Rodney Brooks

Robots, AI, and other stuff

Time Traveling Refugees

This last week has seen an MIT Technology Review story about a startup company, Nectome1, that is developing a mind-uploading service that is “100 percent fatal”.

The idea is that when you are ready, perhaps when you are terminally ill, you get connected to a heart-lung machine and then, under anesthesia, you get injected with chemicals that preserve your brain and all its synaptic connections. Then you are dead and embalmed, and you wait.

When sufficiently advanced technology2 is available, future generations will map out all the neurons and connections3, put them into a computer simulation, and voilà you will be alive again, living in the cloud, or whatever it is called at that time–heaven perhaps?

At this point the Y Combinator backed company has no clue on how the brains are going to be brought back to life, and that is not important to their business model. That is for future generations to work out. So far they have been preserving rabbit brains, and intend to move on to larger brains and to eventually get to human brains. They already have 25 human customers who have put down cash deposits to be killed in this way. As the founders say “Product-market fit is people believing that it works.”

If I were a customer I would insist that I be packed along with a rabbit or three who had undergone exactly the same procedure as me. That way my future saviors could make sure their resurrection procedure worked and produced a viable bunny in the cloud before pulling apart my preserved brain to construct the digital model.

But this is not new. Not at all.

I have personally known people, while they were alive, who are now frozen heads floating in liquid nitrogen. Their heads were removed from their bodies right after their natural death, and immediately frozen. All these floating heads, there are hundreds already with thousands more signed up for when their day comes, are waiting for a future society to repair whatever damage there might be to their brains. And then, these kind souls from the future will with some as yet uninvented technology, bring them back for a glorious awakening, perhaps with a newly fabricated body, or perhaps just in a virtual reality world, as is the case for Nectome customers.

In any case, when these friends signed up for having their heads chopped off for an indertiminably long time in limbo, they knew that when they did rise from the dead they would do so in a technological heaven. A place in the future with knowledge and understanding of the universe that seemed unimaginable in their own lifetimes. They knew what a glorious future awaited them.

They had faith (and faith is always an essential part of any expectation of an eternal life) that the company they entrusted their heads to would continue to exist and keep them in as safe an environment as possible. And they had faith that future society would both find a way and would be more than happy to go through the process of raising them from the dead.

Now let’s examine these two assumptions for a moment; firstly that the physical thing that was once your brain is going to stay preserved, and secondly that the archangels of the future are going to go to the trouble of bringing you back to life and make sure that you have a good new life in that future.

Now I am not cynical about people in business. No, not at all, not even a tiny little bit. And certainly not about any one in Silicon Valley. No, certainly not. But, but, it just does seem a tiny bit convenient for a scam businees model to be structured so that all of the people who personally paid up front for future services from you are now dead, and will not be around to complain if you do not deliver as promised. Just saying… In fact, one of the early frozen body (before they realized that people would be just as happy to have just their heads frozen) businesses did not keep things frozen, and eleven bodies ended up decomposing.

But let’s assume that everyone is sincere and really wants you to be around to come back from the dead. Will future society want to put in the effort to make it so?

We have one, just one, partial experience concerning a long frozen time traveller. In 1991 a body was discovered high in the mountains just (about 100 meters) on the Italian side of the border with Austria, sticking out of a melting glacier. At first police checked out whether it was a case of foul play, and ultimately after some years it was ascertained that Otzi, as the living version of the body has come to be called, was indeed a a murder victim. But the dastardly deed was performed a bit over 5,000 years ago! Otzi was left for dead on the ice, snow soon fell and covered him, and before long he was frozen solid and remained that way until humankind’s penchant for driving gasoline powered automobiles got the better of him.

Otzi has been a fantastic source for expanding our knowledge of how people lived in Europe before there were written records. It was easy to identify the materials from which his clothes, weapons, and tools were made. His teeth and bones revealed his nutritional history. His body, bones, and scars revealed his injury history. The contents of his stomach revealed what he had eaten as his last meal. And his tools and weapons indicated much about his lifestyle.

Late 20th century medicine had no idea at all about how to bring Otzi back to life. If we could have done it I am very sure that we would have. He and his caretakers would not have spoken a common language, but soon each would have adapted enough to have robust communication. His original language would have been another source of great new knowledge. But more, what he could tell us about his times would have expanded our knowledge at least ten times beyond what was achieved by examining him and his accoutrements.

Of course Otzi would have had no useful skills for the modern world, and it may have taken years for him to adapt, and most likely he never would have become a contributing tax payer to modern society. I am sure, however, that the Italian government would have been more than happy to set him up with a comfortable life for as long as he should live in his new afterlife.

