Essay:On cryonics or similar technology
Due to watching the cryonics article being built and keeping up with its talkpage, I've been thinking about this whole preservation/resurrection thing a lot lately, and I'm going to try to to encapsulate some of my thoughts here.
- 1 Methods or concepts
- 2 Hand-wavey calculation of probabilities and timescales
- 3 Ethics of botched work
- 4 Laws of nature
- 5 Xrayonics
- 6 Lame copyright notice
Methods or concepts
It seems like there are several different concepts of how we'd use it, if it were possible.
For space travel
In this case a healthy person is preserved to reduce the tedium (and aging) involved in very long journeys like to Mars or Jupiter, or even a nearby star. In this case the resurrection process would have to be entirely automated, unless there was a rotating crew of doctors/technicians preserving and resurrecting each other so there'd be "hands on deck" when the destination was reached. There could even be a rotating crew of scientific observers, ship's crew, etc. if needed.
This use is, in my opinion, likely to be the first any fully-developed technology would be put to, for two reasons: One, it requires the least number of amazing leaps in biological science (no need to cure diseases or regrow bodies, for example), and two, NASA has the money, or at least access to it for what would likely be very high "early adopter" costs.
For a future cure
This one always made the most "sense" to me: to preserve the entire body (using a proven method) of a person who has just died or was about to die of an incurable disease that has not ruined their brain (think, say, pancreatic cancer), with the goal of resurrecting them if a cure or solution is found. The younger they are, the better, since the investment yields more "people-years" of life. This scenario involves only one more assumption than the space travel one - once the preservation/resurrection cycle is mastered, it would only depend on medical advances of the mundane variety in the future to be useful.
A perhaps more practical subset of this plan would be "short term" preservation, say, for example, in the case of a patient who requires an organ transplant that is not yet available. They would be preserved before or at the point of death, and resurrected when a suitable organ is available.
For a new life
Another, slightly weirder and more difficult application is doing the same thing with someone who has essentially died (or almost dies) of "old age". The extra problem here is that the resurrection brings back to life a body that is "worn out" - we all know the effects of aging. So the "medical advances" necessary to make this a useful process would involve being able to reverse the effects of aging, which I find to be very "far out". Slowing aging down, sure, I'd buy that possibility, perhaps even arresting the process of aging, for some years if not "forever". But without the ability to reverse the aging, there'd be no point to preserving, say, a 90 year old with poor eyesight and hearing, weak bones (dementia even?) and a bad heart. Of course, if the process were cheap enough and the "disease" was essentially clogged arteries (causing heart attacks or strokes), appropriate medical advances applied to the resurrected body might yield many years, perhaps decades, of life even for a quite elderly patient.
Now, to me, both the above don't seem to be too far into science fiction territory - each unsolved step would seem to be a fairly straightforward, even if difficult, medical problem to solve: how to preserve; how to resurrect/resuscitate (probably the hardest part); and coming up with a cure/solution for a currently untreatable ailment. The "old patient" part is one step further in my opinion, as mentioned above.
Brain only - new body
Another concept bandied about - and ironically apparently practiced the most - is the "preserve the head only" approach. Now I understand the point of this is that the head/brain contains all the "information" that constitutes the "person" that is to be resurrected. Trouble is, we have cut off and thrown away the life support system for that information.
This adds some tremendous complexity on top of the "medical problems to solve" listed above. Do we need to be able to somehow grow the patient a new body by cloning cells from their head? How do we stop that clone from growing a head along the way? How do we grow the cloned body to adult size? When I think about this whole "making a new body" approach, I keep crashing into huge roadblocks - generally cloning results in what amounts to an embryo, which is then "brought to life" through the normal means - gestation and birth, yielding a baby which now will take many years to become a viable "vessel" for a resurrected adult brain. Perhaps the process would be to grow organs separately rather than growing an entire body, and sewing them all together with some artificial parts (skin, bones, perhaps the heart, who knows how much), then transplanting the brain into it. Speculating like this is all a lot of fun, of course, but now we have piled on several huge layers of problems to solve.
Alternatively, if there was a way to grow a cloned body with a brain to an adult stage without its brain developing any "information" of its own (the ethics of this are beyond the pale to me - even if the body is a clone of the patient, they don't "own" it), and then (this is really getting into sci-fi territory now) somehow transferring the information in the preserved patient's brain to the brain in the cloned body (is this what they call "uploading"?), would this now be a new legal "person"? Would we then destroy the preserved brain? Could we/would we make multiple copies of the person - wouldn't it be great to have ten resurrected (and cured) Stephen Hawkings working on the problems of theoretical physics? Wouldn't it be funny if by the time we could do this, physics would be so far advanced that the newly printed Hawkings would have to go to primary school to start to catch up?
Brain only - new machine
The "furthest out" and probably least satisfactory concept is to, at some point, transfer the "information" from the popsicle to some sort of completely artificial machine. The core of this would obviously be some sort of neural network type of "computer-like" toy. Then it would need sufficient BIOS to be acceptable to the revived "personality". I'm not sure anyone would be very happy to be revived and have no mobility, either.
What is interesting about any of these "transfer of information" concepts is, as I joked about above, it could be done multiple times since obviously at some point in the process the information is in a discrete, reproducible form. The brain transplant version does not offer this hope.
After stretching the concept to these rather outrageous versions, it makes preserving a 24 year old who died of leukemia in order to revive them when we've cured leukemia seem like a fairly trivial technological problem or three.
