Vice Motherboard and Dr. Toner

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Vice Motherboard and Dr. Toner

Post by jordansparks »

About six years ago, Vice Motherboard did a 23 minute documentary that heavily featured Oregon Cryonics.
I've never posted a reply about it, but it's been bugging me lately. Dr. Mehmet Toner was also prominently featured. He seems like a nice reasonable guy. But he said a few things that I thought were wrong, even with the understanding that he was trying to simplify a very complex topic for lay people.

The first problem is that he repeatedly characterized cryonics as cooling followed by rewarming. As a reminder, it's the rewarming step where ice would tend to form, not the cooling step. But cryonics as practiced today is only concerned with the initial preservation. Future revival would clearly be handled by teams of doctors with extremely advanced technology. It's completely wrong to suggest that these doctors would knowingly allow ice formation due to simple uncontrolled rewarming. They won't be stupid. No doctor would ever consider rewarming without ensuring stability first. There are many plausible scenarios for either stabilizing the molecules with scaffolding prior to rewarming, or else working with the molecules at liquid nitrogen temperatures and not rewarming until after repairs are made. The cooling step that we perform can work just fine and would not involve any ice formation.
Examples of his mischaracterizations:
14:06 "Ice is gonna form inevitably during warming."
15:02 "[during rewarming] ice is inevitably forming."
Obviously, the above statements are completely wrong if we are only talking about the cryopreservation process and not the revival process.
16:12 "they make it sound like oh, if you vitrify everything, it will survive. That's not true."
We don't say that anything will "survive". The cells are dead. We say that the ultrastructure can be preserved very well.

The second issue was not in Dr. Toner's own words, but was summarized by the host.
15:21 "The human body has over 100 cell types, each with a different structure and function from one organ or tissue to the next. A one size fits all solution means that a cryoprotectant will be effective across the entire range of cell types. Currently, this is not considered possible because the chemicals might protect one cell type and may damage everything else... but if you want to preserve a body or a head, cryopreservation becomes exponentially difficult."
This is sort of a minor issue, but I need to address it. The statements above only make sense if you are trying to preserve cell viability. We use formalin prior to perfusion with cryoprotective agent, so clearly we don't care at all about cryoprotectant toxicity. Obviously, just increase the cryoprotectant concentration a bit and it will indeed work for all cell types. As a nice little bonus, you won't even get any ice crystals if you decide to rewarm. The ultrastructure is what's important, not cell viability.

My main complaint, though, is this:
16:22 "The chances that you will bring the frozen head back is the same as when you go home tonight, open the freezer, get the ground beef out, and make a cow out of it."
He knows full well that the brain did not go through a grinder. He is also aware that many brain banks exist which are full of frozen brains. Scientists study those brains constantly to learn about them. They are not studying ground brain tissue. The brains are all largely intact or there would obviously be no value in using them. The existence of brain banks clearly makes his analogy egregiously wrong.

I've heard other scientists who should know better also say ridiculous things like this that are not true. I have three explanations for it:
1. Social pressure is a much bigger component of how we think than we like to admit. There is a strong drive to follow the herd and to conform. We are fundamentally not very smart, and most of what we learn has been passed down to us by "wiser elders". Scientists are not immune from this pressure.
2. Some of the objections could be in response to others in the cryonics community. There are certainly a variety of approaches to cryonics, and maybe they are responding to those who tend to portray cryonics as similar to suspended animation. I share the skepticism of the suspended animation approach.
3. The technology needed for revival is admittedly extremely complex and that's what they are clumsily actually complaining about. We know that the engineering will require continued exponential growth of AI and well over 100 years of development. I'm pretty sure that if I had a short conversation with Dr. Toner, I could get him to quickly admit that it is indeed possible to get very good preservation -- the scientific literature is full of examples of great preservation so he can't plausibly disagree. I could also get him to admit that repairs are theoretically possible by replacing any denatured proteins and gently nudging displaced molecules back into place, such as torn membranes. HIs only remaining objection would be that the theoretical robotics would be too hard to build. But that's simply not a valid objection. In the 30's, many experts claimed that we could never fly a human to the moon -- not because it violated any laws of physics, but just because it would be too hard to do all the complex math during a flight. But that's an engineering problem, not a physical limitation. We're so good at the math now that we can re-land the boosters, and we will continue to get better at it. So the objection about the robotics being too complex is an engineering objection, not a claim that the molecules couldn't theoretically be moved back into their correct positions. Physics clearly says that revival is possible.
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