The TED conference in Oxford this year was the scene of an announcement by Henry Markram, Director of the Blue Brain Project, that we could have an artificial human brain within ten years.
Although the motivation is to model the activity of a human brain to provide a tool for researching illnesses, and also to be able to replace animal testing in many cases, such work also has important consequences for our understanding of human feelings of self and consciousness.
Already it is possible to show these brain simulations images which are then automatically converted into internal representations. It has long been argued (by Hofstadter, Dennett and others) that a self-referential neural network would exhibit signs of consciousness and we are inching closer towards understanding whether this can be demonstrated in practice.
This is an important scientific activity in its own right as such a development would provide scientific evidence for the first time that our notions of self-awareness, of consciousness, of some soul or human essence, is a bi-product of the activities of the brain itself. If it can be demonstrated that consciousness can be produced artificially, then we can no longer claim that human life has some deep spiritual significance.
For that reason, if for no other, the developments of the Blue Brain Project will be an extraordinary path of discovery over the next ten years.
They have already been able to simulate credibly the neuronal activity of a rat brain. Couple a greater mental capacity with an ability to communicate and respond and we have something able to participate in learning and self-evaluation.
One interesting ethical question will be what rights do we afford such a "brain"? Is it a person? It would meet the criterion of sentience. Similarly, if it was self-aware and was learning, would it be developing a personality? Would it acquire values? Who would be entitled to turn it off, if anyone?
Science fiction used to be so far removed from practical science as to permit the use of the term fiction. Now, science advances so fast that what counts as science fiction today, is a research project tomorrow, and scientific evidence in a year's time. We could be seeing the emergence of artificial consciousness, mirroring the development of artificial intelligence from the late 50s into the 90s. Although there are major difficulties with artificial intelligence, few now doubt that we can get machines to do remarkable feats of reasoning. When we first interface with a reasoning, self-aware artificial brain, will we be able to distinguish its consciousness from any other conscious entity?