16. October 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Cryonics

Cryonics Magazine, August, 2013

Why Reversible Cryopreservation Matters

[The following is a text adaptation of a PowerPoint presentation given on Sunday, May 12, 2013 at the Resuscitation and Reintegration of Cryonics Patients Symposium in Portland, Oregon.]

Let’s start with the following definition of cryonics:

“Cryonics is the stabilization of critically ill patients at ultra-low temperatures to allow resuscitation in the future.”

As you can see, nothing in this definition says that repair is an intrinsic feature of cryonics. But is this a reasonable perspective? Let’s think about a number of aspects of cryonics that could be classified as “repair.”

• Critically ill patients are sick and will need medical treatment in the future.
• Most cryonics patients will require
rejuvenation.
• The cryopreservation process itself causes (irreversible) damage.

Yes, cryonics patients will require a second look at their condition by a future doctor who will have more advanced medical technologies at his/her disposal. This could conceivably be called “repair.” Most cryonics patients will also require rejuvenation biotechnologies. After all, it makes little sense to cure the patient’s disease but leave him/her in a fragile, debilitated state. This could be called “repair” too, in particular if you believe that aging is the progressive accumulation of damage. The repair that I want to discuss here is repair of the damage that is associated with the cryopreservation process itself. If we can eliminate this kind of damage, and the associated requirement of repair in the future, we will make the idea of cryonics a whole lot more attractive. What would be the advantages of being able to offer such “cryonics without repair?”

Perhaps the most obvious advantage is that cryonics could not be dismissed solely by pointing to the (irreversible) damage caused by the cryopreservation process itself. In essence, such a form of cryonics would be akin to putting a critically ill patient in a state of true suspended animation. This would strengthen the legal position of cryonics patients because a decision to abandon a patient in such a condition would be more akin to murder (or at least serious neglect). Another advantage would be that the absence of cryopreservation damage would increase the likelihood of the patient being restored to good health in the future. Less damage is also likely to translate into lower costs, too, and it is rather obvious that such an advantage can mean more security for the patient. Reversible cryopreservation may also lead to earlier treatment and resuscitation attempts, which may reduce challenges associated with re-integration. Cryonics without repair also matters in the here-and-now. Without the goal of reversible cryopreservation there are no objective, empirical criteria to evaluate the quality of care in a cryonics case. Last, but not least, we should do no harm. Allowing unnecessary injury of the patient because future advanced technologies should be able to fix it is a morally suspect gamble with a person’s life.

That is an impressive list of arguments in favor of offering reversible human cryopreservation. Now let’s try to be more specific about what cryonics without repair means. Clearly, the condition of the patient should not worsen relative to the critical condition the patient was in at the time of pronouncement of legal death. In fact, a rarely recognized possibility in a good cryonics case is that it might even be feasible to slightly improve the condition of the patient through the administration of cerebroprotective medications and washing out the blood, provided these procedures do not restore spontaneous circulation and consciousness, of course. A common perspective at Alcor to look at the objective of stabilization procedures is to say that these procedures should be aimed at maintaining viability of the patient by contemporary criteria. In the past I have characterized this objective as securing viability of the brain, but I think it would be better to aim for complete viability of the body unless there is a clear trade-off between viability of the brain (the most important organ in cryonics) and the rest of the body. Ultimately, though, we do not just want to be able to reverse the stabilization procedures but all cryonics procedures.

Before we walk through basic cryonics procedures to identify obvious and notso- obvious opportunities for cryonics procedures to produce additional damage, let’s look at circumstances in which the patient suffers additional damage that cannot be attributed to the cryonics organization. The most obvious situation is where there is a long delay between pronouncement of legal death and the start of cryonics procedures because hours go by before the patient is discovered or hospital administrators do not allow immediate access. It is important to recognize that the goal of maintaining viability can be defeated before we even start our procedures. Critics of cryonics often talk about compromising circumstances as if they are intrinsic aspects of cryonics instead of the result of tragic but avoidable events or hostile authorities. Reversible cryopreservation is only possible if the cryonics organization is notified in time and receives good cooperation from hospital administrators and other authorities.

The first real opportunity for a cryonics organization to “screw up” is to allow substantial periods of warm and cold ischemia. This can happen in a number of ways including, but not limited to, not restoring adequate circulation, inadequate ventilation, allowing blood pressure and cerebral perfusion to drop (restoring blood pressure does not guarantee good cerebral blood flow), suboptimal induction of hypothermia, or conducting surgery at high temperatures without metabolic support. In ideal circumstances a cryonics stabilization is conducted so that suboptimal results in one of these areas are offset by gains in the other protocols.

If a cryonics organization is able to provide metabolic support and rapidly cool down the patient to close to the freezing point of water the next challenges involve the cryopreservation process. The best known form of damage here is, of course, ice damage. While today’s vitrification agents are formulated to inhibit ice formation at realistic cooling rates, there are still a number of things that can go wrong. The distribution of cryoprotectant in the brain can be incomplete as a result of surgical errors or flaws during cryoprotective perfusion (e.g., vessels not properly cannulated, extremely low or high pressures, pumping air, etc.) The cryoprotectant can also be introduced at temperatures that are too warm or introduced too rapidly to allow the cells to maintain volume in an acceptable range. Even if none of these mistakes are made, we run into other challenges that cryonics organizations cannot successfully overcome yet.

Successful vitrification requires the use of high concentrations of organic solutes (such as DMSO and formamide) and non-penetrating polymers. While much progress has been made by cryobiology researchers Gregory Fahy and Brian Wowk to formulate solutions with low toxicity, and such solutions have been shown to successfully cryopreserve brain slices, our current understanding is that it is not likely that the brain of a cryonics patient remains spontaneously viable after being equilibrated with these agents. This is partly because the “blood brain barrier” leads to a situation in which solutes naturally present in the brain become concentrated during cryoprotective perfusion (dehydration) as discussed in the next paragraph. This causes cells inside whole brains to be cryoprotected by a mixture of natural solutes and some components of the perfused cryoprotectant solution rather than just the carefully-formulated cryoprotectant solution. Sometimes natural is not good.

It is sometimes said that eliminating cryoprotectant toxicity is the “holy grail” of cryonics research. While there is good empirical evidence to suggest that despite this toxicity good ultrastructure of the brain is still possible, true reversible human cryopreservation without reliance on sophisticated repair will require cryoprotectants with much lower toxicity. The need for less toxic cryoprotectants is especially tied into the problem of achieving concurrent and adequate distribution of cryoprotectant to all parts of the body that are vulnerable to freezing injury, which requires many hours of perfusion. In addition to cryoprotectant toxicity there are a number of other poorly-understood phenomena that could frustrate the ideal of cryonics without repair such as “chilling injury” and “thermal shock.”

An interesting form of injury that is not well known by the general public but that triggers a lot of discussion among cryonics researchers is dehydration of the brain. Without exception, a wellconducted cryopreservation of the brain with present technology produces severe shrinking. In fact, this shrinkage, and the corresponding increase in concentration of salts and proteins naturally present in the brain, appears to be a key mechanism by which whole brains vitrify despite limited permeability to perfused cryoprotectants. Evidence of substantial dehydration (obtainable by direct inspection of the brain inside the skull or via CT scans) is often considered an indicator of good care in cryonics. Of course, this leaves the question unanswered whether such a degree of dehydration is compatible with viability of the brain. Yuri Pichugin, the researcher who developed the Cryonics Institute’s current vitrification agent, VM-1, considered such extreme cerebral dehydration an obstacle to restoring viability after vitrification and identified a number of blood brain barrier modifiers that allowed him to recover brain slices after whole brain cryoprotective perfusion with improved viability. Whether such agents are of benefit or actually harmful is still an open research question.

Even if we could cryopreserve a human being without ice formation, toxicity, chilling injury, or other forms of injury associated with cryoprotection, there is still one remaining obstacle for reversible  cryopreservation: fracturing caused by thermal stress. While fracturing has been recognized as a problem and observed as an empirical phenomenon in patients as far back as the early 1980s, this form of injury has pushed itself to center stage (together with cryoprotectant toxicity and cerebral dehydration) since cryonics organizations started using vitrification agents aimed at eliminating ice formation altogether. If ice formation is eliminated, fracturing is the only mechanical form of damage left. While the significance of fracturing damage is sometimes downplayed by molecular nanotechnology experts, and fracturing at cryogenic temperatures doesn’t result in actual fragmentation, letting a human brain form fractures is not what most people would consider appropriate treatment of a critically ill patient.

