browser icon
You are using an insecure version of your web browser. Please update your browser!
Using an outdated browser makes your computer unsafe. For a safer, faster, more enjoyable user experience, please update your browser today or try a newer browser.


Posted by on 12/03/2018

“Death may be the greatest of all human blessings” – Socrates

Flavia D’Annunzio explains in this intriguing article the practice of whole brain emulation. Can this practice tell us what it is to be human? And what are its specific ethical and epistemological challenges? Philosophy at its best!



Whole Brain Emulation: Basic notions

Whole Brain Emulation (WBE), often referred to as mind or brain upload or mind transfer, consists in scanning the mental state and memory of a brain and transferring it in digital form onto a computer, which would then run a simulation model of the information present in the scanned brain. The copy of the brain would respond and process information in an identical way to the original brain (Sotaj & Valpola, 1). While completely hypothetical, this process could potentially grant a conscious mind to a machine.


In order for WBE to function, there must be four stages: “scanning the brain, translating the scan into a model which is then run into a computer, and finally to simulate an environment and body” (Eth et al 130). Ultimately, WBE would allow the “translated mind” to emulate the neurophysiological and neuroanatomical details of the original brain to such a high level of precision that it would behave exactly like a person (131). Many have pondered on the possible benefits of mind-uploading; for instance, a significant growth in the labour force, both in its numbers and its strengths, as conscious machines could constitute a helping hand in businesses such as manufacturing, the service sector, and so forth. (131) However, and more significantly, there are a number of philosophical implications of mind uploading – for instance, regarding the benefit of creating an eternal legacy for an individual, granting practical immortality, and challenging religious concepts of the afterlife and what our idea of being human is (131).


Currently, there are many challenges standing in the way of the realization of WBE, some of a purely technical and scientific nature, others ethical and moral. The greatest technical obstacle standing in the way of WBE is represented by the process of uploading the scanned brain onto a computer; as it stands, the existing brain scanning technologies are simply not capable of maintaining the “scanned brain” intact during the transferring process (133). While the technology available is not yet capable of supporting WBE, however, it may soon be. Therefore it is necessary to consider the ethical questions surrounding this process.


This essay will examine the consequences of WBE for our concept of human dignity, our concept of humanity itself, and for society at large. Regarding this final topic, it will focus especially on who can expect to have access to WBE, and what cyborgs’ status in society may look like.


Transhumanism vs. Bio Conservatism

The ongoing debate between Transhumanists[1] and their opponents, often referred to as bio-conservatives concerns philosophy and religion, and, most importantly human nature and our vision of the human future (Checketts 1). Transhumanists claim that “human beings should use the tools of science and technology to enhance themselves beyond what is biologically natural” (2), while bio-conservatives argue that doing so would endanger human rights and take away human dignity (2). The notion of human dignity is the focal arguing point of those who oppose to WBE; Transhumanists, however, argue that this notion must be extended to the post-human, too, claiming dignity shall be granted to cyborgs, the so-called “enhanced humans”, as “humanity has no reason to be bounded”(3).


The concept of human dignity, then, must be defined. Francis Fukuyama famously defined human dignity through “Factor X”, as he considers dignity as an “essential human quality […] that is worthy of a certain minimal level of respect”(Fukuyama 170); he further claims that we consider dignity as a central aspect of being human, among factors such as rationality, the possession of moral choice, language, emotions, and consciousness (171). Fukuyama describes Factor X as the ensemble of all these qualities, suggesting that Factor X is worthy of dignity, and entails a need to preserve the natural biology of the human genome for future generations (171). If we consider Fukuyama’s Factor X from the Transhumanist perspective, morphological changes to the human body (in this case, the transfer of a copy of the brain into a machine) directly violates Factor X and “distorts elements of being human like emotion […] [as well as] violating human dignity in a profound way” (172). Fukuyama, analogously to those who oppose to WBE, claims that an uploaded mind is a “natural transgression”, thus infringing human dignity (Checketts 4).


