There exists, on this strange little planet, a group of people who practice the fine art of Extreme Optimism. The last time I’d read about them, they wore little bands around their wrists that identified them as cryonics enthusiasts, and requested the reader to freeze their brains as soon as possible in the event of death. Theirs, not the reader’s.
The idea being, of course, that in the distant future, someone would unfreeze these brains and resuscitate these people.
I’m still learning about the field (aka browsing through wikipedia) but I have a few thought experiments I’d like to try out. Follow along, kids!
Does it work?
Research appears to support, but not prove, the idea that a person’s memories and data could be retrieved, intact, from a frozen brain, with techniques that are — if not presently available — possible to develop in the future. The interviewee from the Digg article that spurred these thoughts believes these techniques to be way, way into the future, in the scale of several hundreds of years.
There’s also an increasing body of evidence to show that our memories, though created in spectacularly intricate ways, are also extremely fragile. Even if they can be traced through our neural structures, recreating them accurately is something we can barely do half an hour after the event. What happens 300 years later, then?
Thus the nickname Extreme Optimists: those who almost blindly believe in a future that gives them the ability to “live” again.
That spins off a multitude of other questions…
What does the future look like?
First, let’s consider the likelihood that we’re running out of land, food and fuel. If we are, and if we need the space and expertise to continue to survive, I’m going to guess that cryonics as a field will be put on the backburner.
But let’s just say that humanity as a whole pulls itself out of this impending vortex of doom. Let’s say we get our acts together and advance into a glorious age of scientific revolution, where nanotechnology explodes and our information retrieval systems become sophisticated enough that they can tease a thought from a long-dead brain. This is situation Enlightenment II.
Let’s also consider the opposite possibility: that we are thrown into a second Dark Age, that people starve and die and only the rich and the influential and the desperate survive. Let’s also say that cryonics does continue to flourish as a cult technology, much the same way “magnetically enhanced” humans continue to insist that inserting metal into themselves gives them some sort of additional ability. This is situation Dystopia.
Enlightenment II: Why would someone unfreeze you?
I’m not sure it has occurred to the majority of the practitioners of cryonics, but why the hell would someone want to unfreeze a long-dead human? All right, so there are some possibilities:
- They want to test their sophisticated data retrieval and information preservation systems. Ulterior motive: curiosity.
- Human rights issues become vastly more complicated. We’re not just arguing about fetuses anymore; we’re arguing about the data we leave behind when we’re dead, our brain scans, everything. So when someone finds these cryogenically preserved humans, the first question they ask is, do these humans have the right to life?
- The people being preserved are valued — for the data they hold, or for their abilities. Or even if they’re not particularly valuable, perhaps they’re useful as “living” examples of the past.
What can a resurrected human expect?
You have no guarantee that you’ll be “retrieved” accurately, so a damaged psyche, in the worst case, is what you can look forward to. Better still, think about how this resurrection would work. What’s the last thing you remember before you die? It’s either pain and terror and confusion, or nothing. In either case, this imaginary retrieval system will need to take into account the fact that you’re already traumatized. Your consciousness is going to have to be nursed back to some degree of mental health. And if you were, perhaps, mentally disturbed before you began this experiment, your problems might conceivably be exacerbated.
So you’re revived, and correctly so. The human rights campaign that pushed for your resurrection has won, and your memories have been preserved.
Do you get a body? Are you allowed into society? Or do you exist as a ghost in the shell, a human consciousness floating through the Web or whatever the Internet will be in the future?
And if you get around and about, how do you live? With what coin of the realm do you justify your existence? If you live online, how do you ensure you’re never shut down? Do you exist at the whim of politicians, right-to-lifers and human rights activists?
You’re alive! Your memories are intact, somehow. Your expertise in science and history and literature and —
Wait a minute. It’s 300 years into the future. Your knowledge of science is comically antiquated. Your historical knowledge might be valued, if someone considered the 21st century worth learning about… or if future advances didn’t render human historian completely superfluous. Or perhaps you hold the key to mysteries unsolved in this century? Maybe only you know the outcome of some event. Or maybe they’re desperate to find out anything they can.
And what do they do after your information has been extracted, after the data you contain has been collected? Are you shut down? What else would they do with you, when they don’t need you anymore?
Maybe you can join your other brethren, your non-traumatized brothers and sisters of the cryonics movement, whose quaint little 21st century customs are so amusing that they have been downloaded, or uploaded, and future humans can visit them to learn about their ancestors!
Or perhaps you actually do have descendants. That might be awkward. Or they might agitate to let you free, to have you live with a real family. Or maybe you don’t have any descendants, or they don’t care to see you.
Dystopia: why would someone unfreeze you?
The Dystopian future necessarily includes population disasters. A desperate tug of war between people and resources leaves only the rich and influential and the stubborn alive. In a world where people are still slowly recovering from mass starvation, why would anyone bother to apply cutting edge technology to cryonics?
- A source of labor, if you have spare bodies
- For expertise — but see counterargument, as above
The lives of the reanimated are particularly bleak in this Dystopian environment. Given the extremely slim possibility that you would be capable of, want to, and successfully revive someone, looking past those factors is difficult.
And once we do, the situation becomes even more ridiculous. Why waste what must surely be massive amounts of time and money and technological know-how on a bunch of has-beens? Museum pieces, to be sure, but what purpose would they serve in a ravaged world without museums to begin with?
A desperate truth
It’s not as if I have trouble understanding the perspective of this community. Being frozen and revived again in a world so far removed from our present one is almost like time-traveling. It’s the ultimate experience for the future-obsessed.
But what sort of future would that be? Because I don’t think that the presence of a technology like cryogenic revival would necessarily mean a convivial environment for these reanimated people. What, exactly, would you earn your place in society with?
Perhaps when I continue reading about this I’ll understand the perspectives of the community a little more. But for now, cryonics can’t be considered anything more than a pipe dream.