What is striking, however, is how little we actually know about fracturing in cryonics patients. Fracturing has been observed in patients that were cryopreserved with (relatively) low concentrations of cryoprotectants. Such protocols produced ice formation and we should therefore not be surprised about observing cracking in those patients. Even in patients who have been cryopreserved using modern vitrification agents acoustic fracturing events (which may or may not correspond with actual fractures) have been detected above the glass transition temperature (Tg) of the pure vitrification solution. But even these observations have little relevance to the question of what we should expect in a good case. Many cryonics patients are perfused under sub-optimal conditions due to delays after clinical death. It is therefore likely that many of these fracturing events, if real, can be attributed to ischemia-induced perfusion impairment and ice formation. And that cooling frozen tissues to very low temperatures can cause fracturing is something we already know.

There are some encouraging preliminary research results suggesting that under ideal circumstances (i.e., good equilibration, controlled cooling) fracturing is not as serious a problem as it has been made out to be. The current practice of long term care at liquid nitrogen temperature may not be salvaged by such observations, but the intermediate temperature storage (ITS) systems that have been developed might be sufficient to eliminate this problem under good conditions at temperatures not too far below Tg. A related intriguing question is what the effect of severe cerebral dehydration is on the occurrence and frequency of fractures in the brain.

Let’s say that one agrees with the objective of “cryonics without repair” (or very limited repair), and the identification of the biggest scientific and technical obstacles to achieve this. What should our research and clinical objectives be? For starters, cryonics organizations should continue to cultivate an interest in personal alarm systems and securing good legal and logistical cooperation with providers of medical care. One technical development that deserves to be introduced is “field vitrification.” Strictly speaking, the phrase is a misnomer because we are not really talking about the patient being vitrified in a remote location; it is the cryoprotective perfusion part of the procedure that is done prior to transport to Alcor (in remote cases). Evidence from at least three labs indicates that perfusing the patient in the field with a vitrification solution and shipping on dry ice is safe, practical, and superior to blood substitution in most scenarios. While remote blood substitution (“washout”) is clearly demonstrated to be better than shipping the patient without removing the blood, it is not likely that hypothermic organ preservation solutions capable of keeping the brain viable for longer than 24 hours, and capable of inhibiting whole body edema, will be developed any time soon. Field vitrification is simply the next logical development in high-quality evidence-based cryonics. Other important improvements include better cooling efficiency (e.g., using cyclic cold lung lavage), improved cardiopulmonary support protocols, a renewed emphasis on monitoring during casework, and the introduction of intermediate temperature storage.

The most formidable challenge will be to develop what I call “brain-friendly” cryoprotectants. What needs to be accomplished? These agents should have no, or tolerable, toxicity, eliminate chilling injury and other poorly-understood forms of cryopreservation injury, allow safe and fracture-free storage at intermediate temperatures, and allow cryoprotective perfusion with greater penetration of agents into brain tissue with less dehydration so that results in whole brains can more closely match the high viabilities now obtainable in brain slices.

At my own company, Advanced Neural Biosciences, we have successfully developed a rat EEG model to screen for such brain-friendly cryoprotectants. As I write up this presentation, we have been successful in recovering integrated whole brain electrical activity after hypothermic circulatory arrest at 0° Celsius. Our next objectives are to recover EEG activity in the brain after cooling to subzero temperatures and to understand the relationship between cryoprotectants, the blood brain barrier, dehydration, and viability. It is too early to report any significant findings yet, but one thing that has become quite clear to us is that adequate ventilation during cool down is essential to recovery of whole brain activity. This is rather important because cryonics organizations have not been that concerned about meeting the brain’s demand for oxygen during stabilization, and during blood washout and blood substitution in particular. No doubt, if we continue this research we will learn other things that have direct relevance to the practice of cryonics.

The whole brain cryopreservation research project has been made possible by the generous support of the Life Extension Foundation. The author also wishes to thank the Immortalist Society, Cryonics Institute, Alcor, LongeCity, 21st Century Medicine, Alan Mole, York Porter, Jordan Sparks, David Ettinger, Ben Best, Mark Plus, Peter Gouras, James Clement, Luke Parrish, and John Bull for additional support.

13. October 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Cryonics, Neuroscience, Science

First published in Cryonics, 4th Quarter 2011

Robert Ettinger on Substrate-Independent Minds

Introduction and Afterword by Aschwin de Wolf

Introduction

Robert Ettinger, the “father of cryonics,” was cryopreserved on July 23, 2011. While Ettinger’s book Man into Superman (1972) is considered an important contribution to transhumanism, he increasingly came to recognize that most people do not desire a hard break with the past and resist radical transformation. During the last years of his life he became a vocal critic of ‘mind uploading’ as a means of personal survival and spent a considerable amount of time refining his arguments why mind uploading is not likely to work. This document organizes excerpts from his last book Youniverse and mailing list messages on the topic of substrate-independent minds. In the afterword, I make a brief attempt to place his contributions in a broader philosophical context.

The title of this document refers to a message that Robert Ettinger sent to the Cryonics Institute mailing list on July 21, 2011. In response to the claim that the human mind is a machine, and that the function of any machine can be duplicated by a machine built of another material, Ettinger asked, “Can you build a locomotive out of helium?”

Mind Uploading

“A large and burgeoning group of scientists, including some of the brightest, believe that—in principle—computers will fairly soon be able to think in the fullest sense of the word. They will be living, conscious entities with feelings and subjective experiences.

“A corollary—many believe—is that your persona could be uploaded into a computer and you could then live an incomparably bigger and better life as a simulation or emulation.

“I think the uploading thesis is probably wrong, although (as usual) it’s too soon to be sure. But the issue is a significant part of modern philosophy, and potentially has enormous practical importance.

“…I am among the radicals in the expectations for AI. But intelligence is not life. It is by no means proven that life as we know it with subjective experience can exist on an arbitrary substrate, such as silicon.” (Youniverse)

Information

“One extreme school of thought holds that information and its processing constitute everything that is important. In particular, you are essentially just a collection of information, including a program for processing that information. Your ‘hardware’—the nervous tissue that embodies and handles the information—is only secondary.

“My conclusion will be that it is not necessarily possible—even in principle—for consciousness to exist on an inorganic substrate, and in fact that it is unlikely.

“Sometimes the doubters are accused of dualism—the increasingly discredited belief that the living and inanimate worlds, or the material and the spiritual worlds, are separate.

“This certainly is not true of me or of many others who question the information paradigm. I am a thoroughgoing materialist and reductionist. I will not feel in the least dehumanized if it turns out the information paradigm is right…I have strong doubts, but they are based entirely on the evidence, or lack thereof.

“The most radical of the ‘strong AI’ people believe that all thinking is information processing, and all information processing is thinking; and they appear to believe that consciousness is just an expression of complexity in thinking.

“People who talk this way must be admired for boldness and strength of conviction, but I think not for clarity of thought.

“The point is, all physical phenomena, all interactions, involve information processing in some sense. But that isn’t all they do. A computer, or a person with pencil and paper, could figure out—describe or predict—what the atoms do, and that would be an analog of the information processing part of the phenomenon; but only the actual, physical atoms can form an oxygen molecule. And to anthropomorphize or analogize ‘feelings’ and ‘thoughts’ into these phenomena is simply unjustified. It amounts to declaring, by fiat, that thinking and feeling are inherent in information processing; but saying so doesn’t make it so.” (Youniverse)

Turing Tests and Zombies

“Alan Turing was a brilliant mathematician and computer pioneer. He played an extraordinary part in winning World War II through his work in cryptography for British Intelligence. He also showed many of the potential capabilities of general computers. But one of the works for which he is most famous is badly flawed or has been badly misused—the ‘Turing test’ for intelligence/- consciousness.

