Plastination Is Near

The biggest single charity donation I’ve made so far is ~$100. But now I’m donating $5000 to an exceptionally worthy cause. And I suggest you donate too. Here’s my cause:

People who “die” today could live again in the future, perhaps forever, as brain emulations (= uploads, ems), if enough info were saved today about their brains. (And of course if civilization doesn’t die, if someone in the future cares enough to bother, if you are your brain activity, etc.)

This is probably enough brain info: the spatial shape and location of each brain cell, including the long skinny parts that stick out to touch other cells, and two dozen chemical densities (at the skinny part scale) to help identify cell and connection types. Actually, it is probably enough to just get 95% of the connections right, and a half dozen chemical densities.

Today, the main way folks try to save such brain info is to pay a cryonics org to freeze their brain in liquid nitrogen, and keep it so frozen for a long time. Alas, this approach fails if this org ever even briefly fails at this task, letting brains thaw, an event I expect is more likely than not over a century timescale.

In addition, we don’t actually know that frozen brains preserve enough brain info. Until recently, ice formation in the freezing process ripped out huge brain chunks everywhere and shoved them to distant locations. Recent use of a special anti-freeze has reduced that, but we don’t actually know if the anti-freeze gets to enough places. Or even if enough info is saved where it does go.

The people who developed the anti-freeze published some 2D pictures that look good, but we don’t know how selectively these were chosen, or how much worse is the typical cryonics freezing process. Some good brain researchers are skeptical. (Yes, future folk might undo even very complex brain scrabbling, but don’t count on it.) And given my usual medical skepticism, I gotta be skeptical here too.

Though cryonics has been practiced for forty years, its techniques have improved only slowly; its few customers can only induce a tiny research effort. The much larger brain research community, in contrast, has been rapidly improving their ways to do fast cheap detailed 3D brain scans, and to prepare samples for such scans. You see, brain researchers need ways to stop brain samples from changing, and to be strong against scanning disruptions, just so they can study brain samples at their leisure.

These brain research techniques have now reached two key milestones:

  1. They’ve found new ways to “fix” brain samples by filling them with plastic, ways that seem impressively reliable, resilient, and long lasting, and which work on large brain volumes (e.g., here). Such plastination techniques seem close to being able to save enough info in entire brains for centuries, without needing continual care. Just dumping a plastic brain in a box in a closet might work fine.
  2. Today, for a few tens of thousands of dollars, less than the price charged for one cryonics customer, it is feasible to have independent lab(s) take random samples from whole mouse or human brains preserved via either cryonics or plastination, and do high (5nm) resolution 3D scans to map out thousands of neighboring cells, their connections, and connection strengths, to test if either of these approaches clearly preserve such key brain info.

An anonymous donor has actually funded a $100K Brain Preservation Prize, paid to the first team(s) to pass this test on a human brain, with a quarter of the prize going to those that first pass the test on a mouse brain. Cryonics and plastination teams have already submitted whole mouse brains to be tested. The only hitch is that the prize organization needs money (~25-50K$) to actually do the tests!

This is the exceptionally worthy cause to which I am donating $5K, and to which I encourage others to donate.  (More info here; donate here.) We seem close to having a feasible plastination technique, where for a few 10K$ or less one could fill a brain with plastic, saving its key brain info for future revival in an easily stored form. We may only lack donations of a similar amount to actually test that it does save this key brain info. (And if the first approach fails, perhaps to test a few revisions.)

I don’t understand why the cryonics community isn’t already all over this. To express my opinions to them more forcefully, I offer to bet up to $5K that plastination is more likely to win this full prize than cryonics. That is, if plastination wins but cryonics fails, I win the bet, and if cryonics wins but plastination fails, I lose. If they both win or both fail, the bet is called off. Any takers?

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  • Misha Gurevich

    I’m curious as to what you donated 100 dollars to. 

    • burger flipper

      Probably just signalling and not anything he believed in given the paltry sum.  Though that might make your question more interesting rather than less.

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      You beat me to it. Now that he’s introduced it, he can hardly shy away.

  • V V

    I don’t understand why the cryonics community isn’t already all over this.

