On saturday I attended a UKH+ (UK Transhumanist Association) meeting. It was really great to meet some like-minded people there.
The talk was about “Cryonics in the UK: Reality and Vision”. I never really realised before that there is so much of a UK effort in this area. It was also rather relevant given that I’m an advocate of H+ practising low temperature physics. I went along as a skeptic, (especially as I usually try to AVOID coming into contact with cryogens ;)) but there were some extremely convincing arguments presented and the speaker responded well to the audience questions.
The main aspects of the talk were as follows:
Definition and introduction
Cryonics is the preservation of tissue after death using extremely low temperatures. Cells and DNA are preserved and do not break down as they would do if kept at room temperatures after death. The main idea is to warm and revive patients at a suitable time in the future such that nanotechnology will be advanced enough to repair any damage incurred during the freezing process. Patients pay for the privilege of being cryopreserved in this way.
Are we there yet?
Around 200 patients have been cryopreserved so far. No-one has of yet been revived, although tests on embryos have been successful with a survival rate of 80% of cells. Also, rabbit kidneys have undergone a complete vitrification process and have been transplanted successfully.
To be cryopreserved costs between $30,000 and $150,000 depending on the company and if you would like just neural preservation or whole-body preservation. It should be noted that a good life insurance policy will more than cover this cost.
Objections to cryonics
The main objections were from moral and religious grounds: “Death is the natural way” arguments. There was also the continuity of consciousness problem, i.e. will you be the same person when you are awakened if so many of your cells have been changed. The counter argument is that the body is essentially a meat machine and if all cells (and inter-neural connections) are reconstructed to their original state, the brain will effectively be unaltered by the procedure. Hard-wired memories and psychological traits will remain.
There are also objections about awakening in a strange world, but these are personal considerations. The general consensus is, if you prefer the idea of death over being in a strange world, that’s your choice. (I personally think it would be interesting to wake up in the future).
Practical considerations and problems
How will reanimated people integrate into society? How will they make money? Perhaps by this time we will have transcended the need for money. There may be memory loss / brain damage if the process cannot be fully reversed. In addition, terminal conditions prior to death will also need to be remedied. Cancer/cell damage may be easier to fix than viral/DNA damage once the patient is revived. However, both of these problems will presumably be overcome as technology advances further.
Even though the technology and science of cryopreservation needs to mature substantially, the main problem currently lies with political, geographical and social constraints. Cryonics is not legal in several countries/states. The only operational facilities are currently in the USA and Russia. In the UK, Cryonics UK offers a standby team who will ‘look after’ your body upon death and perform as much of the procedure as possible until you can be transported to a full cryonics facility.
There is also the problem of many deaths requiring autopsy, which kind of screws up the whole cryopreservation process; being cut into little bits and all that. The body may not be released from the morgue for several days, which doesn’t help keep you in good shape for the process.
People can now request autopsy by MRI on religious grounds, so perhaps this is something to lobby about if you are signed up for cryo. And of course there’s the question: Is it necessary to know how you died if you believe you will be revived in the future? Maybe it is even more important to know how you died so that you can be fixed? I wonder if MRI autopsy could be performed on patients once they are in cryostasis…
The current procedure
The standby team/funeral director will inject Glycerol and Heparin to prevent blood clotting. The body is stored in an ice bath to slow cell degeneration. The cardiovascular system is then used to administer a cryoprotectant to all tissue and cells. This works a bit like antifreeze; lowering the freezing point of the water in the cells and preventing the damaging ice crystals from forming so readily. If enough cryoprotectant can be administered, a large fraction of the body’s water does not freeze at all. However the full extent of damage to cells by the toxicity of concentrated cryoprotectant itself is not yet known, so a balance is struck with the amount administered. The body is then cooled using LN2 to a temperature of 77K (-196 degrees C) and popped in its new home, a cosy cryostat, for storage.
For further information, Alcor has an excellent FAQ on their website which explains everything much better than I have attempted to here!
Warning: personal opinion ahead…
So what’s the deal? Should I sign up? Cryonics is sometimes regarded as the dark side of H+. Well, I guess we can think of this as a plan B. If we aren’t able to acheive full topological & functional mapping and digital reconstruction of specific instances of the human brain (aka uploading) in the next 50-60 years, it might be a good idea to have a backup plan…
Speaking of which, after the event I met and talked to Anders Sandberg about brain modelling and quantum computing, which was extremely useful and very cool.