Science & Technology

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, and 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.