Freezing or Uploading?

Which road to immortality would you choose?

July 25, 2007, Chicago—Chicago-Transvision 2007, the annual think-in of the World Transhumanist Association (WTA) officially kicked off on Tuesday. The 200 or so participants gathered in the elegant auditorium of the Field Museum, Chicago's magnificent temple of science and natural history on the shores of Lake Michigan. Membership in the World Transhumanist Association now exceeds 4,000. The Transhumanist crowd in Chicago skewed male, though ages ranged from teenagers to people in their 70s. In fact, a surprisingly large number of young Transhumanists are attending. It's a quirky group. Between formal sessions you hear earnest conversations about things like the results of caloric restriction ("This man has the highest level of HDL cholesterol I've ever heard of.") and wondering if it is more appropriate to refering to the transfer of your mind to a silicon substrate "uploading" or "downloading."

The formal presentations included a talk by McMaster University philosopher Mark Walker that defended "bio-happiness." Why shouldn't someone be allowed to obtain extra utiles of happiness artificially by means of drugs or other future enhancement techniques? In his essay on the topic, Walker reviews and rejects the objections to using modern science to produce happiness and concludes, "We have every reason to suspect that if we were to increase the average positive affect with bio-happiness people would be more satisfied with their lives, achieve more in the workplace, have better relations with others, and have better health outcomes."

In his presentation, "Cyborgs Today and in the Future," James Hughes, the former executive director of the WTA and currently executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, pointed out that Transhumanist thinking arose at the very beginning of the Enlightenment. For example, Royal Society member Robert Hooke speculated in 1665 about the creation of "artificial organs" to enhance human faculties. In 1769, French Encyclopedist Denis Diderot envisaged a future in which it would be possible to reanimate the dead, create human-animal hybrids and take human brains apart and put them back together again. In 1780, Benjamin Franklin predicted that through the progress of science "in a thousand years...all Diseases may, by sure means, be prevented or cured, not even excepting that of Old Age, and our Lives lengthened at pleasure even beyond the antediluvian Standard." French Mathematician, the Marquis de Condorcet declared in 1795 that "nature has set no term to the perfection of human faculties; that the perfectibility of man is truly indefinite."

The term "cyborg" was coined by Nathan Kline and Manfred Clynes in their 1960 article "Cyborgs in Space." Cyborg is a combination of cybernetic and organism. The authors were speculating on how humans might be better adapted for space travel by incorporating machines directly into the bodies of future astronauts. Hughes pointed out that 25 million Americans already have surgical implants of various types in their bodies, including 100,000 pacemakers, 250,000 defibrillators, 8.6 million visual implants, tens of thousands have artificial knees and hips, and so forth. Americans, already used to implants that restore lost function, should not have problems with implants in the future that will enhance physical, mental, and sensory faculties.

Andrew Rosenson, a doctor who heads up Chicago Heartscan, didn't peer so much into the future, but showed us the results of some remarkable recent advances in medical imaging. Combining various imaging technologies, CT scans with PET scans enable physicians and surgeons to precisely isolate areas of disease within a patient's body. Last year, given my family's history of heart disease, I decided to take advantage of this technology by having my heart scanned by a 64-slice CT scanner. Contrary to my critics' views, I do, in fact, have a heart:

I am happy (and relieved) to report that the scan found no evidence of any coronary heart disease whatsoever.

Later in the day, Sirius satellite radio founder, Martine Rothblatt, discussed "Cybernetic Biostasis." The idea is that people should be creating digital mindfiles throughout their lives that could be used to revive them by means of mindware when sufficiently strong artificial intelligence is developed. As Rothblatt explained, mindfiles would record aspects of an individual including mannerisms, personality traits, recollections, feelings, beliefs, attitudes and values. This can be done compiling digital photos and videos, blogs and diaries, the results of psychological testing, and sensecam data. Rothblatt specifically cited the work of information scientist William Sims Bainbridge on personality capture.