The dilemma surrounding WBE and the possibility of dignity for cyborgs ultimately boils down to a deeper question: what does it mean to be a person? What is our understanding of what it means to be a human being, and how does it fit in the current scientific paradigm? Is our definition of being human outdated? Many are concerned that uploading a mind onto a machine “crosses important moral boundaries regarding the status of being a person” (Checketts 2). Prominent Bio-conservationist Nicholas Agar believes that WBE is “ontologically impossible”, and defined it as a “novel way to commit suicide” (2). Most opponents emphasise that creating immortal beings makes humans drift away from nature, and we would simply start “creating disembodied monsters with no material origins” (3). Since a successful WBE process would translate a brain pattern into a machine, many in favour of the process define human identity as a simple brain pattern, analogous to how a poem, whether written on stone or paper, holds the same meaning and significance (3). Instead, Transhumanists argue that the presence of enhanced humans, and, in this case WBE, would ensure that dignity is respected and enforced as a basic right.


We may for now conclude that technology such as WBE calls for a careful reconsideration of our notion of humanity. Human and machine, or a machine with a human mind, in this case, have rapidly become the focal point of discussion for several philosophical fields and disciplines, fuelling a compelling debate on the very nature of humans.



The new frontier of digital immortality

The transfer of a mind would challenge two very important components of being human: our notions of the self and of mortality. Supposedly, if mind X is copied onto a machine, it would imply that self X is transferred, too. If the self is transferred and “functioning” through a machine, the machine would technically grant that self immortality. The idea of a conscious machine that has a self and is, ultimately, immortal is perhaps the one that leads to a reconsideration of the notion of humans. WBE and similar technological advancements pose intriguing questions on the divide between nature and technology – if it can be maintained that there is one – and what it implies for the human future.


Mortality is often seen as a condition of being human; regardless of ethnicity, identity, and differences among humans, the fact that all humans will eventually die is our common ground. The awareness of death in itself is “a central motivating force behind human activity” (Linssen & Lemmens 1). Humans are conscious about the limited time they are given on Earth, and creating a legacy is often a reassuring thought to combat the so-called “death anxiety”(1). WBE emulation would not only offer a legacy, but essentially defy mortality through a disembodiment of the self. As a species, humans present a rather unique case: part natural and part cultural beings, we express thoughts according to our identities, our cultures, and our self-consciousness (Moravec 12). But despite metaphysical concepts such as the self and identity, humans remain “trapped” in the human body; WBE would, however, abolish the divide between nature and technology by eliminating our bodily form (Linssen & Lemmens 2).


One must ask the question: is the awareness of our mortality part of what makes us human? While many long for immortality and death anxiety affects every human during their lifespan, the prospect of having a limited amount of time and being aware of the inescapability of death may be a crucial component of our humanity. What makes us human, many argue, is not our mortality – it is our awareness of our mortality that distinguishes us as a species (Huberman 4).


If the awareness of mortality is indeed important for our humanity, then the possibility of transferring the self onto a machine that lives on forever not only eradicates death anxiety, it also alters the nature of our existence. By becoming immortal, we are no longer in fear of death and leaving the world; we no longer live in the same manner as we would when aware of our limited time on Earth. Creating a legacy, then, is no longer necessary or reassuring. When a person reaches immortality, she is her own legacy.


In the transhumanist scheme, the continuity of the self and its immortality is ensured through codes, and information preserved in the form of digital data; the essential components of personhood are then less concerned with genetic material and more with codes, computers, data (5). It is this drift away from nature that, perhaps, creates such rejection of ideas of immortality through a machine; and it is perhaps for analogous reasons that many pop-culture movies and series, such as Black Mirror, portray the possibility of immortality as leading to nothing more than machines hungry for power, always constructed as antagonists to humans, who are presented as the natural, pure form of life. The creation of avatars or cyborgs with a human mind would then, perhaps, raise the question: are technology and nature doomed to be forever separate, the antithesis of one another? Or would they rather breach the divide between the two spheres, creating a post-human world in which biological and technological features fuse to create something new, unexpected, that challenges the essence of all we have ever known about humanity and life itself? To gain some insight into these questions, we must examine the practical consequences of this technology for society at large.