Hand-wavey calculation of probabilities and timescales
There seem, to me, to be three general ways of developing the preserve/resurrect technology. One is cryonics, or cold storage; another is chemical preservation, like pumping a preservative through the vascular system that prevents deterioration, and the third, which ought to be viable if the more extreme "brain only" resurrection methods above were partially worked out, would be to store the "information" by a method other than preserving the head meat. I'll ignore the third one.
The dumbest thing about modern "cryonics" to me is that without a viable, established resurrection technology, the appropriate means of preservation are completely unknown. The science work to be done has nothing to do with freezing (or "vitrifying", to be more accurate, I suppose) dead people or their heads. It involves working from the most basic exploits to the more complex, one step at a time.
Preserving and resurrecting single cells seems to be fairly well-established science/technology. It is used in treatments as mundane as fertility enhancement, and as interesting as Lenski's long term E. coli evolution experiment. In Lenski's work (and I'm sure many other similar projects) every (nth) generation of the bacteria is stored and can be revived to "restart" the project in parallel from any point.
It seems to me that the next step would to experiment with preserving entire functioning organs and then "resurrecting" them as fully functioning, healthy organs. Many mice will surely die slow painful deaths during this work, and I hope the experimenters treat them well and provide morphine for the hurty bits.
Once a means for preserving and resurrecting organs has been mastered, the logical next step is to try it on small animals. At this stage, I don't think it matters where we start - although perhaps work on warm-blooded vertebrates would be the most important.
The hard part in getting to this stage from the previous one is that an organ, say, a liver, is installed in a living animal after it is "resurrected", and the animal's body acts as a life support system for the organ, "jump starting" it in all likelihood. When an entire animal has been preserved, the resurrection process really starts to take on the meaning of the word and presents an enormous challenge. Any weirdness from the preservation process, such as chemicals used to assist in the process, must be cleaned out or neutralized, in a way that causes no further damage. (Imagine a "frozen" animal with its veins full of toxic anti-freeze - you can't replace the AF with blood while it's frozen, as it would freeze the blood and ruin it. Thawing the animal to replace the AF might at some point present a crisis of timing - once it is warm enough to pump in the blood, it might be warm enough to start deteriorating.) Once the animal has had all preserving techniques reversed, it's going to need some sort of kick in the pants to get it running again. This might be as simple as using something like a defibrillator to get the heart beating - however, when a defib is used, the brain of the patient is already "active".
Long term testing
Once we have successfully preserved and resurrected some furry little critters, the next thing to test, or prove to ourselves, is whether we can select the preservation interval with impunity. We must prove that our technique does not just slow deterioration, allowing resurrection after, say, a few days or weeks, but that it truly stops deterioration. To do this long term experiments will be required, preserving them for several years at the very least followed by successful resurrections.
Since the whole point of this technique (except for short-term lifesaving, such as in the case of someone waiting for an organ donation) is to preserve a person until whatever killed them can be cured, the timescales involved could easily reach decades, if not centuries. I would consider it fair to extrapolate from small, short-lived animals "surviving" a few years to larger, longer-lived animals such as hoomins being able to "survive" much longer.
I forgot to make up any numbers
Sorry for the lie in the top level header.
Ethics of botched work
Another thing that has been making me concerned is the issue of botched resurrections, due to faulty preservation, storage, or resurrection procedures. Imagine being brought back to consciousness only to discover your left leg rotted off and your IQ dropped by 30 points (insert Ace McWicked bender joke here). At what point and how would the resurrection team make decisions on what to do with patients who are obviously damaged? Would they attempt to re-preserve in hopes of future technology that could undo the damage? Would they euthanize (well, abandon, really - you can't euthanize the dead) the patient?
Do people who currently enter into cryonic contracts sign clear waivers indicating their comfort level with less than 100% success at resurrection?
Laws of nature
One thing that proponents of cryonics (et al) argue is that their ideas or proposals do not violate any known laws of physics, and therefore are "possible".
Compare this to another futuristic woo-ful idea, that of space tourism. Space tourism runs into some basic problems - the amount of energy required to lift a person and enough life support into at least Earth orbit, and bring them back alive. The amount of energy is huge, and there is no way around that - it's simply physics. Obtaining that energy might be "easy" given magic new sources of energy, but keep in mind that the energy would be dissipated in the Earth's lithosphere, and that might not be something we want to do on a daily basis.
Which brings me back to preservation and resurrection. While the claims of cryonisists, and other revivalists, may not necessarily violate the laws of physics, the question is, do they violate the laws of biology or chemistry? The laws of physics tend to be incredibly convincing - no matter can be accelerated to the speed of light, for instance - the simplicity and beauty and predictive power of gravitational mathematics is another example. However, as we move up the scale of complexity, chemistry and then biology don't have nice simple "laws" showing what the boundaries of possibility are. So the cryonicists make up their own "probabilities". Claims of "such and such will be do-able in ten or twenty years" are based on nothing but hope and dreams. Any projection of future scientific or medical or technological abilities or understanding are completely made up.
For £40,000 sterling in silver or gold, I will arrange to have your brain and pancreas X-rayed shortly before or after your death, preserving all the information contained therein on a series of glass plates. One day, perhaps as far off as 1950, scientificists in the distant future will have found a cure for tuberculosis and smallpox, and perhaps even syphilis, and will revive you into a newly reanimated body and you will live once again!
Lame copyright notice
I know the site is CC by SA, but I'd really like to retain the copyright on this essay. I should have put it on my website and just linked to it... Huw Powell / ħuman 22:05, 23 February 2010 (UTC)