To enable the creation of mindfiles, Rothblatt's Terasem Foundation has created the websites, Cyberev.org and Lifenaut.com. Cyberev is short for "cybernetic beingness revival." Rothblatt acknowledges that such mindfiles would not be a perfect copy of anybody's consciousness, but she believes that it would be good enough since, in reality, most normal people remember only a small part of what they experience. Basically, she believes that you can preserve your digital essence. Rothblatt argued that it's better to survive as a virtual being than no being at all and she predicted that mindloading is less than 30 years off.

The Tuesday evening session was devoted to another sort of speculative revival technology, cryonics. Presentations were made by three members of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation. Cryonics is the freezing of a seriously ill or recently deceased person to stop tissues from decomposing; the body is preserved until new medical cures are developed that might bring the person back to life. Alcor currently has 850 members with 78 patients who are cryonically suspended. The first talk was by nanotechnologist Ralph Merkle who gave the standard line that cryonics is an experimental technology for life extension. The question is do you want to be in the experimental group or in the control group?

Next up was Alcor chief operating officer, Tanya Jones, who explained in gory detail the procedures Alcor uses to bring patients down to the temperature of liquid nitrogen. Alcor has a team that flies to the bedsides of clients whose hearts are about to stop. Once they do stop, the team begins immediately to try to limit damage to their brains. To do that Alcor technicians pump patients' bodies up with cryoprotectants that prevent the formation of damaging ice crystals. Jones did mention the problem with "fracturing." That is, they have sensors that listen as bodies are being chilled. At temperatures reach below 100 degrees centigrade, they hear fracturing which Jones described as sounding like the pops of an ice cube dropped into a glass of Coke. Obviously these fractures will have to be repaired during any revival procedure. Alcor is about to begin experiments with mice to see if they can be cooled and then revived.

The last Alcor representative was Shannon Vyff, the author of the children's book 21st Century Kids and self-described "proselytizing immortalist." Vyff became interested in cryonics when she was experiencing a high-risk pregnancy when she was 21 years-old. She has signed up her children as well, but Vyff says, "I don't tell them that it will work. I tell them that it's a chance." As always, the Alcor folks asked for a show of hands from the audience of Alcor members. Perhaps 30 people raised their hands and jangled their Alcor Medic Alert bracelets. A bioethicist friend of mine (who has himself not yet signed up for Alcor) once mused about cryonics, "Wouldn't it be nice to think as you lay dying in your hospital bed that this might not be the end." I'm still thinking about that, but it would be far more preferable if Aubrey de Grey and his colleagues succeeded in achieving Longevity Escape Velocity.

Wednesday's Transvision sessions are devoted to Metaspace: Transforming Humanity. MIT Media Lab honcho Marvin Minsky and actor/activist Ed Begley, Jr. will be making presentations.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.

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  • Mark Plus||

    I've had cryonics arrangements with Alcor since 1990, but I worry a lot now about how cryonics organizations will secure liquid nitrogen reliably as the world's energy supplies begin to decline. The market has consistently rejected cryonics as a waste of resources any way (witness the failure to turn cryonics into for-profit businesses), so it will treat keeping "dead" people frozen with a special ruthlessness in competition with energy supplies' other uses.

  • ||

    I think a "happiness" drug would be a bad thing if it disable people to discover they were in a bad situation. Lets say for instance A makes you unhappy but since you are on the "Happy" drug you don't notice and continue to live in that situation because you now don't know any better. Being uneasy or unhappy about a situation is the reason for action. Without it, we don't act. I don't know, seems like something I wouldn't want to do. But hey, if you want to be fake happy my guest. I'm just sayin'.......

  • ||

    Bring on 'The Jack'! You WILL be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

  • ||

    Mindfiles is interesting in a digital scrapbooking sort of way, but wasn't that the idea of the implanted memories in Blade Runner?

    I suspect alot of the transhumanist's ideas are derived from Golden Age Sci-Fi...not that there is anything wrong with that!

  • ||

    Oh, and any discussion of the use of prosthesis for competitive advantage...vis-a-vis Oscar Pistoris, the carbon fiber sprinter?

  • ||

    If they upload my brain to computer, can they just upload me into a neverending game of Doom?

  • ||

    While the "uploading" idea is appealing in some ways, I have a basic philosophical problem with it as a form of immortality. I fail to see how creating an exact duplicate of me, physical or virtual, does _me_ any real good. It's more like having a child than becoming immortal yourself.

