Synthetic Brains and Identity

What if you replaced all the neurons in your brain with artificial neurons? How would this change you? In this short film, Dr. William Newsome explores the idea of brain transplants and artificial identities.
  • Date Published

    February 4, 2019

2:20

Imagine if you could remove a single neuron from your brain and replace it with an artificial neuron that would mimic the original neuron’s activity. Would you still be inherently you? What if you replaced all the neurons in your brain with artificial neurons? How would this change you? In this short film, Dr. William Newsome explores the idea of brain transplants and artificial identities.

Featured Scholars:
Dr. William Newsome is an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and professor of neurobiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Newsome was appointed to lead the Obama administration’s BRAIN initiative to map the brain’s 100 billion neurons and trillions of connections.

Synthetic Brains and Identity

Featuring Dr. William Newsome

Video Transcript:

(transcripción en español, aquí abajo)

Dr. William Newsome: A brain transplant, if it were possible, is the only transplant surgery where you’d rather be the donor than the recipient. You have to think about that one for a minute. So, if I get a new heart, I’m still me. If I get new lungs or if I get a new prosthetic leg, I’m still me. But if I get a new brain inside this head and this brain goes off someplace else, what is me?

Let’s imagine that we can take one neuron out of my brain, and we could replace it with a little artificial neuron made of silicon or something, and that artificial neuron mimics the function of the natural neuron in all ways that we can measure. So, it has the same 1,000 connections with the same strength. That neuron has the ability to change its synaptic connection weights with the other neurons as a function of learning, the way the natural neuron does. And then the question is, if I have all but a hundred billion neurons are natural and the one is artificial, am I still me?

And I think the answer, obviously, is yes. Then you just keep doing that experiment. You keep replacing them one at a time. A hundred billion neurons replacements later, you have a completely in silicon brain, and would that brain be conscious? Would that brain be human? Would that brain be Bill in a real, deep, meaningful sense of the word? I think the answer’s yes. I don’t think there’s anything magical about carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen as building blocks. What’s magical is the way those elements are hooked together, the way that they’re organized, and the information-processing capabilities that get endowed by virtue of that high-level organization.

 

Los cerebros sintéticos y la identidad

Dr. William Newsome: Un trasplante cerebral, si fuese posible, es la única cirugía de trasplante en la cual preferirías ser el donante más bien que el que lo recibe. Hace falta detenerse a pensar en eso por un minuto. Así que, si me ponen un corazón nuevo, todavía soy yo. Si me ponen pulmones nuevos o una pierna protésica, todavía soy yo. Pero si me ponen un cerebro nuevo dentro de esta cabeza, y este cerebro se va a otro lugar, ¿qué soy yo?

Imaginemos que pudiéramos sacar una neurona de mi cerebro, y la pudiéramos reemplazar con una pequeña neurona artificial hecha de silicón o algo así, y que esa neurona artificial imite la función de la neurona natural en toda forma que seamos capaces de medir. Así que tiene las mismas 1,000 conexiones con la misma fuerza. Esa neurona tiene la capacidad de cambiar el peso de sus conexiones sinápticas con las otras neuronas como una función del aprendizaje, de la forma como lo hace la neurona natural. Entonces, la pregunta es, si tengo cien mil millones de neuronas naturales y una artificial, ¿sigo siendo yo?

Y pienso que la respuesta, obviamente, es que sí. Y luego continúas con ese experimento. Los sigues reemplazando uno a la vez. Después de reemplazar cien mil millones de neuronas, tienes un cerebro completamente ‘in silico.’ ¿Y estaría consciente ese cerebro? ¿Sería humano ese cerebro? ¿Sería ese cerebro Bill en el sentido real, profundo, significativo de la palabra? Creo que la respuesta es sí. No creo que hay nada mágico en el carbono, nitrógeno, hidrógeno y oxígeno como componentes básicos. Lo que es mágico es la manera en que esos elementos están conectados, la manera en que están organizados, y la capacidad de procesamiento de información que se confieren mediante esa organización a un nivel muy alto.

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