The low-hanging fruit of technological progress

The website Alternative Right has an interesting article on the declining pace of technological progress:

The world of 1959 is pretty much the same world we live in today technologically speaking. This is a vaguely horrifying fact which is little appreciated…Certainly, people can be forgiven for thinking we live in a time of great progress, since semiconductor lithography has improved over the years, giving us faster and more portable computers. But can we really do anything with computers now that we couldn’t have done 30 or even 50 years ago?…Some wise acre is likely to pipe up and sing the glories of “Nanotech,” a “subject” which was “invented” in K. Eric Drexler‘s Ph.D. thesis in 1989. In the 20 years since he penned his fanciful little story, we have yet to see a single example of the wondrous miniature perpetual motion machines Drexler has been promising us “real soon now.” I wonder what his timeline for delivery of this “technology” will be?

The author dismisses the idea that the rapid technological progress between 1959 and 1909 was possible because these generations focused on the “easy stuff” but I wonder if this explanation can be so easily dismissed. Even if we allow for the credible hypothesis that laissez-faire capitalism is more conducive to accelerating technological change than a mixed economy, it cannot be ignored that commercial incentives favor picking the low-hanging fruit first. The current generation is left with more complicated technological  and biomedical objectives such as molecular nanotechnology and rejuvenation of the human body.

A sober mind should never get too carried away with either optimism or pessimism. One major advantage of making cryonics arrangements is that it eliminates some of the anxiety that comes from recognizing that credible rejuvenation therapies may not become available in your lifetime. Patients in cryostasis have time, a point that is not always fully recognized by skeptics of accelerating technological progress.

Free will versus determinism as it relates to cryonics

Excerpt from “Ben Best – A Case for Free Will AND Determinism”

Determinism implies materialism — implies that consciousness is material. Cryonics is based on the premise that the preservation of the fine structure of the brain at low temperature will preserve the self — ie, that the self is entirely determined-by and contained-in the physical brain. Determinism would imply that preservation of the material basis of mind/self is theoretically possible. (For an exploration of how the self is encoded in the brain, see my series The Anatomical Basis of Mind. Development of the anatomical argument to explain the functioning of mind is best summarized in Chapter 8, Neurophysiology and Mental Function.)

Defenders of “free will” who say that the self has a spiritual basis independent of the brain often reject cryonics as being unnecessary. There are a few “spiritually” oriented people (like the Fyodorovians) who think that “resurrection of the body” is essential due to an intimate connection between the body and the “soul”, but these are in the minority. The majority of cryonicists do not accept spiritual beliefs, but there are notable exceptions, namely people who regard cryonics as a form of medicine. If cryonics can extend life, it is no more an affront to spiritual belief than other life-extending practices such as exercise and the avoidance of tobacco.

What about anti-determinist materialists who believe in “free will”? Those, like Roger Penrose, who claim that the mind is ultimately rooted in quantum uncertainty might not accept the possibility of biostasis, but Penrose has made no explicit statement about this subject. Penrose writes of the non-computability of mind, but acknowledges that non-predictability does not equate with “free will”.

Predictability is really at the heart of what is required for cryonics. If the mechanical operation of billions of neurons and trillions of synapses result in the phenomena known as the mind, the Self and the Will, then preservation & restoration of this machinery by cryonicists & nanotechnologists is possible in principle. But this also means that human beings are machines whose future actions are, in principle, entirely predictable. The positive side of this is that understanding the machinery in sufficient detail could provide the basis for reconstructing those aspects of the mind (parts of the brain) that were destroyed beyond recognition or repair. The negative side is that many people find it “dehumanizing” to believe that we are nothing but machines.

The proposition that the self/mind has a complete material basis in the mind has practical implications for cryonics, but also raised baffling questions. If it is possible to use a cryopreserved brain as a template for atom-by-atom reconstruction of a new brain, the identity of the person whose brain was cryopreserved would presumably be restored. But if such reconstruction could be done once, there is no reason why it could not be done hundreds of times. Would each reconstruction have the same personal identity (the same self) as the original? (For more detail on this question, see my essay The Duplicates Paradox).

