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An Artificial Brain – Science Fact or Science Fiction?

I was really surprised and intrigued to read the news on the BBC the other day – Professor Henry Markram, director of the Blue Brain Project, based in Lausanne, Switzerland believes that a detailed, functional artificial human brain can be built within the next 10 years! That is an incredible proposition!

Is the dawn of science fiction becoming science fact? If these claims are true, this could mean the end of misery for so many sufferers of devastating neurological diseases like MS, stroke and dementia. As he said during the TED Global conference held in Oxford last week a synthetic human brain would be of particular use in finding treatments for mental illnesses. Yes, of course this could help medical science whether it be to help those suffering with mental illnesses, neurological disorders, or both. But this “science fiction” turning to “science fact” really made me think of something else – What will this all really mean for people who may benefit from it?

A few years ago my mother passed away after years of suffering from a combination of Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia and Parkinson’s disease. I saw how these diseases ravaged her brain, turning an extremely intelligent, self-sufficient person into someone who could barely communicate (unable to speak to and understand others), overcome by socially inappropriate behaviors and irrational rages, unable to do basic things like eat, dress and go to the bathroom on her own.

Of course I wish she could have had an artificial brain and who knows maybe this potential miracle treatment would have saved her. But then again what would have happened to my sweet and kind mother’s personality? If her brain, barely functioning and destroyed by disease, had been replaced with this “artificial brain” would my mother, Sarah have come back the same person once this apparatus was working properly, or would she have become a completely new person who happened to be called Sarah or just a type of robot called “Sarah”? A sort of “iSarah” maybe?

This of course brings us back to the age old “mind-body problem” or the “problem of consciousness” that has baffled philosophers, scholars and now scientists for millennia. Scientists (at least those who care to think about it), these days are divided regarding this issue.  This “problem” concentrates on understanding how brain processes may also generate the complicated notion of the “self” — our thoughts and feelings, everything that makes each one of us into who we are. Many scientists seem to believe that the “self” cannot exist independently of the brain, while others believe that it is possible to think of the “self” as existing independently of the body. Conventional neuroscience though teaches us that all aspects of the “self” are simply products of the brain and the activity of its cells.

Getting back to my question, if the self arises from the electrochemical processes of the brain itself then we have a problem that I sincerely hope Professor Markam and his team have thought of. Lets think hypothetically that someone like my mother receives this artificial brain with a hope of cure, and in fact is miraculously cured of all neurological disorders. But then who would emerge from this miracle new brain? If conventional neuroscientific views are correct, then I would have to assume that it is unlikely the old Sarah would return, but maybe instead some computer-like being would take her place. If, however, the self actually exists independently of the physical body as some philosophers have claimed and hence the brain, the old Sarah would actually have to return once she received this artificial brain. At this point we don’t know of course!

How will we cope with the huge ethical dilemmas this sort of research poses? Well, I for one don’t have an answer, but I think the notion of an artificial brain has huge implications not only for medical treatment but also for the problem of consciousness, and I am fascinated to see what happens over the decades to come.  Good luck Professor Markram!

Katherine Lang

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