Longer Living through Plastics
Wednesday evening I had a chat with a fellow futurist who told me about some exciting work that's being done in cryonics. A new approach to the problem of preserving the human brain is being developed that does not rely on cold storage -- which up to now has been the standard approach and is, as far as I know, the only form of suspension that anyone is currently using. The new approach relies on encasing the brain in plastic. And by that I don't mean putting a plastic shell around the brain, but rather infusing all the brain tissue with a resin which will harden and perfectly preserve the brain's cellular and neuron structure.
My friend explained that this approach will be a major game-changer because it won't require anything like the infrastructure and investment involved in cryonic freeze. Plastination, he explained, will cost less than a casket burial. The economic argument is gone. The "yuck" factor may hang in as an objection, but this plastic approach has the advantage of being the second major model proposed. It will never be as shocking as the original "corpsicle" (and subsequent "headsicle") ideas.
My friend also told me that he and a colleague are working on promoting this approach via multiple channels, including raising funding for financial incentives for researchers achieving defined goals towards full brain preservation. (I don't recall that he actually used the phrase "push-prize," but it sounded an awful lot like that.) He pointed out that the practice might be widely adopted even by those who for religious or other reasons aren't interested in being revived. For example, memories retrieved from a preserved brain in "offline mode," -- meaning that there is no attempt made to restore the conscious brain function -- might be of great value to family members, future historians, etc.
I'm not identifying this futurist because he told me that he's not yet ready to go public with this effort, although I'm looking forward to having him on FastForward radio as soon as he is ready. Anyhow, I found it pretty interesting on Thursday, having had this conversation the previous night, to see this same idea being kicked around on Fight Aging!, Accelerating Future, and InstaPundit.
The discussion ultimately centers around this site, which argues for both the plastination method and a push prize. The site is owned and run by Kenneth Hayworth. I can't say whether there is any connection between Hayworth and my friend. The best case would be no connection -- meaning that there are several different groups and individuals working on this goal simultaneously.
Michael quotes a key piece from Hayworth's site, which I will repeat here:
From a medical and technical standpoint all that is needed is the development of a surgical procedure for perfusing a patient's circulatory system with a series of fixatives and plastic resins capable of perfectly preserving their brain's neural circuitry in a plasticized block for long-term storage. Such a procedure would, in effect, put the patient into a long dreamless sleep where they can wait out the decades or centuries necessary for the development of the more advanced technology required to revive them.
How could a patient ever be awoken from such an unconventional sleep? The necessary technology exists in primitive form today -- the plasticized brain block will be automatically sliced into thin sections and these scanned in an electron microscope at nanometer resolution. Such scanning can map out the exact synaptic connectivity among neurons while simultaneously providing information on a host of molecular-level constituents. This map of brain connectivity will then be uploaded into a computer emulation controlling a robotic body -- the patient awakes to a new dawn of unlimited potential.
I think this approach, once perfected, could well be the technology that pushes cryonics more or less into the mainstream. Hayworth foresees a future in which uploading human personality from a carefully preserved brain is viewed roughly the way laser eye surgery is today. I think that's about right, although the stakes are clearly higher with uploading.
Hayworth makes a passionate case that we need to overcome backward philosophical ideas in order to enable such technology in the near future. Michael reiterates that case. Both take a dim view of religion, seeing it as a primary culprit in blocking progress in this kind of research. I'll deal with that issue separately somewhere down the road, but for now I'll just state that I don't think there is any real conflict between religious belief and brain preservation, any more than there's a conflict between religious belief and this technology.
However, there is a philosophical discussion in the comments on Michael's post which I think is quite interesting.
The debate comes down to this question: if you store my brain in plastic for a couple of centuries, then slice it up to create an uploaded virtual replica, then fire up the virtual replica...have you brought me back to life? My answer to that, assuming that everything works, is a qualified "yes." (It's a major qualification, though.) The replica will have my personality, my memories, and -- from his standpoint -- a continuous experience of being Phil Bowermaster, with this one interruption--which may be no more significant to him than a single night's sleep. From his standpoint, and from the standpoint of the outside world, I have been brought back to life.
I can even go so far as to say that from MY standpoint, as the replica, I have been brought back to life.
In fact, there is only one standpoint from which anything looks amiss. And that, of course, would be my other standpoint, the standpoint of the original Phil Bowermaster. That Phil Bowermaster, it would seem to me, gets left behind in those discarded slices of plastinated brain. So even though the replica is me as far as he is concerned and as far as the world is concerned, in an important sense -- from the point of view of the original -- I am not there.
Hayworth argues quite eloquently that this sense of something being amiss is based on an illusion. I find the argument compelling but less than completely convincing or satisfying. Michael points out that consciousness is not continuous, anyway, that it is interrupted daily by sleep and can be more severely messed with by things like head trauma and coma. However, I'm not concerned with continuity of consciousness. My concern is continuity of substrate.
I prefer a digitization scheme in which the old substrate functions concurrently with, and is slowly replaced by, the new one. That is to say, I need to consciously experience moving from my brain to the computer in order to accept that I have in fact made the move. Michael and Hayworth would argue that this is illusory thinking and bad philosophy. I would counter that this is merely being careful.
I say rather than slicing up my dead brain and reading it straight into digital form, I'd like to hang in until nanotechnology actually enables deplastinating and reviving my brain in a nice new cloned or robotic body. From there, I'd be happy living in non-uploaded form for a brief time until a conscious, gradual upload can be arranged. In IT terms, we're talking about warm standby rather than cold standby. It might be more difficult and more expensive, but having waited decades or centuries, I'm okay with taking a few extra steps to make sure that my survival is actually my survival.
Hayworth presents a mind-uploading bill of rights which reads in part:
Revival rights -- The revival wishes of the individual undergoing brain preservation should be respected. This includes the right to refuse revival under a list of circumstances provided by the individual before preservation.
Bingo. My circumstances would include, among other things, the requirement that my suspended brain first be revived and that I be uploaded via a warm standby approach. Call me old-fashioned, but when I get brought back to life, I want to be there to see it.