UKTA Cryonics meeting

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.

Financial matters
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.

Here are some great links to learn more:
Cryonics UK
Cryonics Institute

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.


12 thoughts on “UKTA Cryonics meeting

  1. quantummoxie says:

    I think the big question that will need to be answered is that of consciousness. Bringing a body back to biological functionality is not only possible, but has happened for very short periods of time (e.g. during certain medical procedures like open-heart surgery or in extreme hypothermia cases and the like).

    But what about the mind? Just how connected to the body is the mind? Until we know more about this connection we risk “reviving” people into vegetative states. Thus I think this is really the place where we need to focus a good deal of our efforts.

  2. physicsandcake says:

    I agree that this definitely needs to be addressed.

    Although one presumes (perhaps naively) that if we have advanced nanotechnology sufficient to revive people and repair damaged brain cells at all, we probably have figured out how to medically treat conditions such as brain damage and instances of vegetative state.

    There is so much progress (and advance in the rate of progress itself) being made in mapping and modelling the brain at the moment that I can’t see how we won’t understand at least a large proportion of its operation within the next few decades. Perhaps I’m over-optimistic about this! It’s also easy to say these things when we don’t have to actually DO that part of the medical research/progress ourselves; I’m sure that many biologists/neurosurgeons/neuroscientists are extremely skeptical.

    I think the consciousness problem depends on the viewpoint. Personally I currently believe in the strong AI hypothesis, namely that given a large amount of (classical) computing power we can simulate enough of the functionality of the brain such that consciousness of a sort will arise. I see consciousness as a result of interactions within a suitably complex system which will appear gradually as the system is scaled. My opinion is that it is only seen as ‘spooky’ at the moment because a.) we don’t understand it and b.) we experience it personally.

    I believe that if you made a ‘copy’ of a human brain which was as identical as possible to an already existing person, and placed in a human body, they would behave in exactly the same way at t=0, but then variations would begin to occur (as in a chaotic system) due to the inability to specific the starting conditions adequately, and due to subsequent variations in the sensory input information (for example if they had a different body). I’d be interested to hear other people’s opinions on what they think would happen if this experiment were performed 🙂

  3. Geordie says:

    We were talking about a related issue at lunch the other day. Here’s the context. Let’s say I were to take a bunch of pictures of myself and put them in a box. These pictures provide some record of my existence. In 100 years from now your fine uploaded self could look at them and know something about me.

    Clearly there is a difference between whatever constitutes “me” and the box of pictures. But upon reflection what this difference means is not so clear.

    Let’s say that instead of just pictures in the box, I instead have HD video from all angles of every single microsecond of my life from birth to death, including every word I’ve ever said, every letter ever written, and in addition I chose to provide a running commentary of every single thought I ever had. There is nothing impossible about this experiment. OK put all that stuff in the box.

    What is the difference now between “me” and the contents of the box? There still is one but the line is being blurred. In 100 years if you were to open the box you could know literally everything about me.

    Let’s take it a step further. Let’s say in 10-20 years AI algorithms have advanced to the point where the information in the box can be used to create an avatar of myself. This avatar would be formed of video of myself from the box. My voice would be used. The avatar would be able to hold a conversation (say via text to voice + Skype) with you and be fairly or possibly very convincing that it actually was me. It could learn new things. None of these things are far away from what can be done now.

    Now what is the difference between “me” and box+avatar?

    Another related question: If I could create such an avatar, which was both a record of all the things that make you you and a very convincing copy of you, would you pay to have one built? What would you pay?

  4. physicsandcake says:

    I think that I would be convinced if the box was able to pass a Turing-type test. So at the moment it’s just a box of data. I guess you need some way of mining that data, and an interface to the real world to gather new data and then cleverly combine those two things (presumably using AI) to generate results which would mimic on some level the behaviour of a general instance of a human being. I guess it’s more stringent if I know you, because then it has to mimic a specific instance (unless I believe that you’re just having a weird day).
    I think the level to which I believed ‘you’ were ‘you’ depends on the access granted. If it were just a Skype conversation then maybe; I would have limited information. But you know, if I could actually look closely at your pixels and try to verify your operation against real world physics I might spot something was up.
    In fact in this way the Turing test is a bad example as it assigns (rather arbitrarily) an allowed level of interaction/information exchange with the system under scrutiny.

    Here’s an interesting point: A similarly styled AI of myself would have less trouble believing that ‘you’ were ‘you’ than my human-self, because the two AIs would presumably operate on the same physics – where a HD pixel (for example) would be believed to be the smallest quantum of matter. If we’re playing by the same rules, those rules aren’t discernible from the inside as being anything ‘unusual’.