  • ||

    Oh dear gosh. We need shorter lives, not longer ones.

  • ||

    Implants for competitive advantage.
    So that would be allowed just like performance enhancing drugs.

  • ||

    Umbriel,

    That's assuming your consciousness is an unbroken event starting when you first become aware to your death. I don't think it is.

    Imagine while you're sleeping tonight your brain is mapped (you're physical body is then destroyed) and downloaded into a simulation. Would you notice that you had been turned off and turned on again when you wake up? If your brain makes changes while you're sleeping (neuronal connections, dumping memories, etc.) are you someone else every morning?

    If your consciousness is just a pattern of neurons then the pattern is you not the hardware it runs on.
    *it may not be but all the evidence points that way.

  • Russell||

    I think Ben was on to something with his "Lives lengthened at pleasure even beyond the antediluvian Standard."

    The Franklin Institute should offer a medal for the revival of the first lab rat to die at the age of 936

  • ||

    Umbriel: While the "uploading" idea is appealing in some ways, I have a basic philosophical problem with it as a form of immortality. I fail to see how creating an exact duplicate of me, physical or virtual, does _me_ any real good. It's more like having a child than becoming immortal yourself.

    I agree. If you're merely making a copy, not "transferring" your consciousness somehow, then what you've got is a copy, not you.

    Umbriel,

    That's assuming your consciousness is an unbroken event starting when you first become aware to your death. I don't think it is.

    Imagine while you're sleeping tonight your brain is mapped (you're physical body is then destroyed) and downloaded into a simulation. Would you notice that you had been turned off and turned on again when you wake up?


    You wouldn't have the opportunity to "notice" because you would have been destroyed in your sleep. A completely different person -- one who happens to have a recording of your memories -- would wake up the next morning. He might think he's you ... he might not be able to tell the difference ... but he'd be wrong. That's his subjective, but erroneous, viewpoit. It's all because his copied memories don't include memories of the original you being destroyed.

    This should make it clear: Suppose the original "you" is not destroyed. Suppose the copied mind is downloaded into a clone of yoru body. The next morning, both of you wake up. While your copy might be subjectively convinced he's you, from an objective observer's viewpoint is there really any doubt that "you" is really the continuously existing original? Do "you" somehow exist twice now?

    If the copy isn't "you" in the second example, how could it be in the first example?

    If your brain makes changes while you're sleeping (neuronal connections, dumping memories, etc.) are you someone else every morning? No, but again, you are assuming that a set of memories = "you."

    I must respectfully disagree.

  • ||

    "You wouldn't have the opportunity to "notice" because you would have been destroyed in your sleep."

    That's part of my point, you don't notice anything when you're sleeping- you're essentially shut down.

    "If the copy isn't "you" in the second example, how could it be in the first example?"

    Why does "you" have to define a singular entity. If you could make an instantaneous copy of someone they would both be the same person for a while until there experiences caused them to diverge. If you couldn't tell the difference and they couldn't is there even a point(except for legal issues of property ownership, etc.) in making a distinction between the original and the copy?


    "No, but again, you are assuming that a set of memories = "you.""

    Memories plus neural connections. What else is there?

  • ||

    "You wouldn't have the opportunity to "notice" because you would have been destroyed in your sleep."

    That's part of my point, you don't notice anything when you're sleeping- you're essentially shut down.

    Your subjective and conscious experience is shut down, and perceives nothing as happening, but that doesn't mean it's the objective truth of what's going on. You're not conscious of time passing while you're asleep, either -- but when you wake up, lo and behold, it has.

    In your scenario, at most you've made a copy of "you" that thinks he is you -- but the actual "you" is dead and gone. This is not a path to personal immortality, even if your copy and your other survivors can't tell the difference. The "you" that might have been able to tell the difference -- "Hey, that guy isn't really me!" -- is dead and gone.

    It's not immortality -- it's simply killing the only witness who can testify otherwise.

    "If the copy isn't "you" in the second example, how could it be in the first example?"

    Why does "you" have to define a singular entity. If you could make an instantaneous copy of someone they would both be the same person for a while until there experiences caused them to diverge. If you couldn't tell the difference and they couldn't is there even a point(except for legal issues of property ownership, etc.) in making a distinction between the original and the copy?