How many neurons need to survive for cryonics to work?

On this page a calculation is attempted to determine how many neurons need to survive for cryonics to work. The flaw in this approach should be obvious when the author writes :

According to The Stroke Association, a stroke is a brain injury with effects which may include difficulty thinking, learning, concentrating, remembering, making decisions, reasoning and planning. Rehabilitation consists of relearning skills, not having your brain recover naturally.

So a reasonable position is that the cryonic chilling process should cause less damage to the brain than a stroke

The debilitating effects of a stroke are the result of the (delayed) neuronal death that follows an ischemic insult to the brain. In cryonics, biochemical or freezing damage to cells does not necessarily produce irreversible cell death because damaged cells are stabilized by cold temperatures. As such, morphological preservation of brain cells can co-exist with loss of viability. Therefore, securing viability of brain cells is a sufficient but not a necessary condition for resuscitation of cryonics patients.  Future cell repair technologies are assumed to infer the original viable state of the cells from their morphological properties.

This does not mean that conventional stroke research does not have any relevance for evaluating the technical feasibility of cryonics. Extensive delays between the pronouncement of legal death and the start of cryonics procedures could alter the structural properties of cells to such a degree that meaningful resuscitation is even problematic with advanced nanomedical cell repair technologies. This is one of the reasons why Alcor complements the cryopreservation process with stabilization procedures to secure viability of the brain after pronouncement of legal death.

Chemical preservation and cryonics research

In the 2009-4 issue of Alcor’s Cryonics magazine I review the technical and practical feasibility of chemical preservation. One of the most interesting aspects of chemopreservation is that it could play a useful role in the cryopreservation of ischemic patients.

There is accumulating evidence that vitrification agents cannot prevent ice formation in ischemic patients. This raises the question whether some cryonics patients could benefit from chemical fixation prior to transport and cryoprotective perfusion.

Such protocols raise a number of obvious concerns but the question is not so much whether these procedures are inferior to vitrification of non-ischemic patients, but whether fixatives can improve the situation of some ischemic patients compared to the prospect of substantial ice formation, or even straight freezing (cooling without cryoprotection). This is an empirical question which needs to be settled by experimental research.

Chemopreservation: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

The presumption of death

Bertrand Russell once said that “most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so.” One does not need to look any further than the many responses to Kerry Howley’s recent article about cryonics and hostile partners in New York Times Magazine to find support for Russell’s witty remark. One commenter suggested that “an easy solution would be to just agree with him all the way to the grave. Then bury or cremate him. He’ll never know.” Such a cruel attitude may not be completely representative of what most people think about spousal disapproval of cryonics but it cannot be denied that some hostile partners and relatives have exactly responded in this way when faced with the legal death of a family member who had made cryonics arrangements. As a matter of fact, even indifference to a partner’s cryonics arrangements is a source of problems because the decreased sense of urgency, and a general unwillingness to assist with even the most basic cryonics first-aid procedures, produces substantial ischemic damage. Interfering with an individual’s cryonics wishes raises serious ethical questions because someone’s chance of survival has been reduced from a positive probability to zero.

Peggy Jackson, Robin Hanson’s wife, wonders “what’s so good about me that I’m going to live forever?” This is a strange presumption to make about life and death.  Our culture generally does not have this presumption about moral worth and non-existence. As a general rule, we do not feel that someone has to justify her reason to seek medical care and try to remain alive. The argument is even less relevant in the case of cryonics because cryonics is not publicly funded. It is also a persistent misunderstanding that the objective of cryonics is immortality. It cannot be denied that some who have chosen to make cryonics arrangements have a desire for immortality but both major cryonics organizations simply present cryonics as an experimental medical procedure to treat terminally ill patients who cannot be sustained by contemporary medical technologies. As such, there is no credible rationale to depart from the presumption in favor of life that is implied in today’s medical practice.  “What is so bad about me that I should not seek an experimental medical procedure like cryonics?” should be the obvious response when the presumption of death is made.

