When do You stop being You?
Spaun, whcih stands for Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network, was created by Chris Eliasmith and his team at the University of Waterloo. Spaun stands apart from other brain simulation projects with its active capabilities. With its 2.5 million simulated neurons Spaun is way ahead of the curve in terms of ability. The simulated brain can see with a virtual “eye” and has a virtual “arm” that it uses to draw. Amazingly Spaun is capable of some relatively complex tasks including remembering and writing down lists, recognizing numbers, and some basic components of IQ tests. This is all achieved by simulating what the brain does, rather than simulating the exact functioning of the brain.
Other projects, such as The Blue Brain Project (TBBP), are taking a slightly more reductionist approach by attempting to simulate every single neuron in action. As of 2005 TBBP had created its first simulated cell. By 2008 it was running an artificial neocortical column consisting of 10,000 simulated cells. In July of 2011 the project had grown to 1 million cells divided into 100 neocortical columns. If all goes as planned sometime around 2023 the first human equivalent simulated brain, consisting of 100 billion cells will come online.
This is all amazing science but what does it mean for us? Some speculate that sometime in the future we might be able to “upload” our brains or our consciousness into non-biological brains. But if you think about it for a few minutes you might begin to see some of the problems with this. A copy of you, or in this case your mind, is not you. It is a copy. You will still be you and now there will be another entity either represented digitally or in some new robotic body that will have all of your memories and experiences and such but its experiences will begin to diverge from yours immediately. Even if both beings spent all of their time together in the same room their visual perspectives would be slightly different. People would inevitably address them differently, or at least not simultaneously with both vocalizations and eye contact. And on and on. You would still age, and degenerate, and eventually die while your copy would live on. While this may be preferable to the complete elimination of your consciousnesses it does not really fix the original problem of death.
Now, what happens if you were to change things up a little bit. What happens if you create an artificial neuron and implant it into the brain. If this neuron is somehow effectively integrated then has it changed you in a meaningful way? What if you implant 2, 4, 6, 10, 100, artificial neurons? What if eventually you can implant so many neurons backing up the function of your normal biology that you no longer need the biology. At what point are you no longer you? If you replace neurons one by one is there a turning point? If you just add artificial neurons is there a proportional threshold that you are no longer you any more?
This raises all kinds of philosophical questions about the self. Is the person that wakes up in the morning the same as the person that fell asleep the evening before? What about when you are put under for surgery? Or in a comma? Is there a meaningful difference between the changes to the brain that occur while asleep and adding/replacing biology with artificial neurons?
Is there really a self to begin with? Who am I?
Who are you?
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