Whole brain emulation is the topic for today: being able to run all of the processes of a brain on some form of computing machinery other than the evolved biological structures we presently possess. Considered in the long term this is an important line of research, as radical life extension will ultimately require moving away from flesh and into some more robust form of machinery in order to better manage the risk of fatal accidents. 'Ultimately' here is a long way into the future, centuries or more, long after we have solved the basic problems of repairing our aging biology so as to attain continual youth. Some people will be satisfied with copying themselves from their biological substrate into a machine substrate and letting that machine copy continue on, but that seems to me little more than an expensive form of procreation - continuation of the self requires a slow transformation of the original, not a quick cut and paste of data to a new computing device. But this is an old and often rehashed argument between identity as pattern and identity as continuity.
Here are some past posts on whole brain emulation if you'd like to do some background reading:
Regardless of how people decide to use the ability to host a conscious individual somewhere other than a human brain, the technologies of whole brain emulation will have to be built. They are a precursor to any program of replacing the brain's present biological machinery with something better. From where I stand, brain emulation is also the most plausible path to true artificial intelligence, which at this time looks far more likely to arise from attempts to duplicate and then improve on the operation of human brains than from efforts to improve expert systems of varying sorts.
Reasonable people differ on this, of course, as even a brief survey of publications on artificial intelligence will tell you.
If you find this topic interesting, you might look at the latest issue of the International Journal of Machine Consciousness, featuring many of the usual suspects from the transhumanist community - folk who have been putting in time on AI and molecular nanotechnology research for some years. A couple of the more intriguing items:
Neuronanorobotics, a promising future medical technology, may provide the ultimate tool for achieving comprehensive non-destructive real-time in vivo monitoring of the many information channels in the human brain. This paper focuses on the electrical information channel and employs a novel electrophysiological approach to estimate the data rate requirements, calculated to be (5.52 ± 1.13) × 10^16 bits/sec in an entire living human brain, for acquiring, transmitting, and storing single-neuron electrical information using medical nanorobots, corresponding to an estimated synaptic-processed spike rate of (4.31 ± 0.86) × 10^15 spikes/sec.
Transhumanists tend to have a commitment to materialism and naturalism but nonetheless pursue goals traditionally associated with religious ideologies, such as the quest for immortality. Some hope to achieve immortality through the application of a technology whereby the brain is scanned and the person "uploaded" to a computer. This process is typically described as "transferring" one's mind to a computer.
I argue that, while the technology may be feasible, uploading will not succeed because it in fact does not "transfer" a mind at all and will not preserve personal identity. Transhumanist hopes for such transfer ironically rely on treating the mind dualistically - and inconsistently with materialism - as the functional equivalent of a soul, as is evidenced by a carefully examination of the language used to describe and defend uploading. In this sense, transhumanist thought unwittingly contains remnants of dualistic and religious concepts.
I outline some recent developments in the field of neural prosthesis concerning functional replacement of brain parts. Noting that functional replacement of brain parts could conceivably lead to a form of "mind-substrate transfer" (defined herein), I briefly review other proposed approaches to mind-substrate transfer then I propose a framework in which to place these approaches, classifying them along two axes: top-down versus bottom-up, and on-line versus off-line; I outline a further hypothetical approach suggested by this framework. I argue that underlying technological questions about mind-substrate transfer, there is a fundamental question which concerns our beliefs about continuity of identity.
On this last topic, present developments in neural prosthetics are well worth the time taken to investigate. Being able to replace some lesser pieces of the brain in the event of damage is on the verge of being a going concern - sometime within the next twenty years there will be a fair number of people walking around with implanted medical devices in their brains. Those devices will replace or augment the function of one or more component parts of the brain, allowing these patients to live where they would otherwise have died or suffered a lower quality of life. This is the start of the next wave of mapping the physical structure of the brain to its function, and that field of research will expand and accelerate just like all other areas of medicine, driven by the ongoing biotechnology revolution.