One topic that was discussed was whole brain emulation, the idea of a software model of a specific brain that, run on the appropriate hardware, would produce functionality essentially identical to the original brain. Despite the irrational optimism of some of the folks interviewed, this is fascinating stuff. I think it's plausible but not definitely possible2, but in any case it is cool to think about if only for the ethical and existential implications.
What caught my eye was the lack of any ethical discussion of the following proposition:
Randal Koene, a neuroscientist at the European technology firm Fatronik-Tecnalia...offered some reasons for why anyone would want to work so hard to make a whole brain emulation in the first place. Even if it behaved like a generic human brain rather than my or your brain in particular, scientists could still use it to run marvelous new experiments. They might test drugs for depression, Parkinson's and other disorders.
Woah, hold them horses just a minute. There's a potentially huge ethical problem with this proposition.
Depending on the accuracy of the simulation, it is quite conceivable that this "generic human brain" would experience suffering just as meaningfully as a real human brain. In fact, the more perfect the simulation, the less appropriate it is to compare the experience analogously, and the more appropriate it is to consider the experiences identical.
The best and most recent research indicates that consciousness is a product of the interaction of the various components of our brain. If each of those components were emulated to a high degree, and the emulations allowed to interact, there is no non-supernatural explanation for why the emulations would not also produce a "conscious being" on the same level as you or me. To then subject this conscious being to experimentation without consent or any regard for possible damage or suffering, just because it is "a generic human brain rather than my or your brain in particular," would be ethically on par with creating embryos with a "generic" human genome, letting them be born and develop to adolescence (!) and then performing medical experiments on them arguing that they are just a "a generic human rather than me or you in particular." In other words, an ethical and moral disaster.
A rather surprising irony arises from the word "non-supernatural" in the previous paragraph. All of these grave ethical concerns about experimenting on generic whole brain emulations get neatly swept under the rug if you accept the ludicrous concept of "ensoulment". These "generic human brains" don't actually have free will or experience suffering, because Jeebus never reached down and put a baby soul inside them, right? So experiment away, and be damned with the "suffering" of these mindless machines!
We could envision a future where, much like some theists today oppose stem cell research because their belief in ensoulment precludes them from rationally evaluating whether a clump of undifferentiated cells can be meaningfully referred to as "human", future nontheists might oppose "whole brain emulation research", while theists support it because, inversely, their belief in ensoulment precludes them from rationally evaluating whether a perfect emulation of consciousness can be meaningfully referred to as "human".
I find this to be a fascinating potential role reversal. Of course, there are similar issues today (e.g. you sometimes hear theistic justifications to ignore issues about treatment of animals, since beasts don't have a "soul") but the strong parallels to stem cell research -- with the roles simply reversed -- makes this an issue worth pondering.
1I know nobody is going to believe this, but the reason I get Playboy is that my wife secretly subscribed us to it so she could read the articles. Just like the old commercial, right! Except we soon discovered that Playboy's heyday of publishing edgy fiction and high-quality thought-provoking opinion pieces was long gone. It's just a mediocre-to-poor men's magazine now. Of course, we already paid for the subscription, and despite an irritating and slow-to-change misogynist undertone to the whole magazine, many of the articles are at least good enough to make for sufficient bathroom reading material... so that's how I came upon this.
2Why might whole brain emulation be impossible? Well, there could be some subtlety of brain functionality that we are missing, which makes the problem far more complex than we currently imagine (though current advances in neuroscience are making this seem less and less likely every day). On the technology side, Moore's Law will not necessarily hold forever. Actually, it won't hold forever -- "I would've gotten away with it too, if it weren't for you meddling fundamental laws of physics!" -- so the question is just whether or not it will hold for long enough. Even at present, it looks like we are nearing the practical speed limit for a single-threaded processor (Moore's Law continues to hold because of increasing parallelization, but who's to say that whole brain emulation wouldn't require some rip-roaring fast serial process?). Of course, logically an artificial brain must be possible, since there's nothing supernatural involved in "natural" brains, but it may turn out that doing it with computing technology as we presently understand it is a pipe dream. I'm guessing it will be possible after all, but this is anything but a slam dunk.