    Yeah, why are organizations that sell afterlife not eager to test their claims? How could that possibly be? :D

    • Seamus

      Your ignorance is astounding.

      • V V

        And your ineloquence is gargantuan.

        Do you have anything to share but name calling?

      • Sister Y

        People in general don’t like to face the fact that they’re going to die – cryonics enthusiasts as much as Christians. It’s not just the “organizations that sell afterlife” who are guilty; their customers willingly buy a service from them, and that service is assistance with maintaining a comforting belief. Critical analysis/testing of claims would not serve either party’s interests.

      • Enoonsti

        Seamus is right and I encourage you to read Dr. More’s response below. 

        I usually find it frustrating discussing cryonics with people who have not been through med school. From the language barrier to dissecting “icky cadavers,” med students are simply more psychologically prepped for real life. Meanwhile, laypeople just keep saying “dead is dead” instead of talking about ATP depletion, no-reflow, reperfusion injury, and more. I’m willing to bet that, prior to my post, neither you nor Sister Y knew the difference between sudden cardiac arrest and myocardial infarction. Feel free to Google it before responding and then say how wrong I was. 

        tldr: People fear what they don’t understand, and that’s partly why many cryonics advocates don’t fear liquefactive necrosis as much as the ignorant majority. 

      • V V

         @96167800c97e4f80e64ef4f28d270c72:disqus
         That applies to religious people, and people who believe n religious-like ideology such as the cryonics/transumanist/singularitarian package.

        Proper atheists generally have no trouble accepting their mortality.

      • V V

         @a5a8ac22c3053eb8b03ed6c24a6c1080:disqus So you know nothing about my background knowledge but you are making things up in order to mount an ad hominem attack.
        Nice.

        If you want to play your little game, google ‘denaturation’ and ‘osmotic shock’ and then tell us how cryonics or plastination deal with them.

      • http://lukeparrish.rationalsites.com Luke Parrish

        Sorry to say this, but he pretty much nailed it. You know not of what you speak. Cryonicists (there aren’t really “cryonics organizations” so much as collections of cryonicists, humans who desire to be preserved and survive the event of their otherwise certain demise) are both eager to test their claims and have a strong track record of doing so wherever possible. This is just one more in a long line of experiments, and one which appears to be universally praised and endorsed (if not yet fully funded) in cryonics circles.

        @96167800c97e4f80e64ef4f28d270c72:disqus That depends if either party is factually interested in survival. Obviously survival is best served by empirical testing to find the strongest candidate technology. If cryonics were a weak candidate, it would have dropped out of the running in favor of something like chemopreservation or mammalian hibernation studies long ago. Today’s cryonics institutions would be plastination institutions instead (and probably much more popular for it).

        More on chemopreservation: http://www.alcor.org/Library/html/chemopreservation.html

      • V V

         @lsparrish:disqus

        Cryonicists (there aren’t really “cryonics organizations” so much as
        collections of cryonicists, humans who desire to be preserved and
        survive the event of their otherwise certain demise)

        So Alcor is not an organization?

        are both eager to test their claims and have a strong track record of doing so wherever possible.

        Is there any published independent research on cryonics core claims?

        hat depends if either party is factually interested in survival.
        Obviously survival is best served by empirical testing to find the
        strongest candidate technology. If cryonics were a weak candidate, it
        would have dropped out of the running in favor of something like
        chemopreservation or mammalian hibernation studies long ago.

        Because humans are totally not known for doing irrational things…

      • daedalus2u

         “If cryonics were a weak candidate, it would have dropped out of the running.”

        The way all those weak candidates like Christianity and Islam have dropped out?  Oh wait, they haven’t. 

  • gwern0

    I’m glad you went through with it. I don’t have 5k to spare, but I’ve managed to donate $50 for this.

  • Robert Koslover

    Has the organization in question considered applying for a grant from either the NSF, NHS, NIH or other similar Govt agency?  There is generally no shortage of solicitations published for government funded R&D to which one can submit proposals, and some of them span very broad topic areas (which could thus potentially include this kind of research, assuming that it can withstand a modest level of peer review).  Just a suggestion.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/GNBQQUL3VVGBZEVEGJ76YK4TFU Synaptic

    Thanks for the post and donation. Plastination has been considered some by the very small number of active cryonicists. See, for example http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/New_Cryonet/message/968.

