Chimeras of af­ter­life

A grow­ing num­ber of the elite are freez­ing their bod­ies in the hope for a re­birth. Is it pos­si­ble?

Down to Earth - - COLUMN -

IN A his­toric and un­usual ver­dict last month, a high court in Lon­don granted a ter­mi­nally ill teenage girl her wish to be frozen post-mortem in the hope that med­i­cal ad­vances might re­vive her in the fu­ture. The girl had pe­ti­tioned the court, as her es­tranged father was op­posed to the idea. The court gave the mother the fi­nal say in def­er­ence to the teenager’s wishes.

The girl’s dead body was im­me­di­ately shipped to the US and frozen at the Cry­on­ics In­sti­tute in Detroit, one of only four places in the world that of­fer to cry­op­re­serve the dead—three are in the US and one in Rus­sia. Since 1967, when the first per­son was pick­led in liq­uid ni­tro­gen, 250 fu­tur­ists have been frozen, while about 1,500 are in the queue.

While some might sym­pa­thise with the girl’s de­ci­sion to be mum­mi­fied, what are the odds that a frozen body, es­pe­cially the brain—bod­ies are hung up­side down so that the brain is af­fected the last should the ni­tro­gen oxy­gen leak—could be de­frosted and re­vived with­out dam­ag­ing the struc­tural in­tegrity of the neu­rons?

Cryo­gen­ics or preser­va­tion of body parts in ex­tremely low tem­per­a­tures is nei­ther new nor con­tro­ver­sial. Eggs, sperms and em­bryos are now rou­tinely frozen and thawed for in­fer­til­ity treat­ments. This is pos­si­ble,thanks to a tech­nol­ogy called vit­ri­fi­ca­tion that al­lows cells to be frozen with­out dam­ag­ing them with the help of some anti-freeze ma­te­ri­als. How­ever, mak­ing it work for whole bod­ies or even brains is a fan­tasy that many be­lieve is very un­likely to come true.

Nev­er­the­less, the pro­po­nents of cry­on­ics be­lieve that one day it might be pos­si­ble, with tech­niques of molec­u­lar nan­otech­nol­ogy,to re­vive frozen zom­bies by de­cod­ing and re­con­struct­ing the com­plex net­work of neu­rons and their in­ter­ac­tions that de­ter­mine an in­di­vid­ual’s per­sona— her thoughts, memories and de­sires. In fact, Amer­i­can in­ven­tor and fu­tur­ist Ray Kurzweil has stuck his neck out by claim­ing that sci­en­tists would be able to sim­u­late a per­son’s mind and down­load into a com­puter by 2030.

For some, even this claim would be fan­tas­ti­cally ridicu­lous if it were not fraud­u­lent too. In a 2015 ar­ti­cle, “The False Sci­ence of Cry­on­ics” pub­lished in the MIT Tech­nol­ogy Re­view, neu­ro­sci­en­tist Michael Hen­dricks of McGill Uni­ver­sity, who works on less evolved species like the mi­cro­scopic round­worm Caenorhab­di­tis el­e­gans, ar­gues that de­spite the fact that we know all of its genes (about 1,000) and have mapped its 302 neu­rons, we still can’t “sim­u­late the mind of this worm.” In­ci­den­tally, the hu­man brain is an orches­tra of 100 bil­lion neu­rons! “The tech­nol­ogy to do so,let alone the abil­ity to read this in­for­ma­tion back out of such a spec­i­men, does not yet ex­ist even in prin­ci­ple. It is this pur­pose­ful con­fla­tion of what is the­o­ret­i­cally con­ceiv­able with what is ever prac­ti­cally pos­si­ble that ex­ploits peo­ple’s vul­ner­a­bil­ity,”he writes.

Even if it were to be­come pos­si­ble to sim­u­late/down­load the mind, will it be re­ally you? As­sum­ing that the sub­jec­tive “I” is a gestalt of the in­nu­mer­able in­ter­ac­tions be­tween the neu­rons, would it re­main the same “I” in a time and space re­moved many times over? Thinkers of Hen­dricks’ per­sua­sion be­lieve that it is coun­ter­in­tu­itive, and hence, un­likely that it would be “you”who would come back to life.

Be­sides, cry­on­ics also raises a host of moral, philo­soph­i­cal, and, not to say, fi­nan­cial dilem­mas. The girl’s father, who has con­demned cry­oni­cists for “sell­ing false hope,” was wor­ried about her feel­ing to­tally dis­ori­ented in a fu­ture sans anyone whom she may have known. In a sim­i­lar vein, James Hughes, head of the Con­necti­cut-based In­sti­tute for Ethics and Emerg­ing Tech­nolo­gies, backs cry­on­ics yet will not sign up for it as,to quote him,“I value my re­la­tion­ship with my wife.”

Money mat­ters too. It cost the girl’s mother about 40,000 pounds, which she re­port­edly rus­tled to­gether by sell­ing off prop­erty, to have her frozen. Clearly, cry­on­ics, like im­mor­tal­ity, is a fan­tasy en­ter­tained by the elite for only for they can af­ford the lux­ury of long­ing for an­other life. For oth­ers, it doesn’t make sense to gam­ble mod­est earn­ings on Pas­cal’s wa­ger. They would be bet­ter off spend­ing it on mak­ing the present joy­ous and beau­ti­ful.

TARIQUE AZIZ / CSE

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from India

© PressReader. All rights reserved.