008): Whole Brain Emulation: A Roadmap, Technical Report #2008‐3, Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford University.
Available online at:

Nick Bostrom's page, with other publications:

Anders Sandberg's page, also with other publications:

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