“Again, I am a firm materialist and reductionist: I readily concede the possibility that a machine could (conceivably) have life and consciousness. But I deny that we can assume that (inorganic) machines have this potential; and with still more help from Turing I think I can make the case persuasive.

“‘Uploaders’ or ‘upmorphists’ or patternists generally maintain that our identity resides in our information content. Their most extreme position is patently absurd—that ‘we’ literally persist, in some degree, if any of the information about us is preserved, even our writings or biographical data. (Shades of Woody Allen! ‘I don’t want to live on in my works; I want to live on in my apartment.’) Anyone who believes this needs more help than I can provide.

“Turing ingeniously showed that a strip of paper tape marked in squares, with zeroes or ones marked on the squares according to certain rules, along with a simple mechanism for moving the tape and making or erasing marks, could be a universal information processor—i.e., it could accomplish any information processing task that any digital computer (serial or parallel) could do, given enough time. It could even produce any result that a quantum computer might, albeit at a teeny-tiny fraction of the speed.

“You certainly can’t claim that a paper tape (even when it is moving) is alive or conscious! Yet that tape, in theory, could produce any response that a person could to a particular stimulus—if by ‘response’ we mean a signal sent to the outside world, suitably coded. It could converse with perfect fidelity to an individual’s character, and over a teletype could fool that person’s husband or wife.

“My original objection to the uploading assumption was simply that we don’t know anything about consciousness or feeling, hence it is premature to assume that it can exist other than where we know it exists, viz., in organic brains. It is entirely possible that meat machines (as opposed to machines of silicon or metal etc.) have some unique quality that allows the emergence of feeling and consciousness. Until we can isolate and define the mechanisms of feeling—of the subjective condition—we must reserve judgment as to the possibility of inorganic people. (Youniverse)

“Uploaders tend to put faith in the Turing Test  for human intelligence, and to believe that zombies cannot exist. Let’s  take a quick look.

“Communicating (say) by email, a testor tries to determine whether the testee is a human or a computer program. Passing the test supposedly proves the  testee is human or equivalent. But the test is clearly worthless, since it  produces both false positives and false negatives. As much as 50 years  ago Eliza, a program pretending to be a psychiatrist, fooled many people—false positives. And of course a child or a retarded person could perform below par and produce a false negative. The Turing test is baloney.

“In similar vein, uploaders tend to believe that something which outwardly behaves like a person must be a person. They reject the possibility of zombies, systems that by their actions appear to be sentient but are not. Yet it  is often easy to fool people, and, as already noted, programs have fooled  people even though no one claims the programs were alive.” (Cryonics Institute Mailing List, September 9, 2010).”

Imperfect Simulations

“..any simulation created in the foreseeable future will be imperfect, because it will necessarily reflect current theories of physics, and these are known to be incomplete and almost certainly in error to some extent or in some domains. Whether this would necessarily result in material deviations of the simulation from the course of nature, and in particular whether it would preclude feeling, we don’t yet know. But we do know that the simulation would be wrong, which in itself is enough to justify withholding judgment on the possibility of living computers.” (Youniverse)

Analog Failures

“The uploading thesis depends on the assumption that any organic process in the brain can be duplicated by analog in some other medium but this not only isn’t obvious; it’s nonsense.

“For example, suppose a certain process depends on magnetism, and all you have to work with are the mechanical forces transmitted by rigid bodies. Can you make an electric motor out of tinker toys? Can you build a synchrotron out of wooden boards and nails? Uploaders think a computer (of the electronic variety) can be a person: how about a Babbage mechanical computer made of rods and gears? Presumably, any kind of information processing and storage can be done by a collection of rods and gears but could rods and gears conceivably be conscious? I doubt it; not all media are created equal. So it is entirely possible that organic brains have potentialities not realizable anywhere else in the universe.” (Youniverse)

“Just ask yourself what consciousness is—what physical condition or process constitutes consciousness. You don’t know, hence you cannot know that a simulation  fills the bill.” (Cryonics Institute Mailing List, September 16, 2010)

Petitio Principii

“It seems to me that all the computer-metaphor people… keep making the same error over and over again—assuming as a premise the very hypothesis they are trying to establish. When the premise is the same as the conclusion, naturally the conclusion follows from the premise. They refer repeatedly to ‘all computational devices’ etc., implying that the brain is just that—another computational device—when in fact that is precisely what is at issue: Is the brain possibly something more than a computational device? The computer metaphor is plausible (and I am not in the least uncomfortable with it) but plausibility isn’t proof.” (Youniverse)

The Map is not the Territory

“Adherents of the ‘information paradigm,’ I believe, are deceived in part by glibness about  ‘information’ and hasty ways of looking at it.

“Apprently it needs to be said again and again: a description of a thing or a process—no matter how accurate and how nearly complete—is not the same as the thing or the process itself. To assume that isomorphism is enough is just that—an assumption, not self-evidently permissible.

“Even though (for example) a computer program can in principle describe or predict the behavior of a water molecule in virtually all circumstances, a water molecule for most purposes cannot be replaced by its description or program. If you pile up 6.02 x 1023 computers with their programs, you will not have 18 grams of water, and you will have a hard time drinking it or watering your plants.” (Youniverse)

“Eliezer Yudkowsky (and other uploaders) claim that mapping a system results in a map that effectively has the same properties as the original. Well, look again at one of my counter-examples. I write down with pencil and paper the quantum description of a hydrogen atom in its ground state. It could hardly be more obvious that the marks on paper do not constitute a hydrogen atom. And if you put side by side two papers describing two hydrogen atoms, they will not combine to form a hydrogen molecule. In principle, of course (the math is difficult) you could write down expressions corresponding to the formation of hydrogen molecules from hydrogen atoms, but you will still have just marks on paper.

Once more, a simulation is just a coded description of a thing, not the thing itself.” (Cryonics Institute Mailing List, September 18, 2010)

Identity

“The term ‘identical’ is used in different ways by different people. To  some, two systems are identical if they differ only in location, e.g. two  hydrogen atoms in ground state. But I have pointed out that a difference in location necessarily implies other differences as well, such as gravitational fields. Hence my position is that, if the question arises, are A and B  identical, then they are not.

“If two systems differ in spatial or temporal location, then they may be identical to most observers for most purposes, but survival of one does not  imply survival of the other. Suppose you, as you are now according to local  observation, also exist at a great distance in space or time (either past or  future), just by accident. I see no reason for the survival of B to imply the survival of A.” (Cryonics Institute Mailing List, September 16, 2010)

Afterword

Robert Ettinger presented a number of distinct arguments (no fewer than fifteen, by his own count!) against mind uploading and I cannot pretend to have presented them all in this document. I think there are a number of core positions associated with Ettinger’s argument that can be stated quite succinctly, however.

  1. Whether mind uploading is possible is ultimately an empirical question and cannot be settled conclusively by analogies or thought experiments.
  2. A description of a material object is not necessarily the same as the object.
  3. A simulation must be erroneous because the program necessarily is based on our incomplete knowledge about physics.
  4. Consciousness may be substrate-dependent.
  5. A copy of a person may not constitute personal survival.

The common denominator that runs through Ettinger’s critique of substrate-independent minds is a thorough empiricism about knowledge. Ettinger does not categorically rule out the feasibility of mind uploading but takes people to task for dogmatic claims on these topics in absence of empirical corroboration.

Ettinger was particularly irritated by the claim that materialism commits a person to the acceptance of mind uploading. He could not see how a rejection of the soul excludes the view that certain materials are uniquely suitable, or even exclusively suitable, for a certain function. One might add that it is even conceivable that the mind is substrate-independent but that existing organic chemistry provides the most versatile basis for advanced consciousness and survival.

Most of the issues that Ettinger was concerned about may be resolved by the time he will be resuscitated but it is possible that some of the issues that are at stake in this debate are ultimately un-falsifiable or even pseudo-problems. For example, how could we settle the question of whether a copy is “really you?” Obviously, a copy of something will always confirm that (s)he is really him- or herself but that is of little help in resolving the question. Similarly, we may never be able to conclusively verify (or falsify) that a computer has consciousness or feelings. Is it even conceivable that new super-intelligent life forms will replace humans without being conscious or having feelings! Evolution selects for fitness, and whether this implies consciousness is an open question.

