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Can Software Suffer? Death and Pain in Digital Brains


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One day, a copy of your brain could be replicated in a computer.

Future of Humanity Institute researcher Anders Sandberg is intrigued by the possibility whole-brain simulations can suffer pain.

Credit: BBP/EPFL 2014

The ability to digitally simulate physical systems such as the brain to avoid the ethical dilemmas of experimentation on living subjects creates new dilemmas, writes Future of Humanity Institute researcher Anders Sandberg.  

Sandberg is especially intrigued by the possibility whole-brain simulations can suffer pain, thus establishing an additional ethical quandary.  "We know brains exist for motivating actions that lead to better outcomes for the organism: this is the whole point of pain, pleasure, and planning," Sandberg says.  "If we were to make a perfect copy of the activity of a brain, we would get the same behavior, based on the same pattern of internal interactions. There is no way of telling from the outside whether it has any real experience, whatever that is."  

Sandberg suggests erring on the side of caution and morality by assuming any simulated system possesses the same mental faculties of the template organism or biological system.  "We should avoid generating virtual suffering by not running experiments that produce pain signals," he recommends.  "But we can also improve on biology, because in simulations we can (temporarily) leave out pain systems, simulate perfect side-effect-free painkillers, or just block neural activity related to suffering."

From New Scientist
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