Now, what would have happened if we had discovered two bodies rather than one? I think they would have been treated equally, and hundreds of man years of effort to study Otzi would have been matched by hundreds of man years of effort to study Otzi II.

But what if there had been 100 Otzis, or 10,000 Otzis? Like all the unexamined mummies that lie in museums around the world I don’t think there would have been enough enthusiam to study each and every one of them with the same intensity as was Otzi studied. Given enough 5,000 year old bodies showing up from glaciers I am not sure we would have even kept them all preserved as we did with Otzi, a meticulous and careful task. Perhaps we would have resorted to simply burying many of them in conventional modern graves.

One refugee from the past is interesting. Ten thousand refugees are not ten thousand times as interesting.

What does this portend for our eager dead heads (and some were even Deadheads!) of today? If at some future time society has the technology to raise these hopeful souls from the dead, will they do it?

Certainly they might for some recently departed well known people. Around 1990 I think if we had known how to resurrect John Lennon everyone would have been clamoring to do it. Apart from rekindling one particular earlier controversy from his career, I think so many people would have wanted to hear his thoughts and hope that perhaps the Beatles really would get back together again, that someone would have stepped forward to pay whatever expenses it might incur. Similarly for John or Robert Kennedy, or for Martin Luther King.

So our future selves might well want to bring back to life famous people who are still in their collective memories. And individuals may be willing to do whatever it takes to bring back their parents or spouse.

Once the time since departure gets longer, and the people of the now current time have no personal connection at all with the person whose brain is preserved, it might get a little more iffy. Very famous people from the past who still figure mightly in the histories that everyone reads would be good candidates to revive. So many unknowns and mysteries left in those histories could be explained in the first person.

However, for people whose mark on the world has long since faded I think it is a real act of faith to imagine that the future us are going to spend many of our resources on reviving, re-educating, and caring for them.

But surely, you say, in a future time everyone will be so very much richer than now that they will gladly make room for these early 21st century refugees. They will provide them with bodies, if that is what they want, nutrition, comfort, education so that they can fit into modern society, and welcome them with kindness and open arms.

Hmmm. Well, think for a minute what today’s society would have looked like to an Elizabethan. In comparison to the well off of the late 16th century, a working class person in the US or Europe has a much longer lifespan, much better health care, much better food, so many more insect-free clothes, houses held at comfortable temperatures year round, a much better selection of food and drink, are much better educated, have a much easier life, have more opportunity to see so much more of the world, etc., etc.

And how are we treating living (i.e., not yet dead) refugees running for their lives from the most horrible depravations we can imagine?

Get in line! Go through the process just as our ancestors did(n’t)! We can’t afford to take these people who don’t understand our culture, are not like us, and don’t have any real skills.

Good luck dead people! You are going to need a lot of it.

1I note that in the “Team” part of the company web page the company founders only give their first names. This is a little strange, and I think not a trend we should hope to see becoming more prevalent. If you are proposing killing every one of your customers then the very least you can do is own up to who you are. The Technology Review story identifies them as Michael McCanna and Robert McIntyre.

2Recall Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Powerful magic is going to be pretty important for this scenario to work out…

3I don’t know what the embalming chemicals are going to do to the chemically enabled “weights” at the synaptic interfaces, or indeed whatever other modifications that have happened in the neurons as a result of experience–we don’t yet know what they might be, if they exist, if they are important, or if they are the key to how our brain works. And there is no mention of how the glia cells are preserved or not. My bet is that they will be even more important to how the whole machinery of brain works than we yet have an inkling. Not to mention the small molecule diffusions that we do know are important, or many other hormonal concentrations. None of these seem likely to get preserved by this process.

9 comments on “Time Traveling Refugees”

  1. If you could bottle the sarcasm lurking slightly below the surface and sell it for use as a weapon, it might serve to immobilize a division of the best soldiers on earth for at least a decade.

    I love the article!

  2. Rodney

    If it makes you feel better I’d pay to bring you back!

    I thought the brain was like RAM, i.e turn off the electric and it’s wiped.

    Best Regards

  3. Great post, Rodney, it nicely shows what the archaic anxiety, the fear of death, does to (some) people’s – living (!) – brains 😉

  4. Completely agree. I notice that Nectome is showing ability to “retrieve a memory” as a step along the way, and it occurs to me that this would be unappealing to me if it did work. If you have things you want kept private, this service is probably not for you!

    The quote from McIntyre at the end of the Technology Review article is perfect.

  5. And let’s not forget that embalming doesn’t do anything to preserve the soul ! (if you want to believe in that). But the ancient Egyptian and Peruvian mummy legends, especially the part about recombining the soul to the body, are a bit creepy.

Comment on this

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *