Bioethics Blogs

Great Suffering Software

[BioEdge] Most bioethical discourse deals with tangible, nitty-gritty situations like surrogate mothers, stem cells, abortion, assisted suicide, or palliative care.

But there is a theoretical avant garde in bioethics, too. Theoretical bioethics tries to anticipate ethical issues which could arise if advanced technology becomes available. There are always a lot of ifs – but these are what bring joy to an academic’s heart.

The other day an intriguing example appeared in the Journal of Experimental & Theoretical Artificial Intelligence. Oxford bioethicist Anders Sandberg asks whether software can suffer. If so, what are the ethics of creating, modifying and deleting it from our hard drives?

We’re all familiar with software that makes us suffer because of corrupted files and crashes. But whimpering, yelping, moaning software?

This is a bit more plausible that it sounds at first. There are at least two massive “brain mapping” projects under way. The US$1.6 billion Human Brain Project funded by the European Commission is being compared to the Large Hadron Collider in its importance. The United States has launched its own US$100 million brain mapping initiative. The idea of both projects is to build a computer model of the brain, doing for our grey matter what the Human Genome Project did for genetics.

Theoretically, the knowledge gained from these projects could be used to emulate the brains of animals and humans on computers. No one knows whether this is possible, but it is tantalising for scientists who are seeking a low-cost way to conduct animal experiments.

This implies that a being – is it too much to call it a person?

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.