So who is right, Robert Ettinger or his critics? I think what captures Ettinger’s perspective the best is to say that if you expect an answer right now, you have not paid close attention to his argument.

04. October 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Cryonics, Neuroscience, Science

Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are by Sebastian Seung, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Trade, 384 pages, 2012.

[This review originally appeared in Venturist News and Views, June-July 2012, 6-7 and Cryonics, September-October 2012]

The scientific perspective that informs Sebastian Seung’s bestselling popular neuroscience book Connectome is so familiar to cryonicists that the bulk of this book could be mistaken for an extensive introduction to the philosophy of mind embodied in cryonics. His book offers a rigorous exposition of the view that our identity is encoded in the connections between neurons, the “connectome,” which itself is shaped by our genes and life experience. The strength of this book is not only its review of the empirical evidence that supports this outlook but its encouraging the reader to think about its implications.  Readers who are intimately familiar with the argument in favor of cryonics should not assume that there is little to learn from this book. As imaging and storage technologies evolve, cryonicists can do more now than in the past to learn about their individual connectome, strengthening the likelihood of successful resuscitation.

One important element of the connectionist premise that structures Seung’s book is that it does not completely resolve competing theories about how the brain works. For example, the recognition that long-term memory (and identity) does not depend on transient electrical activity but has a more robust long-term physical basis that persists during cessation of brain activity (examples are hypothermic circulatory arrest and short periods of cardiac arrest) does not imply a single perspective on how the genome provides the neurological bases for memory formation, retention, recollection, and re-prioritization. One interesting perspective, “neural Darwinism,” which was anticipated by the multi-talented classical-liberal economist Friedrich Hayek, proposes a theory of brain function in which a genetically determined wiring of the brain is subject to competing experiences that strengthen or weaken populations of synapses throughout life. One of the interesting implications of this theory is that consciousness can be treated as an emergent outcome of micro-events in the brain, instead of a mysterious, autonomous property of the brain (think of the curious concept of “free will”).

Seung devotes two chapters to the nature-nurture debate through a connectionist perspective. One of the unfortunate effects of the nature-nurture distinction is that it masks the obvious point that what we call “nurture” (upbringing, environment, etc.) is not exempt from biology but simply concerns the relationship between biological systems and between a biological system and its physical environment. Social scientists who have a strong “nurture”-bias should therefore not be exempted from describing “nurture” in verifiable physical terms, something that many of them do not feel the slightest obligation to do. Another unattractive feature of this debate is that it is routinely portrayed as one between genetic determinists and “environmentalists.” In reality, the debate is mostly between serious scholars who acknowledge that behavior and learning are shaped by both genetics and the environment and those who basically consider the mind a blank slate—a position that is clearly contradicted by existing science but remains popular as a premise in contemporary public policy and certain political ideologies. One of the interesting topics that Seung discusses in these chapters is whether the plasticity of the brain changes over time.

From the perspective of cryonics, the relationship between the genome and the connectome is of great importance. If some of the basic wiring of the brain that encodes personality and temperament is determined by genes and is fixed (or mostly fixed) at an early age, then some parts of the connectome might be inferred from a person’s genome, which opens up an exciting research program for cryonics. A systematic study of the field where genetics meets neurodevelopment might help in understanding the relationship between the genome and brain ultrastructure. This in turn could assist in future resuscitation attempts. To date, the assumption in cryonics has been that the complete ultrastructure of the patient must be preserved (or at least preserved in such a manner that it can be inferred), but if some of it can be inferred from the genome the repair requirements for resuscitation of cryonics patients may be relaxed. Looking for such invariable features in variable brains is an important element of a credible cryonics resuscitation research program.

The power of comparing connectomes is also recognized by Seung in a separate chapter (“Comparing”). There he reviews technologies and approaches to compare connectomes with the goal of understanding personality differences and understanding neuropathologies or “connectopathies.” This chapter is one of several in which the author reviews the existing and emerging technologies that are enabling us to produce a complete connectome, including the innovative equipment of cryonicist and Alcor member Kenneth Hayworth to perform serial electron microscopy. Also discussed are technologies such as diffusion MRI (dMRI), which allows for non-invasive mapping of the connectome at the macro scale using water as a probe. This technology may not be adequate to map the connectome at the cellular level but its contribution to comparative connectomics has already been recognized. It may also hold promise as a means to collect identity-critical information about an individual while alive, which again may lessen the computational challenges involved in cryonics resuscitation. One of the exciting prospects of the field of connectomics is that it can contribute to a further narrowing of the challenges involved in restoring cryonics patients to good health.

Seung closes his chapters on emerging technologies with a review of the prospects of connectomics for the treatment of neurological diseases. One of the potential treatments involves the re-programming of a person’s own (skin) cells to neurons, which can then be introduced in the brain to treat a disease or enhance brain function. Such an approach may also be used to fill the “missing gaps” in the brain of a cryonics patient (alternative technologies include molecular construction of neurons by advanced molecular nanotech­nology).

At this point, I think we can foresee a rather optimistic future for cryonics research and the prospect of resuscitation. Instead of conceptualizing cryonics as the preservation of clinically dead people in the hope that future medicine can restore these people to good health, we can envision a more complex, but more encouraging, path. The work of resuscitation and restoring identity is not something that is expected to occur exclusively in the future but rather will be an ongoing process that starts as soon as the patient is cryopreserved. And with the rise of advanced genomics and non-destructive imaging technologies, some of the initial work can be done while the person is still alive. One of the exciting aspects of being a cryonicist today is that you can take proactive steps to learn about your own connectome and other identity-relevant information.

Seung devotes no less than a whole chapter to human cryopreservation (and the associated idea of chemopreservation). The author recognizes that his own views about the connectome are so similar to the philosophy of mind that underpins cryonics that he needs to do some justice to the rationale of cryonics. One unfortunate aspect is that he situates his discussion of cryonics in the context of religion and immortality. It is undeniable that some cryonicists are motivated by visions of personal immortality but this idea is not intrinsic to cryonics (neither is mind uploading or transhumanism.) Properly conceived, cryonics is an experimental medical procedure that aims to stabilize patients at cryogenic temperatures in anticipation of future treatment. What really distinguishes cryonics from mainstream medicine is not uncertainty (which is a fact of life), but the temporal separation of stabilization and treatment. One regrettable implication of attributing religious motives to people who make cryonics arrangements is that it cheapens the use of the word ‘religious.’ Instead of referring to worship of a higher being, it is here used as a strong belief in something in the absence of conclusive evidence. But by putting the bar so low, Seung (unintentionally) classifies many aspects of life, including choosing novel experimental treatments in mainstream medicine, as “religious.”

At one point Seung writes that research aimed at demonstrating that contemporary vitrification technologies can preserve the connectome will “finally bring some science to Ettinger’s wager.” This is a remarkable statement because even the earliest arguments in favor of cryonics were never presented in the form of a pure wager. In his book The Prospect of Immortality, Robert Ettinger reviews existing evidence from cryobiology and neuroscience and argues that, combined with the expectation that medicine will continue to evolve, the choice to be cryopreserved is a rational decision. Since Ettinger’s book cryonics organizations and wealthy donors have expended a lot of money and time in perfecting preservation techniques and looking at the effects of new technologies on the structure and viability of the brain.  Compared to the state of, let’s say, interventive biogerontology, the scientific progress that has been made in cryonics is not trivial. For example, it is doubtful whether the widespread adoption of vitrification in mainstream cryobiology would have been possible without sustained research into using this approach for complex organs by cryonics supporters. To my knowledge, cryonicists have always been quite eager to generate experimental knowledge to inform their decision making. Now that more advanced technologies to map the human brain are becoming available, cryonics organizations are eager to use them instead of just passively maintaining their “faith.”

Ultimately, Seung still fails to recognize that cryonics inherently involves an element of uncertainty that cannot be eliminated without it not being cryonics anymore (i.e., elimination of uncertainty makes it suspended animation). For example, the author recognizes that it is not necessary for a preservation technology to perfectly preserve the connectome as long as it remains possible to infer the original state (or missing information) from what has been preserved. We can speculate what the limits of such “neural archeology” will be, but I do not think anyone can make conclusive arguments. In this sense, cryonics cannot be completely moved from the realm of informed decision making into the realm of indisputable fact. An element of uncertainty will always be associated with it, even if the experimental evidence in favor of this medical procedure keeps mounting.

