On Cryonics

On Cryonics January 7, 2009

Last summer I wrote a post, “Why I’m Skeptical of the Singularity“, which gave some reasons for doubting that godlike machine intelligences will ever come into being. Today I’ll discuss another idea popular among enthusiasts of transhumanism, namely life extension through cryonics. Here, too, I intend to offer a qualified skepticism.

Overcoming Bias presents a strong case for cryonics, in a post which pleads with readers to sign up for the process. I’ll use them as my foil. My own viewpoint, meanwhile, hasn’t changed significantly since I first touched on the topic in “Life Is Fleeting“:

While in the remote future it is a very real possibility that we will unlock the key to personal immortality, for the time being such rosy scenarios are more science fiction than science fact… The most advanced freezing technology in existence today still causes massive cellular damage, irreversible in all except the most fantastic scenarios of what future technology will be capable of. In essence, this is little more than a materialist version of Pascal’s Wager.

I realize comparing cryonics to Pascal’s Wager is likely to raise some hackles, but the comparison is unavoidable when advocates of cryonics so often defend the idea using Pascal’s Wager-like logic: If you bet on cryonics and lose, you lose nothing, since you’d have died anyway; but if you win, you might wake up in a future where science has perfected immortality! Isn’t this a potentially infinite payoff with zero risk?

But just as Pascal’s argument overlooked the problem of choosing the wrong religion and ending up condemned, cryonics overlooks the possibility that the future, rather than being better, may be worse. What if the future is a 1984-style dictatorship or post-apocalyptic anarchy, or is run by malevolent superintelligences (like the vindictive supercomputer AM from Harlan Ellison’s classic story I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream) that take pleasure in tormenting us? What if the future revives cryonically frozen human beings only to put them on trial for the crimes of our era? (I find this last possibility the most plausible of the four.) The potential payoffs of cryonics, needless to say, become far more complicated if we do not assume that we can only wake up in a world far better than the one we left.

Second: Even disregarding this problem, why will the future want to revive us? Any plausible scheme for resurrecting frozen humans – nanotechnological repair, whole-brain uploading, cloning new bodies – is certain to be a difficult and resource-intensive process. What will they want us for? The future is not likely to be short of people, and even if it were, there are easier ways of producing new ones. And by the time revival is perfected, if it ever is, it’s probable that the cryonically preserved will have no living relatives who feel any particular kinship for them.

For historical research? But if cryogenically frozen people survive into the distant future, then it’s almost certain that the Internet and other records from our time will have survived as well; information is more easily preserved than entire people. The flood of news stories, blog entries, and other chronicles from our era will provide as much data as future historians could ever want and would make the existence of live people superfluous. It may be done the first few times for the sake of novelty, but I can’t see it happening much beyond that, especially if there are thousands and thousands of frozen people.

Third: Even if the future is a benevolent one and is willing to revive us, will the person who’s revived really be me? Even staunch cryonics advocates admit that the damage done to brain tissue by freezing is irreversible with any current technology. And the revival process, no matter how it works, is likely to cause additional damage.

To truly revive a person, it would be necessary to preserve the incredibly delicate, submicroscopic connections between neurons in exactly the same state as when the person was alive. If neurons die or their synapses are severed during recovery – even if only a small percentage suffer these side effects – the result would be massive brain damage. Even if future technology could repair this damage, it could only operate probabilistically in terms of restoring neural connections – after all, there’s no map of the brain to tell which neurons are supposed to connect to which other neurons – with the result that the person revived might be missing memories, might have a drastically altered personality or character traits. Would it really be better to be revived in such a fragmented state? Would the person who’s revived even be me, or would he more justly be considered a different person altogether?

Finally, it’s worth asking whether investing on cryonics is the best use of our society’s resources. While people alive today are still suffering and deprived of life’s basic needs, it strikes me as selfish for a wealthy, privileged few who’ve already enjoyed long and happy lives to grasp after immortality. In my view, it’s better to accept that we all get one chance at life, to live it to the fullest while we possess it, and when we’re gone, to give away to others whatever we leave behind so that they can enjoy the same opportunity.

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