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  • daedalus2u

    Do you have a reference for this method? 

    “…it is feasible to have independent lab(s) take random samples from whole
    mouse or human brains preserved via either cryonics or plastination,
    and do high (5nm) resolution 3D scans to map out thousands of
    neighboring cells, their connections, and connection strengths, to test
    if either of these approaches clearly preserve such key brain info.”

    As far as I know, there is no method to map out connection strengths, and perhaps not even a good understanding of what “connection strength” even means.  Those “connection strengths” are necessarily part of how the brain meta-programs itself.  They have to be dynamic and have to change in real time as the brain operates.  They can’t be “fixed” or the brain couldn’t operate. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/jahed.momand Jahed Momand

    Just a heads-up, your blog hasn’t updated in my RSS feed since May 29th, is it just me or is anyone else experiencing this?

  • officer_fred

    Plastination is near? You sure it’s not far?

    Make sure to tip your waiters, I’ll be here all week.

  • Garrett Lisi
    • None

      Huh, Garrett Lisi reads OB. 

      How’s that exceptionally simple TOE thing coming along? (Last thing I noticed was that Distler put a critical paper on the arXiv and you and collaborators responded with a refutation, but I’m no subject expert…)

  • mjgeddes

    One day there will be a simultaneous post both here and on ‘Less Wrong’, headed ‘The Singularity Is Near!’.  A red countdown indicator will be flashing on the screen.  Some equations will also flash up.  After the countdown is past zero and into negative numbers, the equations on the screen will literally catch fire, with sparks popping out of the screen.  Suddenly, 3D block letters ‘THE SINGULARITY IS NEAR!’ will fly right out of the screen at readers, and the air will fill with latin chanting. Shortly thereafter, we will all be teleported to an undergound base on the moon for a private transhumanist party.

    Until that day, let us all praise Hanson for helping to preserve our brains.

    • John

       I really do hope this was sarcastic.

      • Marlon Sanford

        It’s clearly sarcastic… are you hoping it’s sarcastically sarcastic?

  • http://bur.sk/ Viliam Búr

    Seems to me that there are a few emotional obstacles to overcome.

    First: I would like to avoid this whole “dying” issue, even temporarily, and just continue to live, therefore I prefer life extension research. — Sorry, that will probably not happen, the research is not so fast. You have to die in a biological sense, just try to avoid the informational death. Yes, it’s going to be unpleasant. And hope you will die in full health to avoid the dilemma between a suicide and letting Alzheimer slowly eat your brain.

    Second: I would like to keep my body intact. It helps me to keep death in the far mode, using an analogy of death as a long sleep. Also, being a head without the body makes me feel helpless. — Sorry, to increase the chance and quality of preserving your brain, it is better to give up the body. Yes, it reduces the chance that you will be revived in your original body, and increases a chance of robotic body or uploading. Actually, if your body is damaged enough by freezing, the future society may prefer this option anyway, because it will be cheaper.

    Third: I would like to keep my brain intact. Even a hope of my physical brain being resurrected is better than a certainty of uploading or nothing. — Sorry, uploading has higher probability, and you should instead focus on preserving as much information in your brain as you can.

    Perhaps our intuition is serving us wrong in this case, because reviving a frozen body *seems* easier (we have an analogy of waking up from a dream) than uploading (no example). Looking at facts, it seems safer to bet on information technology progress than medicine progress. Of course there are other dangers: for example we have laws to protect physical people, but no laws against e.g. torturing ems; also it is easier to hide a em than to hide a human slave from authorities.

  • burger flipper

    “I don’t understand why the cryonics community isn’t already all over this”
    cryonics is not about mortality

    • Michael Wengler

      LOL!

    • http://lukeparrish.rationalsites.com Luke Parrish

      Indeed cryonics has nothing to do with “mortality” in the philosophical sense, only to do with prolonging life, that practical endeavor otherwise known as “survival”.

      • V V

        Cryonic “patients” are not alive with respect to virtually any reasonable definition of life you can consider.