    They wouldn't both be the same person until their experiences start to diverge ... they would be two different people with the same memories until their two different experiences caused their memories to diverge. We don't consider identical twins to be one person at the point when they are born. (Or before, once they split into two different entities experiencing their environment separately.)

    "No, but again, you are assuming that a set of memories = "you.""

    Memories plus neural connections. What else is there?

    I offer a 2-part answer addressing two aspects of this issue.

    Answer A:
    What is a photocopy but black plastic powder melted onto a piece of paper? You can make as many copies of a copy as you want (assume the copies are perfect reproductions) and maybe everyone else can't tell the difference, but there is still one specific piece of paper that is the original. Functionally, to the viewpoint of everyone but the original copy, the copies may be interchangeable, but in essence there is only one original.

    If you make a copy of a page, keep the copy, but destroy the original, then the original can't be said to be "immortal." It is gone. Whether or not it matters to external observers is a different issue.

    A copy of you is an external observer with a copy of your memories -- not you.

    Answer B:
    Part of what makes you "you" is how you have experiences and process them. The memory of the experiences that you happen to retain are only a part of you. For example, you doubtless had experiences as a child that you no longer remember. But "you" still had those experiences, whether or not they are part of your memory. Clearly, then, your memories cannot be the totality of "you."

    Part of having unique experiences as "you" is occupying a particular point in space and interacting with the rest of the universe from that point. Only one entity can occupy a particular point in space at a time; therefore, there can be only one "you" at a time.

    BTW, did you know that some AI researchers believe that it may be impossible to create an intelligent "mind" without a body? In other words, a disembodied brain (organic or electronic) might not be able to function as a human-analog intelligent being without possessing a human-analog body? In yet other words, your body and the way it interacts with the external environment may be as much what makes you "you" as your brain and nervous system.

  • Michael Anissimov||

    Hi Ronald, do you read your comments or respond to them? Just curious. At lunch you actually convinced me that socialized medicine is a bad thing, but I was also reading your magazine and had the impression from certain ads that libertarians are highly money-obsessed ("Are You Too Rich to Die?"). I think libertarian ideas are the right choice in many political dilemmas, but don't you think that a culture of greed might actually be a bad thing?

  • ||

    "We don't consider identical twins to be one person at the point when they are born. (Or before, once they split into two different entities experiencing their environment separately.)"

    I don't think your analogy works.

    One- identical twins aren't truly identical. In my example the two entities are perfectly identical- their bodies, memories, reactions, dreams for the future etc.

    Two- the perfectly identical entities cannot tell the difference between themselves- without evidence each thinks they are the original. Identical twins (Bob and Tom) know who Bob is and who Tom is.

    "If you make a copy of a page, keep the copy, but destroy the original, then the original can't be said to be "immortal." It is gone. Whether or not it matters to external observers is a different issue."

    I think your point goes the the heart of our disagreement. I don't think the document is defined by the physical piece of paper but by the information stored there. In your example the information still lives. As long as the information is copied to another piece of paper when the original paper wears out the information(that which defines the paper's individuality) is essentially immortal.

    "Only one entity can occupy a particular point in space at a time; therefore, there can be only one "you" at a time."

    In the case of the perfectly copied entity the second the copy and original wake up they start to diverge but they both start out as "you".

    I'm curious, what are your thoughts about people who die(ex. drown in cold water) and are brought back to life. Isn't it the operating system that's rebooted? Isn't that what defines a living person? I'll push it a bit- my computer can boot Windows or Linux, it's this that defines the computer not the hardware that it runs on. The hardware certainly provides some context but I don't see as any different than, say, my brain being transplanted into another body- it would still be me.

    "BTW, did you know that some AI researchers believe that it may be impossible to create an intelligent "mind" without a body?"

    I have heard that. In the case of a downloaded mind a body could be simulated. After all, the reality we experience through our sense organs is just a simulation our brain creates. Some have postulated that we are in a simulation now. Wouldn't that make this discussion ironic?

    Thanks for your thoughtful responses. They've certainly got me thinking.

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