Is society moving towards a future where people will be able to replace their biological neurons with computer chips or artificial neurons? Some researchers think that having implantable neural prostheses may be just around the corner. This currently science fiction scenario may actually not be that far off. There has been a continuing development of neural prostheses that are implantable in the brain. This type of implant will signal in a totally new era in bioengineering and also neuroscience research. Researchers have increasinglly made better intracranial implants of devices that are able to communicate with the brain. They can be used for a variety of brain disorders in order to restore either motor, sensory or cognitive functions.
In the future, neuromorphic chips may eventually serve as a replacement for biological neurons. There are quite a few researchers who are working on this. Neuromorphic basically refers to a computer chip that mimics biological neurons such as the firing patterns and connectivity. Neuromorphic chips may be able to function as brain implants for a variety of different people who have brain disorders such as brain damage or stroke. A neuromorphic chip could in theory replace the brain matter that is missing as a result of brain damage.
What about those people who only want to replace their brain matter with something that is more durable? In the future, scientists may eventually create neuron sized robots or maybe even smaller nanorobots that will enable the replacement of biological neurons. The futurist Ray Kurzweil has discussed this possiblity for some time. These nano sized robots may eventually be able to precisely position themselves inside a person’s brain. The nano sized robot could replace all of the relevant synaptic connections and then function as a total replacement for the biological neuron. This could be replicated for every single neuron in the brain until the whole brain had been replaced by non-biological neurons or a neuromorphic type chip.
Having a neuromorphic brain brings up quite a few interesting questions. One is how much of a neuron do we actually need to simulate in a chip to get a good representation? There may be a lot of the information inside a real neuron that may actually be quite superfluous. However scientists really don’t know enough why an aggregate amount of atoms inside a person’s brain can sustain a unitary conscious experience. It is really not that clear how much information inside the neuron is really needed to functionally replicate all of its processes.
Will a neuromorphic chip be able to replicate our current experience of consciousness? Consciousness is actually a really complex emergent function of several aspects of brain processes at multiple levels. It is currently at all not clear if consciousness can really be replicated merely by having a model of all of the computational capacity in the brain via a bunch of artificial neurons and also synaptic connections.
What would be the actual benefits of having a brain replaced by artificial neurons? Well, for one thing this would be a much more durable substrate that would likely be much less susceptible to damage. Currently our biological neurons are fairly fragile. They often die off over the course of our lifetimes. So having these artificial neurons might be beneficial for extreme life extension as your brain would be able to last quite a bit longer. Overall, though, there might be some enormous benefits to replacing your biological neurons with a functional artificial chip equivalent.
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