        So cryonics is not about survival, in any sensible meaning of the word. It is about resurrection of the dead.

      • http://lukeparrish.rationalsites.com Luke Parrish

        Where do you draw the line? Do creatures in nature that freeze and vitrify reversibly constitute natural instances of “death” and “resurrection” as you define the terms? Is a frozen wood frog alive, for example? How about a tardigrade immersed in liquid nitrogen?

      • V V

        In the case of seasonal freezing/unfreezing I think it could be said that it is still part of the natural lifecycle of these organisms.

        Organisms artificially preserved in liquid nitrogen can be considered non-living (dead if you prefer) until they are restored.

        Cryopatients are preserved when they are alread dead or almost-dead, and they can’t be restored by any known mean.

  • carl crott

    Hi there.

    Why don’t we work on a more obvious take… Lets try *not* dying in the first place.

    • Seamus

      It isn’t an eith/or scenario. Life extension research moves onward as well..

  • Dániel

    Cool. If some catastrophe wipes off all life on Earth before advanced aliens arrive, the only humans the aliens will be able to revive are Chinese death row inmates.

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  • Brendan

    New here so forgive me if I’m missing something.  But is it true that you’ve only ever donated $100 to a charity?  That’s shameful for someone in your position and rough level of income.

    • Robert Koslover

      To be fair, Brendan, he did not say that $100 was all that he had ever donated to charity overall, or even to a single charitable cause or organization.  Rather, he said that it was the most that he had donated as a “single charity donation.”  Now, if Robin ever runs for high political office, I think you should feel free to attack him as uncharitable, if you can find evidence of that within his financial records.  Otherwise, perhaps you should be charitable yourself and give him the benefit of the doubt.

      • Dave9

         I donated $50 to the Underwater Rescue Squad. It is sort of like cryonics. They need to be able to buy gasoline for their boats. When someone goes missing  they  dive for the body. Usually they can’t find it until it pops up due to decomposition. At least the family gets closure. That is my modest contribution.

  • Max More

    Robin: I don’t get the impression that you read the article in Cryonics on this that I mentioned a few days ago. (There’s also a more recent piece by Ken Hayworth with a response by Mike Perry.) This is very relevant:
    http://www.alcor.org/Library/html/chemopreservation.html 

    There are several factors that are not being considered. Some of them have been made by Greg Fahy in his reply to “gwern” — whose posting of your piece makes it look like his own.

    VV’s comment is mistaken. Cryonics organizations ARE interested in testing their claims (at least Alcor is). That’s why we’ve been doing scans of neuropatients to determine extent of perfusion and cryoprotection. It’s also why I’ve invited Sebastian Seung to speak at our October conference (he accepted) to elaborate on his call for testing given in his recent book on the connecteome.

    • Robin Hanson

      I did read those three articles. A reply by Fahy to gwern does not appear in this blog – have a link?

    • V V

       Do you have any independent research project on your core claims?

    • gwern0

       > whose posting of your piece makes it look like his own.

      Anyone who saw that email on GRG and was conversant with email norms dating back decades understood that I did no such thing.

      • http://lukeparrish.rationalsites.com Luke Parrish

        Charitable interpretation: The fact that the email has no additional comments by you to represent multiple voices, the fact that it is minimally formatted (one carat to start each paragraph instead of one on each line), and that it is written in a conversational style (features exclamations and question marks ending paragraphs), all combine to make it relatively easy to make the mistake Fahy made.

  • buddyglass

    Your priorities are seriously out of whack.

    • Glopknar

      By which I’m presuming you mean “different from mine”,

  • http://lukeparrish.rationalsites.com Luke Parrish

    This is a topic that comes up from time to time. And I understand the excitement, it was very intriguing to me initially and to some degree still is. But when it comes down to it, cold temperatures are simpler, and the tech to incrementally improve cryonics is nearer. In any case the most promising approach to chemically based preservation is probably not plastination per se (which I’m told is very damaging to ultrastructure), but fixation with something like formaldehyde followed by vitrification with high concentrations of cryoprotectants.

