Seeking eternal life in a freezer

The New York Times recently highlighted teary story of a young woman with a terminal brain cancer who chose to freeze her head in the hope of coming to life in a more technologically advanced future.

Twenty-three-year-old Kim Suozzi died of brain tumour in 2012 and arranged her afterlife with Alcor, a small company in Scottsdale, Arizona, which freezes whole human bodies for US$200,000 and heads for $80,000. She crowd-financed the procedure (euphemistically called “cephalic isolation”) on Reddit.

She had become interested in transhumanism and the possibility of extending life after reading the renowned  artificial intelligence researcher Ray Kurzweil at college. As the New York Times notes, “Mr Kurzweil and others who call themselves transhumanists have argued that exponential increases in computing power will generate an assortment of new technologies that will enable us to transcend our bodies and upload our minds onto a computer.”

Kim’s head might not seem very useful without her body, but the theoreticians of cryonics believe that some day it will be possible to make a digital copy of the brain’s wiring, called a “connectome”. This could be uploaded to a computer and hooked up to sensory devices. Some day, it may be possible to power a robot with Kim’s connectome.

Based on the views of scientists quoted in the New York Times, that “someday” may be a long time in coming. If the connectome for a human brain is ever mapped, it could be as large as 1.3 billion terabytes, which is not something you can carry around on a memory stick. In fact, the collective capacity of the world’s hard drives is an estimated 2.6 billion terabytes.

A number of interesting ethical questions are provoked by cryonics. Is the self the connectome? Is the body part of the self? Will the revived person be the same person? Is Alcor cheating its patients (ie, customers)? Is it better to spend the freezing fees on charity? Is it moral to extend the lives of rich who can afford cryopreservation?

Cryonics faces a significant consumer resistance because of the “Yuck” factor – after more than 40 years and steady publicity, Alcor still has only a few score patients. When Kim disclosed her plan to her father, he said “I can’t help you with this. We don’t live forever, Kim.” Most people, religious or not, would agree with him.

The article provoked a rebuttal of the possibility of “neuropreservation” in MIT Technology Review by Michael Hendricks, a neuroscientist at McGill University. As an expert in a small roundworm, C. Elegans, he said that it was impossible even to map its nervous system, which has only 302 neurons. “Any suggestion that you can come back to life is simply snake oil. Transhumanists have responses to these issues. In my experience, they consist of alternating demands that we trust our intuition about nonexistent technology (uploading could work) but deny our intuition about consciousness (it would not be me) … Those who profit from this hope deserve our anger and contempt.”

Commenters on his article were equally scathing. One wrote: “Why don't you lend your expertise to the task of successful suspensions instead of being a naysayer? The day is coming.  The technology may not be ready, but it will arrive, just like any techology we desire.” 

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | cryonics, death, transhumanism

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