The brain is going digital, and consciousness is too

Joaquin Zenteno Hopp

A whole mouse brain has been digitally reconstructed with an unprecedented level of biological detail. It is part of the Human Brain Project, one of the largest scientific initiatives ever funded by the European Union, and probably the most ambitions. Their simulation is based on an algorithm that enables to predict how neurons connect with each other. It is all based on a new research field named connectomics, the science of figuring out a brain’s complete wiring diagram. The objective is to reconstruct and simulate a biologically digital human brain made of 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses.

The project’s leaders are quite optimistic. They believe that they will soon be able to replicate cognitive, emotional and behavioral experiments. Simulate how animal’s sensory organs capture and encode information, and how their brain can generate a motoric response. Nonetheless, and even more exciting, they also believe that these advancements will soon lead to the digital reproduction of consciousness.

How conscious can it be? Is it not that consciousness is just an emergent property of brain activity? Maybe not, but if computers would be able to construct and simulate minds and not only brains, what kind of reality would we be envisioning? Popular media has already provided lots of crazy ideas: Slave brains, brain-body replantation, brain post-life continuation, multi-brain cloud creations, multi-human brain expansions, etc., but, what kind of issues are really worth to analyze without losing it into naive fantasy? Incredibly, several high-top scientists have begun to take some of these ideas seriously.

In early 2018, researchers from Yale University were able to preserve several pig brains for over 36 hours outside their bodies. They claim that the brains were not conscious, but they do acknowledge that their achievement is a step towards it. Researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have begun a startup that aims to uploaded human brains into the cloud by 2024, and they do not deny the idea that one day they could become conscious. Wow, but what does that mean? Would such a conscience suffer something like a mental-sensory deprivation of eternal solitary confinement… without ears, mouth or eyes, something like living inside an black eerie spaced lacuna? Would it wonder where it is, what it is, or how it came to be? Would it be tormented by an unstoppable, undefinable and unimaginable existential despair, or would it just flow in a sort of, let us say, nirvana?

How conscious should we be? The most important question probably is about our society’s responsibility, both because of the great risks but also the immense potentials. If a person’s consciousness is reproduced, would that consciousness have legal rights? Who would own its knowledge, memories, or ideas? What if it is manipulated, unfairly treated or even abused? The Science Journal Nature, in its April 2018 edition, published an editorial arguing that experiments on human brain simulations need special protections. Written by 17 recognized neuroscientists and bioethicists, the letter suggests a variety of interesting ethical safety measures, but they do not necessarily provide a sense of easiness. Suggestions such as “the need to drug brains so they can stay in a comatose-like state when being manipulated” are not so appealing. Furthermore, how can we regulate or even understand issues that depend entirely on ad hoc practices? The most extreme is if virtual consciousness could experience pain. Is it not precisely pain considered as the first sign of the body’s consciousness? Yes, but these consciences would not have bodies, or could they? Is it not that a virtual reproduction of a conscious brain is per definition “virtually” exposed to any virtual risk?

“Science of new quality. Quality not only of new advancements, but mostly on defining moral standards”

The digitalization of consciousness shows how science and technology have come to a point of being so close to each other that they have become one. A conscious computer is not just a pure technological artefact, but also science itself. This implies that science might be entering into a whole new level. Science of new quality. Quality not only in the sense of advancements, but mostly on defining high quality moral standards. We know that standardization of scientific and technological practices is a risky process that evolves dependent to social-contextual forces. Our society’s responsibility relies on defining those moral guiding standards, despite that they can become the main reason for misleading future advancements. We need to know, for example, how are we to relate emotionally to digitally conscious things. How could we otherwise cope with falling in love with a digital being? Or could we never expect digital-reciprocal love? Anyhow, we need to take the best possible information and be conscious of the happenings of our time. It is our responsibility to build a society capable to thrive, or at least coexist, with these new strange conscious things.