‘Choose life at any cost,’ ” Peggy says. “But I’ve seen people in pain. It’s not worth it.” We can agree that people should not choose life at any cost, but what is often ignored in discussions about cryonics is the rather obvious point that cryonics patients will not be resuscitated in the painful and debilitated state of a terminal patient but in a rejuvenated body without the disease the patient suffered from. Without such a condition for resuscitation, cryonics would be an exercise in futility.

One can only agree with bioethicist James Hughes that “there is a lot of ancient cultural stereotyping about the motives and moral character of people who pursue life extension”. In a number of posts on Overcoming Bias Robin Hanson himself has commented on the New York Times Magazine article. Robin draws an interesting parallel between the practice of Sati (“a funeral practice among some Hindu communities in which a recently widowed woman would either voluntarily or by use of force and coercion immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre) and objection to one’s partner’s cryonics arrangements.

Interestingly, Robin Hanson also seems to believe that a major source of anxiety about cryonics is fear of the future. Cryonics has “the problem of looking like you’re buying a one-way ticket to a foreign land.” Robin further thinks that a lot of the opposition to cryonics is driven by the possibility that it might actually work. After all, “If people were sure it wouldn’t work there’d be no point in talking about selfishness, immortality, etc.  If the main issue were a waste of money we’d see an entirely different reaction.” This suggests that cryonics organizations could benefit from altering their public relations strategies. Less emphasis on discussing technical feasibility and more emphasis on dealing with anxiety issues.

The libertarian economist Bryan Caplan always gives cryonics serious consideration but sometimes has the habit of starting his discussion of the topic on a wrong note by discussing the most outlandish resuscitation scenarios instead of just focusing on the most basic form of cryonics; resuscitation of the same physical person that has been cryopreserved. Caplan seems to  be quite interested in the question of what the odds of cryonics working are. Aside from the obvious rejoinder that the odds are much lower than they could be if cryonics was permitted as a pre-mortem elective medical procedure, the point needs to be reiterated that a small dedicated group of people can substantially increase these odds through scientific research and the creation of robust cryonics organizations.  Cryonics is not just an issue of determining fixed probabilities but also about supporting the idea and participation to increase the odds of meaningful resuscitation of people who have been written off by today’s medicine.

Cryonics is decision making under certainty par excellence. If you cannot stomach any kind of uncertainty, cryonics is not the best decision for you. As the mathematician, and current Alcor patient, Thomas Donaldson has said: “There is an IRREDUCIBLE UNCERTAINTY which is basic to cryonics , not merely an adventitious consequence of our ignorance about how memory is stored.” In his article Neural Archeology Donaldson recommends that “if you’re involved in cryonics, you’ve got to make your peace with the unknown, because it will always be there. You’ve simply got to make your peace with it.”

The one silver lining of the recent discussion of partner hostilitily to cryonics is that there has been an increasing recognition of the need for financial and legal strategies to prevent catastrophic interference with one’s cryonics arrangements.  Some of these strategies will be discussed in an upcoming issue of Alcor’s Cryonics Magazine.

Cryonics and fear of the future

To people who have made cryonics arrangements the biggest mystery remains why more people have not made the same decision. The most obvious answer remains that cryonics has not been proven to “work” yet. People who give this answer usually mean that proof of human suspended animation would lead to an increase in the popularity of cryonics. But even if suspended animation would be technically feasible there would still be the remaining obstacles of finding a cure for whatever disease the patient died of, and, for most people, the need for rejuvenation. In the absence of such hurdles there would be no need for cryonics. Cryonics per definition involves decision making under uncertainty.

In “Why is Cryonics so Unpopular?” it is proposed that the lack of technical feasibility cannot explain the current lack of interest in cryonics. Alcor is now using the least toxic vitrification agent identified in the peer reviewed cryobiology literature but this has not translated into a spike of support for cryonics. One could object that it is still not good enough. The problem with this argument is that this does not answer why more people do not make cryonics arrangements when technologies improve. There are people who made arrangements when cryonics organizations used protocols that produced substantial ice damage. So if one believes technical feasibility determines cryonics acceptance, cryonics should grow faster when its technologies improve.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the technical feasibility argument is that it seems rather strange in a world where millions of people accept all kinds of nonsense for which there is no credible empirical evidence at all. The lack-of- technical-feasibility-argument is also hard to reconcile with the fact that cryonics attracts a disproportional number of Ph.D.’s and people with backgrounds in the natural sciences. There is a lot one can say about the demographics of cryonics, but not that cryonicists are ignorant people who can be easily misled. At the 2010 Teens and Twenties cryonics meeting in Florida most of the attendees considered themselves “skeptics.”