The author also discusses alternative preservation approaches such as chemical fixation and plastination. One major disadvantage of existing chemical preservation technologies is that they are irreversible by contemporary techniques (literally a “dead end”) and they do not allow for viability assays to distinguish between worse and better preservation techniques. In contrast, in cryobiology, evidence of good ultrastructural preservation is often a starting point (or independent corroboration) to identify cryoprotectants that are able to store complex organs at cryogenic temperatures and restore them without loss of viability. There is one other formidable challenge that will inevitably arise if chemical preservation is offered as a means of personal survival. It is how to deal with the fact that if chemical fixation is delayed perfusion impairment will prevent complete cross-linking of biomolecules. Even more so than cryonics, chemopreservation requires that the procedure be started prior to, or immediately following, circulatory arrest. In absence of this, the fate of a person’s connectome is uncertain, and may even worsen during storage—a problem cryonics is exempt from.

The book ends with a chapter about mind uploading. One misconception about cryonics is that people seek it as a means to mind uploading, or that reviving the person in a computer is the aim of cryonics. In fact, the late Robert Ettinger became a vocal critic of mind uploading in his final years. He offered a lot of arguments for his skepticism but his main concern was that questions about the feasibility of mind uploading are ultimately empirical questions which cannot be settled by deductive reasoning and dogmatic claims about the nature of the mind or consciousness. One of the amusing aspects of the debate about mind uploading is that proponents and skeptics both accuse the other of not being consistent materialists. Interestingly enough, Seung makes an observation relevant to this debate when he writes how the idea that “information is the new soul” is implied in the mind uploading project.

Despite some misgivings about how Seung presents and conceptualizes cryonics, I am unaware of another book that offers such a clear exposition of the relationship between brain and identity that informs human cryopreservation (and chemopreservation). The most rewarding thing for me was a stronger recognition that the idea of the connectome is not just a premise but opens the door to multiple fruitful research programs aimed at personal survival.

About the Author: Sebastian Seung is Professor of Computational Neuroscience and Physics at MIT and Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He has made important advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscience. His research has been published in leading scientific journals and also featured in the New York Times, Technology Review, and the Economist. (From the dust jacket.)

Dr. Seung was also a speaker at the Alcor-40 conference in October 2012

08. September 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Health, Society

When advocates of radical life extension discuss the social benefits of humans having much longer lifespans, it is often just a footnote to a personal desire to prolong life. As a consequence, cynicism from critics is often encountered. It hard to counter such skepticism effectively because people may believe you are just trying to make an essentially selfish desire look socially desirable.

There is an alternative. We can approach the topic from the other direction if we ask what kind of lifespans would be desirable if we want to increase social welfare and reduce human suffering. Let’s look at a number of issues.

There is a large literature about coping with the death of loved ones, relatives, and friends. While many people find support from such self-help books, most people would agree that no amount of anticipation or coping can eliminate the suffering and devastation that follows the death of a loved one. Is there an upside? I am not aware of any serious writer pontificating about the positive aspects about a person dear to you dying or suffering from aging-related disabilities. A society in which humans have control over the aging process would be desirable because it would eliminate the dominant cause of death (age-associated diseases) and the suffering it brings to survivors.

It is not uncommon to hear people being accused of not caring about the effects of their actions on future generations. This complaint is particularly prominent in discussions about the environment and the use of natural resources. If humans were not born to die on a predictable schedule this whole dynamic would change because the distinction between current and future generations would cease to exist. If consideration of the long-term consequences of our actions requires a prominent place in human life, we should not want humans to replace each other but generations to coexist in time and space.

Age discrimination involves discrimination of individuals on the basis of their age. In most instances, however, this discrimination concerns biological age and its effects on appearance, physical health, and mental skills. Biological age is not hard to observe and can usually be inferred from chronological age. If we prefer that people are not treated differently because of their date of birth we should want to live in a society where rejuvenation biotechnologies sever the link between chronological age and biological age.

What about economic welfare? Ageless people would be able to remain productive and generous, medical costs associated with the debilitating health and mental effects of biological aging would be substantially reduced, and highly talented people would not cease to exist.

Reasoning backwards from what morality and welfare would “dictate” about human lifespans is not just a talking point in discussions about the bioethics of life extension. One can imagine the rise of a social movement that seeks to educate the general public about the social benefits of biological control over the aging process. Such a social movement would not be in the business of making excuses for eccentric individual desires but would recommend that the reduction of suffering, sustainable growth, and more virtuous conduct would require that humans do not have a fixed expiration date.

Originally published as a column (Quod incepimus conficiemus) in Cryonics magazine, December, 2013

19. August 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Cryonics, Death, Neuroscience

On October 11, 2013, the Wall Street Journal featured a cover story about the unintended consequences of Norway’s long-time insistence on “plastic graves” (“Grave Problem: Nothing is Rotting in the State of Norway”). You see, after World War II the Norwegians wrapped the dead in plastic prior to burial and now they are faced with…corpses that are not decomposing. Since cemetery real estate is scarce in Norway this creates a rather complicated and sensitive problem. One of the solutions is to poke holes in the ground and plastic to inject a lime-based solution to accelerate decomposition.

Not many people would expect the brains of these plastic-preserved Norwegian corpses to be in pristine condition at the ultrastructural level but this strange story does illustrate that decomposition is a process that is highly sensitive to variables like the presence of oxygen, water, microorganisms, and temperature. Of course, some of these variables are related. When temperatures are lower there will be reduced microbial activity. As a consequence, at cold temperatures the rate of decomposition can be even slower than what one would predict based on the decrease of the brain’s metabolism alone. Cold ischemia is not just warm ischemia slowed down (and vice versa).

My company, Advanced Neural Biosciences, Inc., is currently collaborating with Alcor to produce a series of electron micrographs of brain tissue exposed to very long times of cold ischemia (0 degrees Celsius). One of the reasons we are doing this project is to bring actual data to the decision making process concerning the question when to accept and when no longer to accept a patient who has been stored at low temperatures prior to contacting Alcor for cryonics arrangements.

Ultimately, what we are looking for is an ultrastructural signature of “information-theoretic death.” This presents a formidable problem because information-theoretic death is not an unambiguous identifiable property of an image but concerns our best guestimate about how much structure a future technology might still be able to infer from a given state of damage. For existing patients and members who want to be preserved under any conditions this is not a directly relevant question (the future will tell). But when you have to make a decision whether to accept a third-party “post-mortem” patient, arbitrary decisions have to be made because Alcor simply cannot accept every case brought to its attention.

We have now produced electron micrographs of up to 1 month of cold ischemia. When we shared these 1 month images with the Alcor Research and Development committee one member remarked that he “would not have guessed that so much structure could remain after one month.” When we presented an image from this series at a recent conference, attendees were also surprised about this level of preservation.

Of course, this is not the end of the story because a patient with such a long period of cold ischemia will still need to be cooled to cryogenic temperatures for long-term care and a “straight freeze” on top of such extensive ischemic damage could tip the balance towards informationtheoretic death. These results raise one interesting possibility, however. If the damage of a straight freeze is a lot worse than the damage from moderate times of cold ischemia, cryoprotecting the brain (or both hemispheres separately) by soaking it in cryoprotectant could be a superior protocol for a select number of Alcor cases. There is still much to be learned.

Originally published as a column (Quod incepimus conficiemus) in Cryonics magazine, November, 2013

17. August 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Health, Science

The idea that aging is a choice will strike many readers as preposterous and I will admit at the outset that such a position can ultimately not be maintained. But in a milder sense, it should be recognized that we can make decisions in life regarding diet and lifestyle that can mitigate or accelerate the aging process. This “wiggle room” may turn out to be of great importance for reaching a time when serious rejuvenation biotechnologies will become available.

According to biologist Michael R. Rose (see the interview in Cryonics magazine, September 2013) aging is not an immutable process of wear and tear that unfolds through iron logic without being sensitive to lifestyle and diet. Aging begins after the start of reproduction and the forces of natural selection decline with chronological age, eventually stopping at late age (which raises the possibility that aging stops).