2045 Initiative: the cost of immortality

While the promise of immortality through the afterlife that many religions provide is free, buying digital immortality will soon be possible – and rather expensive. The project “2045 Strategic Social Initiative” launched by Dmitry Itskov, aims to bring together scientists and researchers with the objective of “enabling the transfer of an individual’s personality to a more advanced non-biological carrier […] extending life […] to the point of immortality” (4). When visiting the website for the project, the user is invited to push the “Immortality Button”; the website then proceeds to explain that the human body is obsolete, as it decays and limits the development of our planet (“2045”). The 2045 initiative aims at transferring the human mind onto a custom-made avatar; the user can choose between three sets of different avatars (some partially humans, some entirely machines) and promises the customer immortality. The conditions to apply for such products, which are estimated to be delivered within the next 20 to 40 years, consist of: being at least 18 years of age, being aware of the legal aspects of the project, and disposing of $3m dollars to pay for the finished product (“2045”).


Project 2045 offers a window into the potential commodification of mind upload and its implementation in society. So far, one can make two observations; notably, that the price makes the product inaccessible to the vast majority of the world population, and that this would inevitably lead to the creation of an immortal elite of cyborgs. The question would then be – where do those cyborgs stand in the hierarchy of human society? As the exclusivity of the price suggests, there is a high chance they may be above ‘mortal humans’. A divide between the two categories would then call for a re-thinking of the structuring and stratification of society as we know it today.


Immortal cyborgs and the quest for a place in the world

Several supporters of the Transhumanist movements argue that what makes us human is not the body, but rather the mind; flesh decays, the bodily functions slow down, and our physical body is “peripheral to personhood” (Huberman 7). The prediction is that a societal shift will take place, where “mind-centrism” will become the norm, and a fluctuation from the religious or spiritual to the scientific will take place (9). Immortality would become optional rather than the norm – immortality is no longer symbolic (for instance, the Christian heaven), but tangible, concrete, and extremely technical and scientific (10). Mortality is, however, one of the crucial aspects of societal and cultural organization of humans; dealing with the idea of death affects the way humans decide to live, as we have pointed out above. The possibility of immortality, then, gives new meaning to life.


The creation of immortal avatars would imply a collapse of the barrier between man and technology, spirituality and science, and natural and artificial, but would not provide those cyborgs with a definite place in society (226). Since they cannot be traditionally categorised or defined, they are left “lingering in an ontological and legal limbo” (226). The presence of avatars would not only destabilise the societal order, but raise questions on how to define personhood. A perhaps more traditional definition is offered by Locke, as he claimed:


“A person is a thinking intelligent being that has reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking, and, as it seems to me, essential to it”. (Locke 12)


This definition of a person emphasises consciousness and self-awareness as the two main features of humanness, as well as individuality and uniqueness. Consciousness, which is strongly dependent on memory and identity of the individual, would surely be present in an avatar that possesses a human brain through mind-uploading. In Locke’s view, the continuity of consciousness functions thanks to past, present, and future actions undertaken by the individual (Franceschi 227). Locke’s definition does not emphasise the need for a “preservation and continuity of substance”; if the person is separated from the body, the idea of the person would immediately continue in the new “body”, in this case, an avatar. One possible scenario, then, would be avatars being regarded as ‘legal personae’, yet not as human beings anymore. A cyborg with a human mind may qualify as a legal persona, and yet no longer be considered a human being (227).


While one cannot accurately predict the reactions towards avatars and machines, the genre of science fiction can be used as a medium to predict so; for instance, in most sci-fi movies avatars, even if possessing a human mind through mind-upload, cyborgs are regarded as disposable and commodifiable, and most importantly as radically different from those possessing the biological human body (228). These differences are not only irreconcilable, but create a profound dichotomy between human and non-human. There is a general tendency to feel sceptical towards, if not threatened by the idea of technology mixing with nature, and while “the malleability of the human corporeality provides a space for human creativity and ambitions” the notion of experimenting with the human body is closely linked to political and military force (Duante & Park 260).


Despite the Transhumanist claim that cyborgs would be at the centre of the post-human society, one must consider that the manipulation of the human body to achieve immortality, as the 2045 initiative shows, cannot be afforded by a large portion of society; in that case, cyborgs would simply be a minority living at the margins, because regardless of their financial status, they would be deemed as ‘different’ and ‘unnatural’, which perpetuates a dichotomy between human and non-human.



