The ethics of brain transplants and immortality

20 March 2012

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Technological advances are beginning to blur the boundaries between humans and machines. So, what are some of the ethical dimensions of attempts to use technology to intervene in the brain and brain function? Here, James Martin Fellow Dr Stuart Armstrong reflects on some of the implications of a Russian scientist's idea to preserve human consciousness in a robot's body.

Dmitry Itskov, a 31-year-old Russian media mogul, has started a ten-year project to transplant human brains into robots for his "Avatar" project. Ultimately, he hopes to upload human minds into digital format - somehow.

I was interviewed by the "Voice of Russia" radio station on the moral and ethical implications of this development. At the Future of Humanity Institute, we take the potential for these developments very seriously, no matter how optimistic this particular plan sounded. So what are the ethical implications of immortality and brain transplants?

There are of course many tricky issues around this, and philosophers can - and have - debated them for hours and days and years. But to us it seems that achieving the long-standing human yearning for immortality will have relatively... little effect. Society will adapt, people will construct new norms, some religious messages will be modified, little will ultimately change. The real danger comes in the second half of Dmitry's plan: uploading humans to digital format. If this becomes possible, then human minds can be copied at will, digitally modified, rewound, played back, forked into different identities, recovered from backups, and so on. Our current society, focused so strongly on personal and individual identity, has nothing that will prepare it and us for such a transformation.

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Stuart Armstrong’s research at the Future of Humanity Institute centres on formal decision theory, the risks and possibilities of Artificial Intelligence, the long term potential for intelligent life, and anthropic (self-locating) probability.