“Natural” AI: On the Way to Whole Brain Emulation

09.06.2017

The concept of emulating the human brain with a computer first appeared in science fiction as a trope of “mind uploading.” Thanks to the phenomenal technological progress of late, a lot of science fiction has become actual science, and brain emulation is no exception to that trend. These days there are a myriad research initiatives intended to solve the technological and engineering tasks needed to achieve whole brain emulation (WBE). Some projects aim to aggregate the results of such research, detect global trends, encourage collaboration and determine the vectors of scientific progress. The Carboncopies foundation, where ITMO University’s Master’s student Ilya Sapranidi works as a volunteer, reviews scientific literature and research, encourages scientific collaboration and increases the awareness of academia about the risks and advantages of such technology. ITMO.NEWS has tried to find out how this unbelievable idea is slowly becoming a reality.

Back when he was studying at St. Petersburg State University, Ilya Sapranidi did research on artificial neural networks while also reading up on life extension and bioinformatics. All these topics are now being intertwined in the concept of brain emulation which is gaining more and more support among scientists worldwide. There are several major projects that aim to create a full-scale computer model of the brain for research purposes such as studies of the brain, consciousness and human behavior, as well as for purposes of translational medicine like the development of personalized approaches in preventative action, diagnosis and treatment of nervous system disorders. The biggest of such projects in Europe is the Human Brain Project; the USA’s biggest is the BRAIN Initiative. Similar research is also conducted in Japan and China.


Image from motion picture “Ex Machina”

Non-profit foundation Carboncopies, where Ilya has applied to about a year ago as a volunteer, is reviewing scientific articles on the technologies required for brain emulation, such as: computational neuroscience, neuroprosthetics, artificial general intelligence and brain scanning. Carboncopies intends to organize conferences and seminars in order to stimulate interdisciplinary discourse of this concept from various points of view. The organization is based in California, fittingly, as this is the place where the most interest towards transhumanism is shown.

“A significant article entitled “Whole Brain Emulation: A Roadmap”, authored by two well-known futurologists and scientists Anders Sandberg and Nick Bostrom, was published in 2008. They were the first to collect and analyze the scientific achievements in the field of brain emulation. Our team’s main task is to update the data in that article according to the progress made during the last decade. The next stage for us is the creation of a full-fledged technological roadmap that will represent our long-term vision of this technology and the possible scenarios for its adoption,” – explains Ilya Sapranidi.

There are several hypotheses for how scientists can accomplish “mind uploading.” One way is to create a computer simulation by modeling the brain’s working processes on a supercomputer or a “neuromorphic” computer. Another is to employ neuroprosthetics – to gradually replace certain parts of a brain in order to create a wholly new, “robotized” organ. Regardless of the chosen method, before testing scientists will need to find answers to a great deal of questions regarding the nature of consciousness, such as the well-known paradox of whether or not a person survives when copied. No laws or principles that are currently known would directly prohibit research in this field, but if they are ever discovered, it would mean that the approach needs to be changed.


Ray Kurzweil’s model of technological evolution. Credit: ichip.ru

“I’m in charge of the “Neurotechnology” section of our new article, which will include projects in the fields of neural interfaces and neural prosthetics – like Elon Musk’s highly publicized Neuralink project that aims to create a “neural lace” – a brain-machine interface with a high bandwidth capacity that would collect information from the brain cortex. Musk’s long-time motivation is human-machine symbiosis which is needed to ensure that human cognitive abilities are not surpassed by those of the first artificial general intelligence. Another interesting project in which our founder, neuroscientist Randal Koene, is involved is the Kernel project. It intends to use the research conducted by Ted Berger of South California University in his work on hippocampus prosthesis to develop a neuroimplant that could restore lost cognitive functions,” – shares Mr. Sapranidi.

Many Hollywood films and sci-fi books have been made based on the idea of “mind uploading,” most of them dystopian in nature. However, Ilya Sapranidi believes that if humanity manages to avoid the influence of several key socioeconomic factors related to a sudden prevalence of brain emulation, it could radically transform our future and help us solve a wide range of existential problems, from climate change and overpopulation to space travel and colonization. It is known that humans have evolved in an environment suitable for their habitation. At this stage, Earth is the only place in the universe that can support human life. When people will begin settling on other planets, they will always have to bring a part of Earth’s biosphere with them so as to ensure their survival. To save resources, proponents of mind uploading propose to modify the human body, including the brain, to make it more resistant to hostile environments.


Ilya Sapranidi

“There’s no point in making predictions on when such hypothetical technology may become available, but I am inclined to agree with the scientists who believe that brain emulation will only become possible in a very distant future. Of course, it’s more reasonable to focus on more relevant issues in the near term, but I’m also convinced that there needs to be a global vision that would lead us to a certain scientific goal. However, work on whole brain emulation can also contribute to a great many other fields of science, and it will definitely prompt the invention of other, auxiliary technologies. For example, computer simulation is now widely used for experimentation in, say, engineering, but it is far less widespread in medicine. Still, a major growth in the field of medical simulation is soon to be expected; it will allow us to replace expensive and dangerous clinical testing in neurology with computer simulation and, I hope, help us better understand and even cure Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, depression and other cognitive disorders,” – concludes Ilya Sapranidi.

In his Master’s thesis for the program “Technological Entrepreneurship and Innovations” at the Faculty of Technological Management and Innovations, Ilya evaluates the viability of using innovative entrepreneurship in the implementation of projects that serve as part of the roadmap for brain emulation technology. According to Mr. Sapranidi, it is the modern format of for-profit innovative entrepreneurship in the form of small innovative enterprises and startups that can serve as the main growth driver in implementation of brain emulation technology. The study indicates the potential venues for commercialization and market growth drivers; it also makes a prediction on which innovative startups with potential to make a contribution to brain emulation technology are likely to appear on the market in the near future.

In the recent years, whole brain emulation has been accepted as the primary goal of research in computational neuroscience and, as a consequence, there is a stable increase of interest in brain emulation in both academia and the industry. The number of projects that need to be evaluated and integrated into the general strategy grows with each day, which is why the Carboncopies foundation offers all those who care about the future of the human brain to join the ranks of their volunteer researchers.


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