What are the ethical issues involved in simulating a human brain and in technology derived from human brain simulation?

Building computer models of the brain may challenge our concepts of personhood, free will and personal responsibility, and the nature of consciousness. In medicine, brain simulation could make it easier to communicate with people who cannot speak (e.g. people with severe disabilities, people in a vegetative state or with locked-in syndrome) or to enhance cognitive function in people with cognitive disabilities (e.g. dementia, trauma and stroke victims, etc.).

As in other fields of science, it also possible that new knowledge about the brain will be abused – deliberately, for example to create new weapons – but also involuntarily, because society does not realize the power and consequences of new technologies.

For instance, it may be possible in the future to use knowledge about the brain to predict and modify individual behaviour, or even to irreversibly modify behaviour through electrical stimulation of the brain, pharmacology or neurosurgery. In cases of intractable mental disease, this may be desirable, but in other cases, the costs and benefits will be debatable. One example of debate is whether society should allow cognitive enhancement in healthy people.

Similar considerations apply to technology. Future computers that implement the same principles of computation and cognitive architectures as the brain have enormous potential to improve industrial productivity and offer new services to citizens. However, they could also be used to implement new systems of mass surveillance and new weaponry. If such systems came into widespread use they would undoubtedly have a huge impact on patterns of daily life and employment – this could be both beneficial and detrimental.

The Human Brain Project has many potential benefits but it also has risks. It is essential that these risks are debated – preferably a long time before they become real. This is the goal of the HBP's Ethics and Society Programme [link], which will absorb 3% of the Project's budget. One of the key goals of the programme will be to foster a lively debate on social and ethical issues within the HBP, the wider scientific community, and also with the general public.

What People are Saying

  • Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. This is our opportunity.

    Prof. Karlheinz Meier, University of Heidelberg,
    Co-leader of the Neuromorphic Computing Subproject

  • The Human Brain is the most complex system that we know of. We would like to develop some kind of ‘google' brain where we can zoom in and out, see it from different perspectives and understand how brain structure and function is related. The ultimate aim of the Human Brain Project is to understand the human brain. This is only possible when we understand the structural organization of the human brain.

    Prof. Katrin Amunts, Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine,
    Forschungszentrum Jülich

  • The Human Brain Project will become a major driver of ICT in Europe.

    Prof. Thomas Lippert, Institute for Advanced Simulation, Jülich Supercomputing Centre,
    leader of the High Peformance Computing subproject