One day we will create virtual minds. Could they feel pain, asks Anders Sandberg of the Future of Humanity Institute

Digital mind: one day a copy of your brain could be replicated in a computer
Digital mind: one day a copy of your brain could be replicated in a computer

A human brain model overlaid with a stylised network of neurons, copyright BBP/EPFL 2014

I turned off the computer as I left my office, deleting the neural network simulation that I had been working on. Then a thought hit me: had I just killed something? I rationalised that the simulation was simpler than the systems within the bacteria I was doubtlessly squashing on the floor. If they did not matter, neither did it. But the doubt remained…

SCIENCE has a problem. If we want to find out what really happens in living beings, or how to cure diseases, often we must experiment on them. Digital simulations offer a way out.

Ever since the squid giant axon was modelled in the 1950s using a mechanical calculator, our ability to simulate biological systems has skyrocketed. Today we can run neural simulations on supercomputers …

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