Mortality is a condition we are aware of our whole lives; growing up we rapidly recognise that nature is a cycle, and life and death constitute two different sides of the same existential coin. Yet humans are a unique species, one that is conscious and intelligent, and creates tools that help live their lives in a more comfortable way. Most importantly, humans love to compromise; death is perhaps the sole issue where it is impossible to do so. While there are several coping mechanisms or “ways to compromise” with death, such as a religious or spiritual aftermath, the prospect of actual immortality has always been hypothetical. When it may become a reality, we ought to be ready to answer the question: would we want to be immortal? And most importantly, at which conditions? Are we willing to surrender part of our “humanity” for the sake of eternal life?


WBE’s realisation has been predicted to be possible in the next 40 years, raising questions on humanness, human dignity, conscientiousness, and bridging the eternal divide between nature and technology. This scenario might soon be a tangible reality that will shift the world and societal order as we know it and lead to a re-definition of what constitutes a human being. Projects such as the 2045 strongly suggest that commodifying cyborgs, eternal life, and enhanced bodies are an equivalent of offering plastic surgery services; while not affordable for everyone, these services allow us to modify the human body, although to a much smaller scale than project 2045 offers. Despite the general negativity concerning the alteration of the human body in favour of machines, and the many possible ways in which bodies would be commodified and only available to a small elite, the prospect of longer if not endless life remains interesting and disturbing at the same time.


Perhaps, it is simply not up to us to change this secular cycle. Perhaps, this time, we cannot compromise.




Checketts, Levi. “New Technologies – Old Anthropologies?” Religions, vol. 8, no. 4, 2017, p. 52., doi:10.3390/rel8040052.

Locke, John. “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.” The Clarendon Edition of the Works of John Locke: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Jan. 1690, pp. 1–1., doi:10.1093/oseo/instance.00018020.

Duarte, Barbara Nascimento, and Enno Park. “Body, Technology and Society: a Dance of Encounters.” NanoEthics, vol. 8, no. 3, Feb. 2014, pp. 259–261., doi:10.1007/s11569-014-0211-0

Eth, Daniel, et al. “The Prospects of Whole Brain Emulation within the next Half- Century.”Journal of Artificial General Intelligence, vol. 4, no. 3, Jan. 2013, doi:10.2478/jagi-2013-0008.

Eth, Daniel, et al. “The Prospects of Whole Brain Emulation within the next Half- Century.”Journal of Artificial General Intelligence, vol. 4, no. 3, Jan. 2013, doi:10.2478/jagi-2013-0008.

Eth, Daniel, et al. “The Prospects of Whole Brain Emulation within the next Half- Century.”Journal of Artificial General Intelligence, vol. 4, no. 3, Jan. 2013, doi:10.2478/jagi-2013-0008.

Franceschi, Valeria. “‘Are You Alive?” Issues and Personhood of Organic Artificial Intelligence.” Palemos, vol. 6, no. 2, 2012, doi:10.1515/pol-2012-0014.

Fukuyama, Francis. Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. London, Profile, 2003.

Huberman, Jenny. “Immortality Transformed: Mind Cloning, Transhumanism and the Quest for Digital Immortality.” Mortality, Apr. 2017.

Linsen, Charl, and Pieter Lemmens. “Embodiment in Whole-Brain Emulation and Its Implications for Death Anxiety.” Journal of Evolution and Technology, vol. 26, no. 2, July 2016, pp. 1–15.

Sotala, Kaj, and Harri Valpola. “Coalescing Minds: Brain Uploading-Related Group Mind Scenarios.” International Journal of Machine Consciousness, vol. 04, no. 01, 2012, pp. 293–312., doi:10.1142/s1793843012400173.

Transcendence. Mondadori, 2014.

Vicini, Andrea, and Agnes M. Brazal. “Longing for Transcendence: Cyborgs and Trans- and Posthumans.” Theological Studies, vol. 76, no. 1, 2015, pp. 148–165., doi:10.1177/0040563914565308.

“2045 Initiative.” 2045 Initiative, Accessed 2 June 2017.

Owen, Valerie M. “Mind Children-The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence by Hans Moravec Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1988, 205 PP Index (£14.95).” Robotica, vol. 7, no. 04, 1989, p. 366., doi:10.1017/s026357470000686x.

[1] Transhumanism is an intellectual and cultural movement premised upon the idea that human beings can use science and technology to significantly enhance their capabilities and thereby overcome many of the limitations of human biology. (Huberman 1)




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *