My interest in smartphones stems from my frequent observation and profound conviction that these devices can make their human users smarter: more knowledgeable, more connected, and more in control. It’s an example of the careful use of technology to make users that are, in some sense, better humans. Technology – including the wheel, the plough, the abacus, the telescope, the watch, the book, the steam engine, the Internet, and (of course) much more besides – has been making humans “better” (stronger, fitter, and cleverer) since the dawn of history. What’s different in our age is that the rate of potential improvement has accelerated so dramatically.
The website “Better Humans” often has interesting articles on this theme of accelerating real-world uses of technology to enhance human ability and experience. This morning my attention was taken by some new articles there with an unusual approach to the touchy subject of cryonics. For example, the article “Cryonics: Using low temperatures to care for the critically ill” starts by quoting the cryobiologist Brian Wowk:
“Ethically, what is the correct thing to do when medicine encounters a difficult problem? Stablize the patient until a solution can be found? Or throw people away like garbage? Centuries from now, historians may marvel at the shortsightedness and rationalizations used to sanction the unnecessary death of millions.”
The article (originally from a site with a frankly less-than-inspiring name, Depressed Metabolism) continues as follows:
In contemporary medicine terminally ill patients can be declared legally dead using two different criteria: whole brain death or cardiorespiratory arrest. Although many people would agree that a human being without any functional brain activity, or even without higher brain function, has ceased to exist as a person, not many people realize that most patients who are currently declared legally dead by cardiorespiratory criteria have not yet died as a person. Or to use conventional biomedical language, although the organism has ceased to exist as a functional, integrated whole, the neuroanatomy of the person is still intact when a patient is declared legally dead using cardiorespiratory criteria.
It might seem odd that contemporary medicine allows deliberate destruction of the properties that make us uniquely human (our capacity for consciousness) unless one considers the significant challenge of keeping a brain alive in a body that has ceased to function as an integrated whole. But what if we could put the brain “on pause” until a time when medical science has become advanced enough to treat the rest of the body, reverse aging, and restore the patient to health?
Putting the brain on pause is not as far fetched as it seems. The brain of a patient undergoing general anesthesia has ceased being conscious. But because we know that the brain that represents the person is still there in a viable body, we do not think of such a person as “temporarily dead.”
One step further than general anesthesia is hypothermic circulatory arrest. Some medical procedures, such as complicated neurosurgical interventions, require not only cessation of consciousness but also complete cessation of blood flow to the brain. In these cases the temperature of the patient is lowered to such a degree (≈16 degrees Celsius) that the brain can tolerate a period without any circulation at all. Considering the fact that parts of the human brain can become irreversibly injured after no more than five minutes without oxygen, the ability of the brain to survive for at least an hour at these temperatures without any oxygen is quite remarkable.
And so it continues. See also, by the same author, “Why is cryonics so unpopular?”
Is it really conceivable that the human body (or perhaps just the human head) could be placed into deep, deep cold, potentially for decades, and then subsequently revived and repaired, using the substantially improved technology of the future? Never mind conceivable, is it desirable?
I’m reminded of a book that made a big impression on me, several years ago – the provocatively titled “The first immortal” by James Halperin. It’s written as fiction, but it’s intended to describe a plausible future scenario. I understand that the author did a great deal of research into the technology of cryonics, in order to make the account scientifically credible.
As a work of fiction, it’s no great shakes. The characterisation, the plotting, and the language is often laboured – sometimes even embarrassing. But the central themes of the book are tremendously well done. As a reader, you get to think lots of new thoughts, and appreciate the jaw-dropping ups and downs that cryonics might make possible. (By the way, some of the ideas and episodes in the book are very vivid indeed, and remain clearly in my mind now, quite a few years after I read the book.) As the various characters in the book change their attitudes towards the possibility and desirability of cryonic preservation and restoration, it’s hard not to find your own attitude changing too.
Footnote: Aubrey de Grey, one of the speakers at tomorrow’s UKTA meeting (“How to live longer and longer yet healthier and healthier: realistic grounds for hope?“), has put on public record the fact that he has signed up for cryopreservation. See here for some characteristically no-nonsense statements from Aubrey himself on this topic.