Is Brain Emulation Dangerous?

Peter Eckersley 1  and Anders Sandberg 2
  • 1 Electronic Frontier Foundation
  • 2 Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford University Suite 1, Littlegate House 16/17 St. Ebbe’s Street, OX1 1PT, Oxford, UK


Brain emulation is a hypothetical but extremely transformative technology which has a non-zero chance of appearing during the next century. This paper investigates whether such a technology would also have any predictable characteristics that give it a chance of being catastrophically dangerous, and whether there are any policy levers which might be used to make it safer. We conclude that the riskiness of brain emulation probably depends on the order of the preceding research trajectory. Broadly speaking, it appears safer for brain emulation to happen sooner, because slower CPUs would make the technology‘s impact more gradual. It may also be safer if brains are scanned before they are fully understood from a neuroscience perspective, thereby increasing the initial population of emulations, although this prediction is weaker and more scenario-dependent. The risks posed by brain emulation also seem strongly connected to questions about the balance of power between attackers and defenders in computer security contests. If economic property rights in CPU cycles1 are essentially enforceable, emulation appears to be comparatively safe; if CPU cycles are ultimately easy to steal, the appearance of brain emulation is more likely to be a destabilizing development for human geopolitics. Furthermore, if the computers used to run emulations can be kept secure, then it appears that making brain emulation technologies ―open‖ would make them safer. If, however, computer insecurity is deep and unavoidable, openness may actually be more dangerous. We point to some arguments that suggest the former may be true, tentatively implying that it would be good policy to work towards brain emulation using open scientific methodology and free/open source software codebases

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