Against Whole Brain Emulation

Against Whole Brain Emulation

Hi, I'm Tim Tyler - and today I will be discussing the viability of plans to construct intelligent machines by using techniques based on whole brain emulation.

Whole Brain Emulation

I've previously discussed the idea of building on human foundations in my Angelic Foundations essay.

Many researchers appear to agree with my assessment that the human blueprint is an unsuitable foundation for development - but some of them think that building on the human brain is a good idea.

The human brain has been a big factor in the progress of civilisation to date. However, it seems to me that it is an extremely poor quality component - and will probably be among the first to be made redundant by engineering and intelligent design.

In my view, the human brain is just as unmaintainable as most other structures cobbled together by random mutations and natural selection are. The effort required to duplicate its functionality in another substrate would be enormous. Other ways of constructing intelligent machines will arrive well before it becomes feasible - at which point few will be interested in pursuing organic brain emulation further - in much the same way that few are interested in building aeroplanes with flapping wings.


First of all, let us hear from some of the proponents of the idea of basing the architecture of intelligent machines on the same pattern as is used by the human brain.

Here is IBM's Dharmendra Modha:

[Dharmendra Modha footage]

Here Ray Kurzweil:

[Ray Kurzweil footage]

The position I am going to criticise is that whole brain emulation is a probable route to the construction of intelligent machines. The idea is that we will effectively be able to scan an individual human's brain - and then boot it up in cyberspace - before other routes to intelligent machines become viable.

This is an extreme position. The general idea of using the brain for clues which might help with constructing intelligent machines is a much more moderate and defensible position - and I don't see much of a problem with it.

However, here Anders Sandberg on the topic of how whole brain emulation might work:

[Anders Sandberg footage]

Why consider such an idea? According to the proponents, the alternatives have less predictable timescales. Here is Robin Hanson, explaining the perspective:

[Robin Hanson footage - why reject classical approaches?]

It is true that we do not know exactly how long it will take to engineer machine intelligence. However, it seems pretty clear to me that the task will be much simpler than booting up an emulation of a human brain.

Here is Robin Hanson explaining the whole brain emulation approach:

[Robin Hanson footage - the basic idea]

One of the advantages of whole brain emulation is that the resulting product has already been trained - and does not need to be taken through a long and complicated process of education.

Having said that, such training is only time-consuming for real-world robot controllers. If your training data is on the internet, or in a virtual world somewhere, training can often be done at high speed - thus reducing training times dramatically.

Another of the advantages of whole brain emulation is that we may not need to understand the macro-structure of the brain in order to reproduce its functionality - since that structure can be copied from a mature human brain using a scanning process. Here is Robin Hanson explaining that point:

[Robin Hanson footage - like a CPU emulation]


Alas, I do not think that the analogy between moving a brain to a new computing substrate and porting a computer program to a different architecture through emulation in a virtual machine is a particularly good intuition pump in this case.

In the case of porting a computer program to a new architecture by using an emulator, most of the complexity lies in what is being ported across - and not in the emulator - else you wouldn't bother with building an emulator in the first place.

If you are building a human brain emulator, the situation is pretty different - as the macrostructure of the brain is mostly produced by a process involving self-organisation of the microstructure elements, in conjunction with the environment. In the brain, most of the complexity comes from the microstructure, and from the environment, rather than directly from the organisation of the macrostructure. Also, in a brain, there is not really a natural split between the program and its execution environment - brain hardware and software are muddled together.

Biological inspiration

A more general argument can be made - concerning the extent to which engineered structures are usually heavily inspired by biology. This also weighs against whole brain emulation.

The most commonly-given example is that of flight. Engineers did not learn how to fly by scanning and copying birds. Nature may have provided a proof of the concept, and inspiration - but it didn't provide the details the engineeres actually used. A bird is not much like a propellor-driven aircraft, a jet aircraft or a helicopter.

The argument applies across many domains. Water filters are not scanned kidneys. The hoover dam is not a scan of a beaver dam. Solar panels are not much like leaves. Humans do not tunnel much like moles do. Submarines do not closely resemble fish. From this perspective, it would be very strange if machine intelligence was much like human intelligence.

Economic considerations

So far, machines have mostly complemented humans - compensating for their weaknesses. The first powerful machine intelligences will probably arise from domains where they complement human intelligence - under the influence of economic pressures to avoid competing directly with humans.

Nor do other economic forces favour whole brain emulation. The brain-scanning process gives you a fleshy-robot controller - which you then have to find a body for - either in a real or a virtual world. If you look at the organisations best placed to fund and develop intelligent machines - search engine companies, hedge fund managers, the NSA, and so on, then typically, they don't want a human-sized intelligent agent, but rather something enormous with super-human abilities.

Whole brain emulation is a technology which doesn't work - and so which has no applications. That is not a situation likely to promote funding or research.

Other issues

The brain's design is awful. Tell a telephone engineer that he must connect callers directly to each other with point-to-point cable connections, and he will laugh at you and tell you that such a system would never scale - and that you should read up on how voice over IP works.

Humans like to enslave their machines. If machines are people, how is that going to work? It isn't. Who is going to buy a toilet-cleaning robot that says that its ambition is to emigrate to Australia and become a TV star? No one is.

Humans seem unlikely to stomach the idea of machines being people initially. They will not allow them equal rights and opportunities under law - and they will not allow them to vote. Rather there will probably be an apartheid situation. The machines and robots will be second-class citizens - and the humans will eventually come to act like parasites upon them. Such a situation is likely to prolong the viability of humans - thus allowing for a smoother transition where there is a reduced chance of important things being lost.

Nor are human minds particularly friendly or safe to be around. They get angry and aggressive too easily. The last thing humans will want to have around are intelligent machines that have pychotic breaks.

So: aside from all the other problems, whole brain emulation is not a safe route to intelligent machines.

Frankly, whole brain emulation seems like such a ridiculous joke to me that I have difficulty understanding why it has produced as much interest as it has.

A public relations exercise

My impression is that the concept of whole brain emulation is primarily a public relations exercise. IBM's involvement seems to be an attempt to reproduce the kind of publicity they obtained with Deep Blue. Ray Kurzweil is a kind of cheerleader for high technology, who promotes its benefits to the general public.

I can certainly imagine how the public might prefer to hear that they will be able to upload their personalities into the matrix, when the time comes - rather than having intelligent machines take their jobs and leaving them redundant.

However, it seems to me that the credibility gap is very large here - such a scenario is simply unbelievable - and I wonder whether people are going to be taken in by it for very much longer.



  1. IF UPLOADS COME FIRST - The crack of a future dawn;
  2. Whole Brain Emulation: A Roadmap;
  3. On Parallelism;

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