    The reason for this is aldehyde fixation does not preserve lipids. You have to use something like Osmium Tetroxide (which is very hazardous and expensive) for that. However partial fixation makes it possible to e.g. remove the brain from the skull without risking major structural damage (cuts your already low neuro storage costs significantly), and also keeps it the tissue from disintegrating while being loaded with cryoprotectants by immersion and diffusion prior to cooling (makes it possible to preserve people whose blood vessels are badly damaged).

    Aschwin de Wolf’s critique of this topic is worth reading: http://www.alcor.org/Library/html/chemopreservation.html

  • http://twitter.com/ahow628 ahow628

    Copyright law is going to love this…

  • Daniel Crevier

    Well done Robin. I’m contributing another $5,000.

     If we had powerful enough computers, we could probably perform uploads right now. Existing brain preservation technologies seem to allow for it, with only modest improvements. Our ticket to the future may be at hand: let’s find out!Daniel Crevier, Ph.D. (MIT)

    • V V

       

      If we had powerful enough computers, we could probably perform uploads right now.

      How?

      • Daniel Crevier

        How?

        By scanning the cryo- or chemically preserved brain with electron microscopes, extracting its neural connectivity pattern (connectome) and appropriate neural dynamics, and performing a simulation of the brain thus digitized. These operations are already possible on (very) small brain fragments, the main problem being that they take too long because our computers are too slow.

        In response to John and Daedalus, the great thing about this procedure is that, although a high level understanding of exactly how the neural operations  thus simulated give rise to consciousness would help, it is not required as long as the low level phenomena are faithfully reproduced. Think of John Conway’s Game of Life: you don’t have to know why the automata do what they do; as long as you apply the very simple simulation rules, the simulated structures can exhibit very complex behavior.

        See the Brain Preservation Foundation site for details.

      • daedalus2u

        The “appropriate neural dynamics” part is where you lost me.  There is no theory or understanding of how the “appropriate neural dynamics” happen and which neural dynamics are important for what. 

        It can’t be in the connectome, because the connectome doesn’t have the dynamic bandwidth to instantiate thought.  Thought requires differential neuronal interactions at sub-millisecond time scales.  The connectome is static on those time scale.  A static connectome can’t by itself instantiate the dynamics of thought.  There has to be a dynamic layer on top of the connectome, and there is no understanding of what that is and how it is dynamically regulated.

        Exhibiting very complex behaviors (the game of Life) is not the same as exhibiting the very complex behavior of rational thought. 

        Physiology is comprised of many coupled non-linear interactions.  Coupled non-linear interactions exhibit chaos.  They are fundamentally not predictable long term.  Modeling a chaotic system without understanding the underlying structure and necessary limits, boundary conditions, control mechanisms, and time scales over which things happen takes more than just bigger computers. 

        If you are going to simulate a brain, you need to be able to simulate it in diverse states.  What is the difference between a brain with 0.05% ethanol and one with 0.10% ethanol?  How does that change the connectome that you have measured?  To a first order, the presence of alcohol doesn’t acutely change the connectome.  It does change the dynamics of how the brain works.

        I bring up ethanol because it is one of the lipid soluble gaseous anesthetics, like ether and various other gases, including xenon.  The mechanism by which these gases cause anesthesia remains unknown.  These anesthetic gases work on essentially all eukaryotes, so the pathways that they affect are highly conserved across all vertebrates and invertebrates, many plants too.  Yet they remain unknown.  How are you going to program your large computers to simulate the effects of lipid soluble gases? 

      • V V

         

        By scanning the cryo- or chemically preserved brain with electron
        microscopes, extracting its neural connectivity pattern (connectome) and
        appropriate neural dynamics, and performing a simulation of the brain
        thus digitized. These operations are already possible on (very) small
        brain fragments

        AFAIK, doing that is not possible with current technology. Do you have any reference to the contrary?

      • daedalus2u

        There is a lot of signaling in the brain that is not mediated through the connectome.  Volume signals such as nitric oxide don’t have surface receptors, and membranes allow NO to diffuse through them.  Many of the NO sensors are single molecules dissolved in the cytosol.  Where they are will affect how NO signals are transduced into what kind of neuronal activity (or not).  

