When do You stop being You?

Mechanical-BrainCanadian scientists have created a functioning virtual brain able to do many complex tasks humans take for granted – from remembering lists to recognising number. It can even do some basic components of IQ tests.

The Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network – or SPAUN for short – was created by Chris Eliasmith and his team at the University of Waterloo. With its 2.5 million simulated neurons SPAUN is way ahead of the curve in terms of ability.  It can see with a virtual “eye” and has a virtual “arm” that it uses to draw.  This is all achieved by simulating what tasks the brain can carry out, 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. In 2005, TBBP had created its first simulated nerve 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,  the first human equivalent simulated brain, consisting of 100 billion cells will come online sometime around 2023 (Click here to view a TED Talk given by TBBP founder Henry Markram).

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 you might begin to see some of the problems with this. A copy of you – or in this case your mind – is not really 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. Considering the differences between the biological and the electronic you, people would inevitably address each differently.  You would still age, and degenerate, and eventually die while your backup copy would live on.  While this may be preferable to the complete elimination of your consciousnesses it does not really fix the original problem that exist with biological death.

bicentennial man

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?

Tell me in the comments!

Daniel Kroner

Daniel Kroner recently received his M.S. in Experimental Psychology from Seton Hall University. Daniel tweets from @lofalexandria and maintains a blog at http://lofalexandria.blogspot.com about science, technology, psychology, conservation, gaming, and whatever else he finds interesting each day

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Posted on in with 3 Comments.


  1. Adam

    I am an incredibly complex and modifiable cellular machine. “Me” is an arbitrary description invented by other machines like me to be able to address me. If I am copied, it only depends on the other machines if they call the copy “Me”.

    As a machine, I’m particularly happy to realize this and be particularly happy about it.

  2. Christina

    If at some point we are able to leave behind copies, would other people be able to communicate and question what they know? Interact; in the sense that these copies would provide an answer you would? Can they grow, and change their opinions/perceptions based on what new knowledge they’ve been proved with? Or would they simply be an archive and nothing more, just a memory of what you used to know, like an outdated textbook? Then at that point if they were archiving peoples brains, who would become worthy of this documentation? As future generations become more and more advanced are they capable of just terminating the memory of your existence because you’ve simply become unessential and unimportant at that point in time?

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