Some things that we associate with aging are not inevitable physiological processes but choices or decisions to conform to expectations. For example, when people reach adulthood, and pursue a family and career, they often conform to a lifestyle that involves more time sitting at a desk or in cars, more time spent inside, less time socializing with friends, and are subject to increasing amounts of stress and sleep deprivation.

As the physiological consequences of such a lifestyle (obesity, higher blood pressure, declining free hormone levels) express themselves many people tell themselves such things are the inevitable effects of getting older. But alternative scenarios may be possible if we remain aware of our environment, lifestyle, and diet.

In the case of diet, the dominant opinion remains that a healthy diet can be identified regardless of age, sex, and population group. There is increasing evidence, however, that such a perspective leaves a lot to be desired and that too much reductionism in these matters is not a good thing. There are, however, a number of observations that can be made. Restriction of calories (or intermittent fasting or meal skipping) seems to trigger a beneficial stress response that improves health and perhaps even extends life. Similarly, adopting a diet that more closely mimics that of hunter gatherers in conjunction with giving up a sedentary lifestyle has been successful in improving the lives (and looks!) of many people, in particular in the case of obesity.

What makes it rather difficult to adopt such lifestyle changes is that we are almost continuously exposed to an environment that makes it rather difficult to effect such changes. Most of our food is highly processed, loaded with carbs and sugar, and served in portion sizes that always seem to increase. When we move from one location to another the emphasis is on minimizing energy expenditure and eliminating resistance. We work in dark and confined spaces during the day and are exposed to light until we go to sleep (or sometimes even during sleep!). When we come home we turn on the television or the computer to “socialize.” It should not surprise us that such an “unnatural” lifestyle translates into the classic signs of aging and functional deterioration.

There is a lot at stake here. As daunting as it may seem, the idea that aging is not a uniform “process” that swallows us up at a constant rate opens up the possibilities of positive change. Armed with the latest findings in evolutionary biology and medicine we can start pushing back, stabilize the situation as best as we can, and reach a time when more radical rejuvenation biotechnologies will become available. Start moving, start lifting, go camping, make new friends, eat organic and fermented foods, skip the occasional meal, and cut the sugar!

Originally published as a column (Quod incepimus conficiemus) in Cryonics magazine, October, 2013

26. November 2013 · Comments Off · Categories: Cryonics, Neuroscience, Science, Society

[This interview was originally published in Cryonics magazine September 2013]

By Stephen Cave

This magazine generously reviewed my book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization in the November/December 2012 edition. But the reviewer argued that I didn’t properly understand cryonics — so I decided to speak to a leading expert. This interview, with Cryonics Magazine’s editor Aschwin de Wolf, is the result. Parts of the interview appeared originally in Aeon Magazine (http://www.aeonmagazine.com)

What is cryonics?

(Stephen Cave) Cryonics is sometimes described as “medical time travel” – is that how you see it?

(Aschwin de Wolf) Yes, that is a good characterization. What sets cryonics apart from other medical procedures is not uncertainty (which is an element of many experimental medical treatments) but the temporal separation of stabilization and treatment. Cryonics reflects the recognition that a disease considered terminal today might be treatable in the future.

Does/will cryonics work?

What is the largest (or most complex) organism (or tissue) that has been successfully cryopreserved and revived (or reversibly vitrified)?

A rabbit kidney has been vitrified and successfully transplanted with long-term survival. Another major achievement that supports the practice of cryonics is the successful vitrification and functional recovery of rat hippocampal brain slices.

In terms of whole organisms, tardigrades and certain insect larvae have been successfully recovered after cryopreservation at low sub-zero temperatures.

What breakthroughs in cryopreservation are still required? When do you think they might come?

Recovery of organized electrical activity in the whole brain (EEG) after vitrification and rewarming would provide further support for the practice of cryonics. This may be achieved in about 5 to 10 years. Long term, the aim should be true suspended animation of a mammal.

It is important to recognize, however, that the damage associated with today’s cryonics procedures only excludes meaningful future resuscitation if the original state of the brain cannot be inferred. Damage-free cryopreservation would be sufficient but it is not necessary to justify practicing cryonics today.

Cryonics depends upon faith in technological progress and social stability (such that well-disposed scientists and physicians in the future will be both able and inclined to revive cryonics patients). Why do you believe the future will be so utopian?

In my opinion, it is more reasonable to ask why anyone would make decisions on the premise that medical progress would come to a screeching halt. Cryonics patients have time, and successful resuscitation does not necessarily require fast or accelerated progress. Cryonics does not rest on an utopian, but on a very conservative, premise.

Resuscitation of cryonics patients is the foremost responsibility of a cryonics organization. That is why organizations like Alcor set aside substantial amounts of money in a separate trust to allow for the maintenance and eventual resuscitation of the patient.

Social acceptance

Why do you think cryonics is not more popular?

It would be tempting to say that cryonics is not more popular because most people do not think it will work. The problem with this explanation is that hundreds of millions of people believe in all kinds of things for which there is no strong empirical evidence at all, such as astrology. In addition, when faced with a terminal prognosis people have a really low threshold for believing in the most implausible treatments.  If the popularity of cryonics would be a function of its scientific and technical feasibility, we should have seen major increases in support when new technologies, such as vitrification, were introduced.

The most likely explanation, in my opinion, is that people fear social alienation and solitary resuscitation in an unknown future. In fact, writers such as Arthur C. Clark, who strongly believed that cryonics will work, personally admitted as much. This is a real challenge for cryonics organizations but there is a growing interest in topics such as reintegration of cryonics patients.

Do you think there might be a tipping point in its popularity? What might bring such a tipping point about?

Scientific and technological breakthroughs in cryobiology (suspended animation) and cell repair will certainly help, but if fear of the future holds most people back there may not be such a tipping point. It is possible, however, that in certain demographical groups making cryonics arrangements will be recognized as the normal, rational, thing to do. Something like is already happening in subcultures that are interested in human enhancement or reducing bias in decision making.

Do you think there will be a day when cryonics is the normal procedure for treating those with diseases incurable by contemporary medicine?

Yes, or at least some kind of long term stabilization procedure will be used for people that cannot be treated by contemporary medicine. I find it hard to imagine that people will persist in burying or burning a person just because there is no treatment today. That is just irrational and reckless.

Philosophy and legal status of cryonics

Are those who are currently cryopreserved, in your view, actually dead?

No. But I do not think we can just claim that they are alive in the conventional sense of the word either, although that may change if we can demonstrate that cryopreservation can preserve viability of the brain.

If not, what state do you consider them to be in?

If the original state of the brain, what some scientists call the “connectome,” can be inferred and restored, cryonics patients are not dead in a more rigorous sense of the word. Their identities are still with us in an information-theoretical sense.

What legal status do you think those who are cryopreserved should have?

They should have much stronger legal status than the deceased have today. While a meaningful philosophical/technical distinction could be made between conventional patients and cryonics patients I think we need to err on the side of caution and give them the same kind of protection as other patients with terminal diseases.

At the very least, obstacles to conducting good human cryopreservation in hospitals should be eliminated because a lot of reservations people have about cryonics are not intrinsic features of the procedure but the results of cryonics organizations being forced to practice cryonics as a form of emergency medicine.

When should it be legal for someone to have themselves cryopreserved (eg, any time? when diagnosed with a terminal illness? or only when brain-dead according to current definitions? etc)

If a patient has been diagnosed as “terminal,” that is basically an admission of the physician that (s)he has exhausted contemporary medical treatment options. At that point it is prudent to identify other means of saving the patient’s life, including stabilizing them at lower temperatures for future treatment. This is particularly important if the patient is in a condition where continued metabolism will progressively destroy the brain. Such a procedure would be the opposite of assisted suicide because its aim would be to preserve life, not to end it.

Ethical considerations

The overpopulation problem: if a few generations of people do all have themselves cryopreserved, then when technology permits them to be revived and healed, will there not be an enormous population boom? How will this be managed?

There are several responses to this question. The most obvious one is to draw attention to the fact that today’s socio-economic debates in the West are about the consequences of a decline in population in the future as a consequence of people having fewer children.

