SXSW: These two futurists want to freeze your body after death and replace your brain
Meet Max More and Randal Koene
You might think we’re not in Texas anymore but in some strange episode of Black Mirror, the Netflix series, says Nikos Acuna who is moderating this SXSW panel on transhumanism.
In fact, you’d be forgiven if you did as there is talk about cryo-preserving the body after being declared dead, in the hopes you can be resurrected when the science is here to safely defrost your body and cure you of your ailments. There is also talk on mind uploading, and replacing parts of our brains with neural prosthetics. This all sounds like science-fiction but these days the stuff of science fiction has become fact.
Transhumanist technologies are about overcoming the limitations of human biology and Dr Max More and Dr Randal Koene are at the forefront of these technologies.
More is the CEO of the Alcor Life Foundation, which runs a cryonics lab based in Scottsdale, Arizona. More has been at the helm of the organisation for the last 7–8 years. Alcor is one of four cryonics facilitates that exist around the world.
Cryonics is the science of freezing your body and protecting your cells against the freezing and defrosting process. If a person has signed up for the service, when they are declared legally dead, their bodies will be pumped with a cryonic protectant which is essentially medical grade anti-freeze for your cells. Following that, their bodies are stored at -320 Fahrenheit at which the body can be stored for centuries.
Those that have signed up for cryonics hope that one day they can be thawed and brought back to life when science and technology is available to reverse aging and the diseases that caused them to die. Silicon Valley tech luminaries Peter Thiel and Ray Kurzweil are thought to have signed up for the procedure.
However, not all methods to extend life and consciousness are biological. Whole brain emulation, coined by Koene, is about uploading our brains or consciousness and creating digital versions of our brain. Koene is a neuroscientist who has dedicated much of his work to researching this. Also Koene was the lead scientist at Kernel, which is making non-invasive brain technology to replace or enhance brain function.
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Koene talks about brain implants which he refers to as neural prosthetics, making the idea not too dissimilar to how we currently replace or enhance function through pacemakers, cochlear implants, and limb prosthetics.
Replacing brain function via implants is no easy feat. Koene explains that to make neural prosthetics a reality, we need to know what neurons in our brain are doing, and how different parts of the brain are talking to each other. Chemicals like neurotransmitters or electrical pulses which fire and create an electric spike to change something about a neuron are the ways different parts of the brain communicate.
Koene says there are two ways in which we can understand and replicate our brain. The first is recording from all the neurons and creating prosthetics and replacing parts of the brain with those. The second is preserving the brain, imaging it after you slice it and using the images to get structural information to build models from that. The second option may be less desirable as you already have to be dead.
Neural prosthetics try to mimic the same structure and process of the brain. If we can do that for every part of the brain, Koene states we can recreate a person and essentially upload our mind and body.
There is fear that even if you are recreated in the form of a digital brain it isn’t really you. That without our physical body we aren’t ourselves or even human.
More expects to be eventually uploaded, instead of continually preserving his biological body. He cares about survival rather than being the same person. That is surviving on a new platform, mapping functions of the brain and duplicating those on the new platform. The body can be thought of a platform in which we currently live. No matter how much we reinforce our bodies, says More, such as using diamond fibre in the spine and skull, something will inevitably kill us such as a flying asteroid or a speeding truck.
Koene understands that people are worried that in the transfer of your consciousness something could be lost, or that if change happens too radically and quickly, a person may not still feel human. Therefore he advocates for prosthetic replacements as the path for which people would be most comfortable with. This is where the brain is replaced one part at a time, rather than have the whole mind being uploaded at once. For example, replacing the parietal lobe of stroke patients who no longer have their full senses or replacing the hippocampus of Alzheimer patients who have trouble making memories.
While brain implants are not yet available, people have used other types of implants for several years to enhance their senses.
Moon Ribas is a cyborg artist who implanted sensors in her feet in 2013 to detect Earth’s seismic activity in real time whether it is in Japan, Mexico or New Zealand. Because of Ribas’ extra sensors, she feels closer to the Earth and animals than to other humans. Neil Harbisson is a fellow cyborg artist who is colour blind and since 2004 has had an implant in the form of an antennae attached to his skull that can convert colours into sound.
Along with Harbisson, Ribas also implanted a tooth in which they can communicate through clicking their teeth to send a vibration to each other. A bonus is that they both know Morse Code. It works with bluetooth so they call it ‘bluetooth communication’.
Skeptics say this is the stuff of fairy tales however extending our brain function is already happening through the phones we carry every day. Acuna claims if you have backed up your phone data to the cloud, you are halfway to being a transhumanist.
More points out that in the 1960s if you suddenly keeled over on the street, you would be considered legally dead. However, in 2019 you are considered in need of emergency medical care. In some cases, a defibrillator could literally bring you back to life after your heart stops ticking.
That brings us to the question of why we want to freeze our bodies and brains and upload our mind at all?
Koene says it is not about allowing individuals to live longer, but about the progression of civilisation. No one would want to go back to an average life span of 35 years that we had only a few hundred years ago. If we were able to achieve a maximum lifespan of 150 or 250 years no one would say that’s too long, Koene points out.
Understanding our brain is about understanding the blueprint of life and adapting it to challenges and where society is going. Civilizations that have not figured out their blueprint and adapted to new things die out all the time. Koene states that through the work we do in neurosciences it is hard to imagine we wouldn’t upload our mind and create a digital brain at some point.
Are we the kind of society that explores the stars or just survives a few hundred years past the industrial revolution?
I write about AI and transhumanism. Follow me on Medium if you’re also trying to make sense of a world impacted by emerging technologies.