        It would be necessary to model the diffusion of these non-connectome mediated signaling molecules because the brain is quite non-isotropic, that is the diffusion depends on the composition and geometry of the volume element the molecules are diffusing in.  Axons are particularly non-isotropic with myelin sheaths having alternate layers of lipid bilayer and aqueous cytoplasm.  The lipids that comprise those bilayers are anisotropic too, of variable composition, and with orientation based properties.  Some of the phases are liquid crystal, so while they are liquid, they are oriented and will have anisotropic diffusional properties.  

        Diffusion in water at the interface between water and hydrophobic surfaces is quite complicated and depends on the details of the hydrophobic interactions of the surfaces, the proteins involved and what is in the water.  

        If you need to model diffusion, then the time scales you need to emulate are on the same time scale as the chemical reactions that occur due to diffusion.  In the case of NO, there are many reactions that are diffusion limited, that is they occur in the sub-nanosecond regime.  

        To use a very crude analogy, having the connectome might be like having a complete description of a processor while it is off.  But the behavior of the processor when it is powered up depends on the software the processor is running which the description of the processor doesn’t address at all.  

        If you had the connectome of a Pentium processor running Windows, could you emulate it?  

    • John

       To claim that uploading is impossible today only due to lack of better computers is tantamount to saying that nuclear fusion was impossible in 1950 only due to lack of good magnets.

      Actually, it is not tantamount – it is more ridiculous than that. In the 1950s they have orders of magnitude better understanding of the theory of nuclear fusion than we have now of consciosness and the human brain.

      • daedalus2u

         They also had experimental measurement of fusion, and implementation of fusion via thermonuclear means. 

        There is no instrumental measure of consciousness, and it isn’t even clear if it actually exists or not, or if it is simply an artifact of human hyperactive agency detection operating on itself. 

    • Robin Hanson

      A deep bow to you Daniel! :)

  • V V

    This is probably enough brain info: the spatial shape and location of
    each brain cell, including the long skinny parts that stick out to touch
    other cells, and two dozen chemical densities (at the skinny part
    scale) to help identify cell and connection types. Actually, it is
    probably enough to just get 95% of the connections right, and a half
    dozen chemical densities.

    What is the source of this claim?

    I’m not a neurophysiologist, but as far as I know, there are many types of synapses, and each synapse differs from the next by the type, number and spatial location of proteins at and near the synaptic surfaces. These minute details appear to be functionally relevant and also subject to plasticity, hence they probably encode a long-term state.

    AFAIK, these detailed features can’t be simultaneously scanned by any current technology, and it is also highly dubious that they are preserved by cryonics or other processes, since they are easily disrupted by denaturation ad osmotic shock.

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  • Rekkonn Xanderzhxinedershinn

    I finally found some type of discussion for this so called “plastintion” process. I’m only 17 but just read a very brief summary if what I think about plastination:

    I recently have been to the science museum and went to some body works exhibit. I do kind of regret doing that. I saw the human body, super naked, a term I came up with meaning a Human body with anything less then skin on their bodies. I truly think that plastination is a disgusting process. I never should have agreed to go see something very grotesque, graphic, and explicit. Putting non-rotting, skinless, organless humans on display… What a horrible thing to see in my eyes. What’s even worse is that people “played” with their bodies putting them in various poses. But, even worse would be that their were Humans sliced up into pieces… Perfectly, as if some type of saw of laser cut through them with extreme ease. Well, maybe I’m just stupid and naïve for thinking like this, but then again I have always been a softie and don’t like to see death or super grotesque things.

    Woah, this was not a brief summary at all… For a high school learning standard that is. Colleges would make you write “like” 20 pages.

  • Rekkonn Xanderzhxinedershinn

    It would be nice to have friends as smart as you guys. Everyone else, pretty much everyone else, always say things like “swag,” Shut up you ‘faggit’,” and so on. I wish that these types of people weren’t so somewhat innocently biased. People who blame other people for being offended by saying something truly offensive even if it isn’t guided towards that person. Dealing with these intellectual “noobs” is really tiresome. I do need a vacation.

    Sorry for being off topic.