It is also important to recognize that cryonics does not operate in a sociological, psychological, and technological vacuum. If support for the procedure changes so will our views on reproduction and sustainability.

Of course, it should not even be assumed that future generations will be confined to one planet (Earth). 

What do you say to the idea that death gives meaning or shape to life?

Cryonics is not a permanent cure for death. There may always be catastrophic events that could irreversibly kill a person or whole populations. In fact, it may never be possible to know that we will not die for the simple fact that this would require absolute knowledge about the infinite future.

Having said this, no, I do not think that death gives meaning to life. That is just an admission that the things that matter do not have intrinsic value but are experienced with mortality as a framework. Neither introspection nor observation of ordinary life suggests this.

In fact, I suspect that short human life-spans have an adverse effect on morality because it fosters instant gratification and indifference about long-term reputation and/or consequences.

On the other hand, do you think we are morally obliged to practice cryonics (as we might be to try to prolong life in other ways)?

My qualified answer is “yes.” If we believe that the aim of medicine is to preserve life and reduce suffering, cryonics is a logical extension of this thinking. Cryonics is not only a rational response to the recognition that science and technologies can evolve, but it also can be important to stabilize devastating cases of acute brain trauma.

You

When did you first become interested in life-extension technology?

In my case, my interest in life extension was a consequence of making cryonics arrangements.

When did you first hear about cryonics? When did you sign up for it?

I first read about cryonics on the internet in the mid-1990s. The idea seemed quite reasonable to me but I did not consider it as something that had direct personal relevance to me at the time. This changed in 2002 when a rather trivial medical condition prompted me to think more seriously about my remaining life and mortality. I read a lot of cryonics literature in a short period of time, attended the Alcor conference that autumn, and finalized making cryonics arrangements in January 2003.

Do you proselytize among friends and acquaintances? Have you had much luck in persuading others to sign up for cryonics?

Unless I know that a person has a strong interest in making cryonics arrangements, I generally do not explicitly try to persuade them. This is partly because I do not want people to get defensive in response to the idea. In cases where I know that the person is very open to cryonics, I put more effort into it. I think I have been successful in persuading around 4 people to make cryonics arrangements. There may be more that I am unaware of because of all the writing that I do.

Are you pursuing life-extension practices in the hope that you won’t need to be cryopreserved?

Yes. As most people with cryonics arrangements, I have a strong interest in life extension and rejuvenation research. I am not very optimistic about short-term breakthroughs so I try to eat healthy, exercise, and avoid dangerous activities and excessive stress.

What is your educational background?

I graduated in political science at the University of Amsterdam and have a strong interest in economics and philosophy as well. Over time my academic interests have mostly shifted to biology and neuroscience – also because of the experimental research that I am involved in.

What is your involvement with Alcor or other cryonics institutes/firms?

I have been an Alcor member for 10 years and have been employed in cryonics either as an employee or on a contract basis since 2004. My main activities right now are to conduct neural cryobiology research in my lab at Advanced Neural Biosciences and to edit Alcor’s monthly magazine, Cryonics.

I have always had a good relationship with the other major cryonics organization, the Cryonics Institute, too. In fact, without its support, and its individual members’ support, our research would not have been possible.

What would be your best guess for the year when you will be revived by the scientists of the future? What might the world look like then?

I do not think that there is a uniform year for all cryonics patients. Much will depend on the condition of the patient and prevailing technologies and capabilities at the time. For a typical patient, I doubt we are going to see meaningful resuscitation attempts before 2075.

If the past is any guidance, the (far) future will be a combination of things that have always been with us and things we cannot even imagine right now. I suspect that the most characteristic change in the future will be a seamless integration of human technology and biology and greater control over the aging process. 

22. November 2013 · Comments Off · Categories: Cryonics, Science

Can a case for cryonics be made on skeptical grounds? If we’d have to believe self-identified skeptics this is not only unlikely but cryonics, in fact, is a “logical” target for skeptical scrutiny. The most obvious approach for a skeptic is to demand “proof ” for cryonics. Upon closer inspection, this apparently reasonable demand is rather odd. Let’s start with a non-controversial definition of cryonics: cryonics is a form of critical care medicine that stabilizes critically ill patients at ultra-low temperatures to allow the patient to benefit from future advances in medicine. Now, what could this demand for “proof ” consist of? Does the cryonics advocate need to provide proof that future developments in medicine will indeed be capable of treating the patient? How could such a proof be even remotely possible? The most scientifically responsible answer would be to say “I don’t know.” And this answer reveals something important about cryonics. The decision to make cryonics arrangements is a form of decision making under uncertainty. Asking for “proof ” for such a decision makes little sense.

“Now wait a second,” someone might add. “It is correct that we do not have absolute knowledge about the future but, surely, science must have some kind of bearing on the question of whether it is rational to make cryonics arrangements?” This much can be admitted. And if we actually look at the science (or the history of medicine) that is relevant to make informed decisions about cryonics we find a number of encouraging observations. Medicine is increasingly recognizing the rather arbitrary nature of death. From the first clumsy attempts to restore circulation and breathing in patients with sudden circulatory arrest to today’s sophisticated protocols that employ aggressive CPR, hypothermia, and emergency cardiopulmonary bypass, our ability to resuscitate people from states in which they would have been previously been considered “dead” is moving towards ever-longer periods of circulatory arrest. In fact, in some advanced medical procedures, hypothermic circulatory arrest is deliberately induced. Such developments are backed up by histological research where it has been established that the neuroanatomical basis of identity does not just implode within 5 minutes of circulatory arrest. Observation of nature also supports the view that cessation of metabolism does not equal death.

“Well, I will admit that science and technology are constantly challenging our beliefs about death but the cryopreservation process itself causes irreparable injury to the patient,” is a common rejoinder to this argument. But this puts our skeptical friend in a rather incoherent position. Having first recognized that we cannot have absolute knowledge about the future capabilities of science, (s)he does not feel the slightest contradiction in claiming that certain kinds of damage cannot be repaired by any future medical technology.

Contemporary cryobiology now informs us that if cooling rates are not too rapid, ice formation does not explode cells from the inside, that ice-free cryopreservation (vitrification) is possible, and that mammalian brain slices can be vitrified and rewarmed with good ultrastructural preservation and viability. The situation is even better than what we might hope for because even if the damage associated with cryopreservation was substantial, it might still be possible to infer the original state from the damaged state. As we are increasingly recognizing in such diverse fields such as forensic science and paleogenetics, it is actually very, very hard to destroy information to such a degree that nothing meaningful can be inferred from what is left.

Then why has cryonics traditionally gotten such a poor reception by people who see themselves as “skeptics?” I suspect that some of it has to do with the fact that cryonics is traditionally associated with (religious) concepts such as immortality, very optimistic projections about the accelerating growth of science and technology, the technical feasibility of specific repair technologies (such as molecular nanotechnology), or mind uploading. But none of these ideas is an intrinsic part of the idea of cryonics. In its most basic form cryonics is just the recognition that what might be beyond the scope of contemporary medicine may be treatable in the future. No specific timeframe or technology is implied, or necessary. There are a lot of things that people in liquid nitrogen don’t have, but one thing they do have is time.

Contemporary science can weaken or strengthen the case for cryonics but it cannot tell with absolute certainty what our medical capabilities in the remote future will be. Saying that some kind of damage cannot be repaired by any future science is not an exercise of critical thinking but ultimately an appeal to authority. How many times do we have to revise our views about death and forecasting before we recognize that we are playing a fool’s game and that the proper, skeptical, approach is to refrain from dogmatic statements and naïve inductivism about such matters? The idea that, right here, right now, in 2013, we are at a time where we can make absolute certain claims about the future capabilities of science and technologies is preposterous. In absence of such knowledge we’d better refrain from doing harm and allow for the possibility that time will be on the side of cryonics patients.

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A “Skeptic” on Cryonics: A Brief Case Study

Self-identified “skeptic” Dr. Michael Shermer wrote a column called “Nano Nonsense and Cryonics” (Scientific American, Sept. 2001) that includes a sensationalist description of cryonics with a number of factual errors:

“Cryonicists believe that people can be frozen immediately after death and reanimated later when the cure for what ailed them is found. To see the flaw in this system, thaw out a can of frozen strawberries. During freezing, the water within each cell expands, crystallizes, and ruptures the cell membranes. When defrosted, all the intracellular goo oozes out, turning your strawberries into runny mush. This is your brain on cryonics.”

