Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Saturday, June 12, 2010

You gotta fight for your right to plastinate your brain

Next up is John Smart, talking about chemopreservation, or "plastination" of the brain. (Bio, on-the-fly transcript.) Smart is the co-founder of the Brain Preservation Foundation, the purpose of which you can probably guess from the name. Its ultimate aims are not very different from those of the cryonics movement, although the processes that Smart describes are closer to the plastination techniques made famous in the "Body Worlds" exhibits. His foundation has just created a prize for research that successfully leads to such techniques, and has also just secured $100,000 of funding for that prize.

The next step, he says, is for a particular technique called Emergency Glutaraldehyde Perfusion to be made a legal postmortem choice, with priority over a state's right to destructive autopsy. Laws will need to be rewritten to accommodate these new rights, he argues, except for in Switzerland and a few other "foresighted" states that apparently already do.

Why should we plastinate? Among other reasons Mr. Smart offers are "cultural preservation," "human experienceome" (sic), and "virtual memorials." But the main motivation, of course, is the possibility for uploading and reviving minds later. "Human beings," he says, "have not only biological but also primitive digital selves." Huh?

We should embrace a sort of Pascal's wager for brain preservation he says: preserve now, and decide what we can do with them later. He keeps plugging the prize and asking for donations throughout the talk. It's a "very worthy cause," he says. One tweeter seems to think it's worth $20.

Harvard postdoc Ken Hayworth (bio, slides), one of Smart's collaborators on the Brain Preservation Foundation, is up next. He goes into a bit more detail about the specifics of mind scanning. He whirls through some stock photos of sliced-up mouse brains, and then starts asserting that cognitive science has basically figured out how consciousness works, or at least come up with comprehensive theories for it. He points in particular to the books How Can the Human Mind Occur in the Physical Universe? by John Anderson, Unified Theories of Cognition by Alan Newell, Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett, and The Ego Tunnel by Thomas Metzinger.

Hayworth says that we have now, or at least will in the next few decades have, "the technological and computational models that could make mind uploading a reality." He says it's almost certain that the mind can be extracted from a plastinated brain. The only thing stopping us is that brain preservation has yet to be developed into a reliable surgical procedure — though he went out of his way to repeat the old canard about the illusion of the self, which would seem to make the main reason for preserving one's brain illusory as well.

"If you agree people should have the right [his emphasis] to have their brain[s] preserved and stored," then he points you to a petition on the Brain Preservation Foundation site to get hospitals to make this standard. So this is the grand political card up transhumanism's sleeve? Web petitions?

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