    Would I pay to have one built? I don’t know…. It’s still just a copy. One problem I have with the idea of uploading in that way is that you are just creating a copy of yourself rather than relocating your specific instance of consciousness. As soon as you set the copy ‘going’ it will be a different entity. How can you get continuity of your own consciousness between meatspace and the digital version? I wonder if this is possible at all. Perhaps a slow conversion of biological cells to digital storage within the brain itself is necessary using nanotech. (In the same way as all cells are slowly replaced throughout life without any noticeable effect). Another way to approach this is to move memories and functional areas one by one, slowly, to the offsite storage whilst still running both systems simultaneously, so you retain consciousness throughout but you are distributed. I just noticed that these approaches are a bit like the adiabatic theorem 😀

    Maybe this is the only way to achieve uploading? Or maybe we will only be equipped to answer this question once we understand more about how the brain works and we’ve simulated some digital systems with human-complexity to play around with (is that ethical? ;)).

    I guess this is one argument in favour of cryonics – seeing as we don’t understand how the brain works, preserving the hardware at the moment is the only way we can even hope for continuity of consciousness.

  5. rob says:

    Richard K Morgan has a book, “Altered Carbon” where people are implanted with a device that records their brains (called a stack)as they live. when they die, the stack can be implanted in a new body, a clone or a cyborg (resleeving). since it is an exact copy of “you” it is like you never have died.

    the concept of what makes you “you” is not discussed directly (that i remember) but many of the issues about what makes you “you” come up peripherally.

    there are “methusalahs” that have lived subjectively 100’s of years. it is worse to destroy someones stack than it is to simply kill them. catholics don’t believe in resleeving, so they are targets of murders who know the “dead” person can never be resleeved and identify them. etc.

    enjoyable book, if you like the cyberpunk style and murder mysteries.

  6. physicsandcake says:

    Ah I also just noticed you already mentioned that an AI would be necessary in addition to your box of data and presumably it would have sensory inputs if it could learn stuff so ignore that bit I wrote in the first paragraph.

  7. physicsandcake says:

    @rob: Yep I have read altered carbon and thought it was great. I guess I am interested in how the stack would be created in the first place and at what point/how it would take over from the brain.

  8. Geordie says:

    The problem I have with the Altered Carbon stack (loved the book BTW, one of the best of its genre, man the idea of being able to be placed in a simulation of hell where each nanosecond of real time was like a second of subjective time really creeped me out) is that no matter what you do your subjective experience of being you ends when your physical body dies. The “stack you” is a copy. There is no way I can see to change this fact if your technique for extending your “life” is to copy yourself into a different less perishable substrate.

    As someone mentioned at the point the copy is made the two entities will start to diverge as they live in different environments, will have different experiences and will learn different things. And I can’t see how making a copy of yourself can change your subjective experience at all. When you die, you die. Your copy might keep going but your own personal subjective experience ends.

    Suz, your ideas about slow and gradual replacement of failed information substrate with more robust versions is a good one. My only problem with it is that we would need to know A LOT more about how we work to do that than to create copies. I can see how we can go from where we are now to creating copies. However biology is still in the stone age, we don’t understand even basic simple things like how our brains work.

  9. Geordie says:

    OK I didn’t read your reply properly, now I see what you’re saying about gradual replacement. This is a very interesting idea. However I still can’t see how you’d do it in practice. Replacing parts of people’s brains and sensory organs with experimental machines is probably a hard sell. Although it is interesting to think about what this would do to your subjective experience. I suspect that you’re right, there would be a gradual change as parts were replaced, but who knows? This is related to the debate about whether mechanisms for consciousness are localized or distributed.

    An argument for localized sources are the physical mechanisms behind how general anaesthetics work. They seem to “remove consciousness” through inhibiting a specific receptor in the brain.

  10. dark_daedalus says:

    If you want to read a nice book about the relationship between transhumanists and their backups, may I suggest “Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom” By Cory Doctorow…

    The idea of taking a brain one neuron at a time, measuring, simulating and then replacing is not a new one. AFAIK It was initially coined as a thought experiment by Hans Moravec ( in his 1988 book “Mind Children: the future of robot and human intelligence”.

    As for General Anaesthetics, I raised that at the time but in the context of whether time would be experienced for the cryo-preserved. I assume you are talking about the GABA-A receptor. I’m not a neuro-biologist myself, but since activation of this opens Cl- channels and inhibit neuro firing. I would say this is more global effect, akin to gating the clock on a digital circuit i.e. the power is still on, and state is retained, but all activity is frozen.

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