That the technical feasibility argument is not persuasive does not mean that progress in research and improved procedures are not important. Progress in cryonics technologies will improve the chance of resuscitation of those who have chosen to make arrangements. Such progress can also be used to seek better legal protection for cryonics patients.

There have been other explanations for the persistent lack of interest in cryonics. One explanation would have it that cryonics as a concept is credible but that the quality of procedures at the existing cryonics organizations is poor. The problem with this argument is that it is simply not consistent with the empirical evidence. People who are reluctant to make arrangements rarely mention it and there is no evidence that people who research cryonics organizations study the difference between published protocols and practice in great detail. As a matter of fact, people who dismiss cryonics have little knowledge of the protocols and procedures that cryonics organizations claim to offer. Furthermore, if this argument would be correct one would expect it to resonate with people who have made cryonics arrangements as well. Alcor collects data about people who terminate their cryonics arrangements and the data do not support this argument at all.

Last, but not least, if cryonics would be credible in concept but not in practice one would expect people to join their cryonics organization of choice and attempt to improve things. Why would one choose the certainty of death over making an effort to further increase the chance that cryonics will succeed? One objection could be that cryonics as practiced today has a zero chance of working and there is no difference between signing up and not signing up. But this argument is not credible because such a claim can only made if (a) one has direct empirical knowledge of the ultrastructure of the brain that results from current procedures and (b) one has detailed knowledge of the capabilities and limits of future cell repair technologies.  The most plausible reason why critics often categorically deny the chance of resuscitation in the future is because it releases them from moral blame if their criticism of cryonics organizations would result in existing patients being removed from liquid nitrogen storage to be burned or buried.

Would cryonics be more popular if it were bundled with another tangible good or religion? Perhaps, but this fails to explain why there are a lot of unorthodox ideas with no such bundling that are a lot more popular. Bundling cryonics with a religion will alienate everyone who has chosen a different religion. As an experimental medical procedure cryonics should not divide, but unite, people. That is not to say that cryonics does not have distinct demographics that can be studied in an effort to grow cryonics.

One reason why advocates of cryonics are not successful in identifying the cause of its limited popularity may be that they are inclined to exempt cryonics as such from its explanations. The assumption is that cryonics as such is a good idea but technical or practical problems prevent its widespread acceptance. But there is a major problem at the heart of cryonics itself. Many people have little difficulty recognizing that cryonics requires a person to choose to be resuscitated in a far and unknown future.  In a sense, this property of cryonics is more about being “reborn” than about “extending life.” Humans have evolved to want to survive but this instinct does not appear to assert itself when faced with the choice to go into biostatis in anticipation of resuscitation in a far and unknown future.

Some cryonics advocates have argued that human history is full of examples of people who lose everything they have but still prefer survival in foreign and unknown places. But in all these examples the person still persists as an aware person and can respond to his environment. What makes cryonics different from these situations is that a cryonics patient in biostatis is not aware and his fate is completely dependent on the efforts of others. If friends and family have made cryonics arrangements this can provide some degree of fear reduction (as a matter of fact, for many who have made cryonics arrangements it does provide relief), but the future will be mostly shaped by people who are not friends and family.

As a matter of fact, these kinds of fear are often expressed when people discuss cryonics or futurism. And it is often among the remaining concerns if people are presented with evidence that the technical feasibility of cryonics is not as bad as they imagined. So in a sense cryonics could benefit from being “bundled” with something.  And the most important bundle is not “technical feasibility” or “procedures performed by medical professionals” but “TRUST”.  People who make cryonics arrangements should have a feeling that their fate is in the hands of people who are strongly committed to their future. This is easier said than done because it is not reasonable to expect that cryonics organizations will have a strong influence on the shaping of the environment that the patient will be resuscitated in.