Since the early days of cryonics, standard procedure has been to circulate a cryoprotectant through the circulatory system of the patient to reduce ice formation. In fact, when Shermer wrote his column the Alcor Life Extension Foundation had not only published a study that showed good histological preservation of the brain with a high concentration glycerol solution but had also introduced the newer technology of vitrification to eliminate ice formation completely. Shermer’s description of the effects of ice formation on cells is factually incorrect too, as anyone who would just casually study modern cryobiology could have discovered. Finally, one does not need to have a detailed understanding of cryonics protocols to realize that the fate of a thawed frozen brain has little to do with the resuscitation scenarios envisioned for molecular repair of the cryopreserved brain.

One can only speculate why Shermer did not inform himself about some basic facts about cryonics and cryobiology. One explanation is that there is no “cost” to being wrong about cryonics. If Shermer would make such careless statements about physics or chemistry his reputation would be much more likely to take a blow because there are numerous people who would identify these errors.

Shermer also ridicules the immortalist and transhumanist activists associated with cryonics:

“I want to believe the cryonicists. Really I do. I gave up on religion in college, but I often slip back into my former evangelical fervor, now directed toward the wonders of science and nature. But this is precisely why I’m skeptical. It is too much like religion: it promises everything, delivers nothing (but hope) and is based almost entirely on faith in the future.”

Such a perspective confuses the subculture of cryonics with the idea of cryonics itself. You can read religious aspirations into cryonics but you can also ignore them to look at the idea in its most charitable form.

Cryonics is an experimental medical procedure that allows people that cannot be sustained by contemporary medical technologies to reach a time when a treatment for their condition may be available. Such decision making under uncertainty has nothing to do with “faith” and “hope” but requires that we update our probabilities based on the available evidence from fields such as neuroscience, cryobiology, and molecular nanotechnology. While Shermer has later (rather unsuccessfully) attempted to qualify the statements made in his original article, his column is rather representative of how many critics of cryonics operate; mischaracterize its premises and procedures, avoid a discussion of the technical feasibility of molecular repair, and change the subject to psychological and philosophical issues.

Originally published as a column (Quod incepimus conficiemus) in Cryonics magazine September 2013

05. October 2013 · Comments Off · Categories: Science, Society

A friend of mine in the life extension movement who is approaching age 65 once lamented that he might be part of the last generation that will not be able to take advantage of the rejuvenation biotechnologies that become available to the next generation. I wish I could believe him because it means that I may still be in time! Unfortunately, interest in anti-aging research and cryonics is rather low (to put it mildly), even among baby boomers who one might expect to be painfully aware of the aging process. It is rather disturbing to me that the aging process itself is not being identified as a source of misery, disease, separation, and oblivion. Then again, perhaps I am just too impatient and unable to see the larger picture.

The practical production of liquid nitrogen from liquefied air was first achieved by Carl von Linde in 1905, although liquid nitrogen only became widely available commercially after World War II. The idea of cryonics was introduced to the general public in the mid-1960s. Since liquid nitrogen (or liquid helium) is an essential requirement for human cryopreservation it is interesting to recognize that there was only a difference of roughly 20 years between cryonics being technically possible and the first efforts to practice cryonics. Is this an outrageously long delay? I doubt anyone would argue this.

Similarly, while the idea of rejuvenation has always appealed to humans (think about Countess Elizabeth Bathory), I doubt anyone can credibly claim that there has been a long delay between our recognition of biological senescence and the desire to see aging as a biotechnological challenge to overcome. While there is no massive global movement to fight aging yet, the desire to conquer aging is as old as the exposition of (secular) modern evolutionary biology
itself. Are we too impatient?

What is disappointing, however, is the widespread passive acceptance of aging and death by the majority of people. Thinking about this issue, it struck me that until recently our (educational) institutions and research programs were shaped by generations that were perhaps eminently amenable to accepting the inevitability of aging. Expecting these institutions and research programs to change their objectives overnight may not be completely realistic. It is undeniable, however, that the idea that aging is not something that is to be passively accepted but something that can be stopped and reversed is gradually winning more converts.

I suspect this observation will not provide much solace for my aging friend. But one of the nice features of cryonics is that it is possible to benefit from future rejuvenation technologies regardless of whether one happens to live to the time when such technologies become available. In fact, for some people that might be one of the most appealing reasons to make cryonics arrangements. Case in point, in my own situation I am not so much scared of death as I am fascinated by the idea of seeing the aging process reversed, not just for myself but for others, too. I cannot think of a greater human achievement than the introduction of effective, evidence-based, rejuvenation.

I am comfortable with the idea that I may not live to see rejuvenation biotechnologies becoming available before I am cryopreserved, provided I am able to take advantage of them later. Of course, I’d prefer to be there (without interruption!) when it happens. People may have different reasons to desire cryonics—we need to recognize this diversity of motives instead of just trying to “sell” the one reason that is important to us. Then perhaps, maybe, we can accelerate the identification of aging as a condition to be stopped.

Originally published as a column (Quod incepimus conficiemus) in Cryonics magazine August 2013

04. October 2013 · Comments Off · Categories: Cryonics, Science

The goal of any credible cryonics organization is to develop reversible cryopreservation to avoid passing on problems with the cryopreservation process itself to the next generation. While there is a lot of recognition for the need to eliminate cryoprotectant toxicity, it is rather obvious that it will not be possible to restore integrated function in a fractured brain.

The 2011 3rd Quarter issue of Cryonics magazine features a comprehensive update on intermediate temperature storage (ITS) by Dr. Brian Wowk. This article contains an important observation:

“Acoustic events consistent with fracturing were found to be universal during cooling through the cryogenic temperature range. They occurred whether patients were frozen or vitrified. If cryoprotection is good, they typically begin below the glass transition temperature (-123°C for M22 vitrification solution). If cryoprotective perfusion does not go well, then fracturing events begin at temperatures as warm as -90°C. Higher fracturing temperatures are believed to occur when tissue freezes instead of vitrifies because freezing increases the glass transition temperature of solution between ice crystals. The temperature at which fractures begin is therefore believed to be a surrogate measure of goodness of cryoprotection, with lower temperatures being better.”

This is an important observation because one of the arguments that is still being made against intermediate temperature storage is that Alcor routinely records fracturing events above the nominal glass transition temperature (Tg) of the vitrification solution. But if we recognize that such events can be (partly) attributed to ice formation due to ischemia-induced perfusion impairment it should be obvious that the recording of fracturing events above Tg as such cannot be an argument against ITS. After all, we also do not argue against the use of vitrification solutions because ice formation will still occur in ischemic patients that are perfused with vitrification solutions. Because cryonics patients almost invariably suffer some degree of ischemia prior to cryoprotective perfusion and cryopreservation, our knowledge about fracturing events in “ideal” human cases remains incomplete.

Hugh Hixon has developed a “crackphone” to detect acoustic events that are presumed to reflect fracturing events. A preliminary survey of the data reveals, roughly, that the first temperature at which cracking events are recorded is lower for the newer generation of vitrification solutions than for the older glycerol solutions. Does this mean that fracturing occurs at lower temperatures in “vitrified” patients? “The lowest first fracturing event recorded at Alcor was at a temperature of -134°C for M22.”

Is this what we can expect for M22 for all patients, or was this an “ideal” case, too? Would -130°C be a safe storage temperature? Does molecular-scale ice nucleation, as distinct from ice growth, constitute damage? Despite all the articles and discussions that have been devoted to the topic of intermediate temperature storage, we do not seem to know much yet about fracturing in (large) tissues that are well equilibrated with a vitrification solution and subjected to a responsible cooling protocol. While the crackphone data seem to support the use of the newer vitrification solutions for reducing fracturing, controlled studies of fracturing in vitrified tissues will need to be conducted in a lab to really understand what we can expect under ideal (non-ischemic) circumstances.

Originally published as a column (Quod incepimus conficiemus) in Cryonics magazine July 2013