Researchers are trying to develop digital twins of the human brain by building so-called ‘virtual brains’. Trying to create virtual copies of such a complex organ, that we know increasingly yet still very little about is a great challenge. In a recent publication, Kathinka Evers and Arleen Salles explore philosophical and neuroethical challenges associated with this quest. And how to ensure that the development of virtual brains becomes a beneficial endeavour on the social, scientific, technological and philosophical levels.

For some time, researchers have been developing digital twins of inanimate objects. Attempts have also been made to construct digital twins of living things, such as the heart and now more recently the brain. For example through the Human Brain Project’s simulation engine The Virtual Brain. The brain is our most complex organ, both structurally and functionally, which presents unique challenges.

“Because digital twins are linked to physical objects, the challenges faced in developing a virtual carbon copy are closely tied to how well we know the object we are trying to digitally imitate. How complex we can make the structure and functions of the digital twin is related to how well we know its physical counterpart. A man-made object can be very complex, but its structure and functions are well known. And a natural object may appear simple but still be very mysterious to us,” says Kathinka Evers, professor of philosophy at Uppsala University’s Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics.

The human brain is a highly complex organ that we, despite many years of research, still have very incomplete knowledge about. According to Kathinka Evers and Arleen Salles, this poses an important question about digital twins: With our limited knowledge, how similar can we make them? And should the term “twin” be used at all in this context?

“Trying to copy something that you do not fully know is difficult, and getting it right may even be impossible. So what do we mean when we talk about developing digital ‘twins’ of the human brain? What will be copied, what can we replicate? And to what use? If science is to further human understanding and well-being, we need conceptual clarity about what human problems this research aims to solve. Which means we need to consider how scientists are framing their search for solutions and how the framing shapes their findings,” Kathinka Evers concludes.

By Anna Holm

Evers K & Salles A, Epistemic Challenges of Digital Twins & Virtual Brains: Perspectives from Fundamental Neuroethics, SCIO: Journal of Philosophy, 2021:21. DOI: 10.46583/scio_2021.21.846

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