The idea that cryonics is not popular because of its intrinsic anxiety-producing properties has testable hypotheses that can be worked out. It also allows for new perspectives on promoting cryonics.

Cryonics Oregon june meeting report

About 35 people attended the Cryonics Oregon-sponsored debate on the subject of SENS. Chana de Wolf was mistress of ceremonies. A show of hands indicated that the great majority of those attending were signed-up cryonicists. There was a sizeable contingent of CI Members who drove down from Seattle for the event. One was Eron Hennessey who bid $100 for an autographed Nanomedicine book by Robert Freitas that was auctioned for the benefit of James Swayze (who also attended the event). The money will be kept by Cryonics Oregon to help pay for equipment  for James. Jordan Sparks has offered to build a portable  ice bath that is large enough for James.

About five people came to the event who were non-cryonicists attending the American Aging Association conference, three of whom I brought in a taxi. A biogerontologist cryobiologist who wishes not to be named also attended.

Dr. de Grey began the debate with his standard presentation explaining the SENS program. After I presented my critique, the cryobiologist took the stage and gave his critique of SENS. Aubrey started by answering the cryobiologist, although he commented on a couple of my points. He and the cryobiologist were soon in an active exchange which went on for a while. It became evident to me the Aubrey was not going to get  around to answering my critique in the remaining 15 minutes of the 2-hour booking for the room. I interrupted Aubrey and the cryobiologist suggesting that questions should  be taken from the floor. Aschwin de Wolf added his critique to the debate, and he was followed by others.

There was not much time for socializing, but there was enough for most of us to have a few brief and rewarding conversations with people we had not seen for a while as well as others we were meeting for the first time.  A few Alcor and CI brochures were taken. One man with a CI brochure expressed interest in having cryonics  arrangements with both CI and Alcor. I told him that CI allows those with dual arrangements to have CI as a backup service provider. Alcor allows dual arrangements, but always insists that Alcor be the primary service provider, and that Alcor can never be the backup.

KrioRus cryopreserves 12th patient

On May 16, 2010 the only non-US cryonics provider KrioRus announced the cryopreservation of its 12th patient. The patient was pronounced legally dead on May 5 in Kiev and cryoprotectant perfusion was completed on May 7 after initial cooldown and ground transport to Moscow. A more extensive report is available here.

It is encouraging to see more cryonics activity outside of the United States. The statistics of Alcor, Cryonics Institute and KrioRus indicate that there are currently more than 200 cryonics patients in the world and that more than 1,300 people have made cryonics arrangements.

The 2009-1 issue of Cryonics has a two page feature on KrioRus.

Cryonics Oregon June Meeting with Aubrey de Grey and Ben Best

On June 6th the next Cryonics Oregon meeting will coincide with a downtown Portland aging conference. As a result we have been successful in persuading Cryonics Institute President Ben Best and Alcor member and biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey to attend our meeting. The theme of the evening will be “Strategies for Life extension and Rejuvenation: A Discussion with Aubrey de Grey and Ben Best.”

Dr. Aubrey de Grey will present a brief synopsis of his Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) for regeneration and rejuvenation. Ben Best will reply with his view of shortcomings of the SENS approach, and how these shortcomings can be addressed. Discussion will include such matters as biomarkers of aging, mechanisms of aging, use of dietary supplements and the relevance of cryonics.

Date:  Sunday, June 6, 2010
Time: 7:30pm – 10:00pm
Location: Roots Organic Brewing
Address: 1520 SE 7TH, Portland, OR

This will be no ordinary Cryonics Oregon meeting! Promotional materials from Alcor, CI, and SENS will be there as well.

To cover the rent of the space a minimum donation of $5.00 per person will be collected.

Attendees under 21 are allowed until 10:00 pm.

It is very important for everyone to RSVP as soon as you know if you can make it or not so we can get a good idea of attendance.