Last weekend, the New York Times published the story of Kim Suozzi, a neuroscience grad student who, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer at 22, decided to cryogenically preserve her brain to give her mind another shot. National correspondent Amy Harmon reported.
Suozzi and her boyfriend, Josh Schisler, both libertarian futurists, didn’t have a spare $80,000 to cover the costly process, so they solicited donations on Reddit. Their crowdfunding venture succeeded and, when Suozzi died in January 2013 at just 23 years old, a cryonics team swooped in. Suozzi’s head, and the brain it houses, are resting comfortably at 300°F below zero, lingering somewhere between death and sleep, life and afterlife, awaiting resurrection.
That’s the idea, at least. Throughout the story, Harmon’s central question remains unanswered: How will scientists use Suozzi’s brain to revive her mind? How, exactly, will they render an individual with the same soul and identity — let’s call her Suozzi 2.0 — that belonged to the young woman who died from a brain tumor?
Classic science fiction, of course, is quick to offer solutions. Scientists might stitch her head onto a different body, or maybe she’ll live again as a sentient brain-in-a-vat, the Cartesian thought experiment first articulated by philosopher Hilary Putnam. If more modern visionaries are to be believed, Suozzi will gain immortality as an immaterial digital simulation — an “uploaded” person.
To learn more, we spoke with Keith Wiley, a researcher and fellow at the Brain Preservation Foundation; Susana Martinez-Conde and Steve Macknik, both professors of neurology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center and co-authors of Sleights of Mind; and Sue Blackmore, a parapsychologist who studies consciousness and paranormal phenomena.
We asked about the possible processes to reviving Suozzi and, in the event of a successful resurrection, the biological implications of living as a virtual brain.
Jumping into an Uncertain Future
Suozzi and Schisler made serious intellectual, emotional and financial investments in bringing Suozzi back. Yet, neither had a concrete idea of what that means, in practical terms.
Cryogenic freezing can be traced back to January 12, 1967, when Dr. James Bedford was the first person to be preserved cryogenically upon legal death. Until now, the process has been intended as a means of hibernation — a way for the dead to chill out, waiting for a medical breakthrough that would let them return to this world in a cured body.
As the New York Times pointed out, that’s one possibility for Suozzi.
“Might her actual brain be repaired so she could ‘wake up’ one day?” Harmon wondered. “[Suozzi] did not rule it out. But they also imagined a different outcome, that she might rejoin the world in an artificial body or a computer-simulated environment, or perhaps both, feeling and sensing through a silicon chip rather than a brain.”
Indeed, only Suozzi’s head was frozen. She and her boyfriend were focused on reviving what made Kim distinctly Kim: her mind.
“They knew how strange it sounded,” Harmon wrote, “the hope that Kim’s brain could be preserved in subzero storage so that decades or centuries from now, if science advanced, her billions of interconnected neurons could be scanned, analyzed and converted into computer code that mimicked how they once worked.”
Such a digital resurrection is still a ways off. For starters, neuroscientists need to figure out how to map the human “connectome,” a model of every neuron and neural connection in the brain. Right now, using the most current neuroimaging tools, mapping the connectome would take thousands of years. Thousands.
But that’s current tech. Breakthroughs come unexpectedly, and they can easily leapfrog our assumptions by decades.
Considering Tomorrow’s Methods
Speaking with Van Winkle’s, Keith Wiley sketched out the spectrum of possibilities as he sees them. Given that Suozzi only froze her head, whole body de-thawing isn’t an option. The most “material” possibility is that familiar sci-fi staple: brain-in-a-vat.
In this process, “most of the body is discarded,” Wiley explained, “but the biological organ of the brain remains intact and living. It resides in a ‘vat,’ which provides life support and potentially ‘wires in’ to the senses to present visual, auditory, etc. stimuli to the brain.” Such a brain might also “wire out” to the external world through a digital speech synthesizer and even a fully anthropomorphic robot.
But, thanks in part to their lampooning on Futurama, even vat-brains feel more quaint than cutting-edge. Wiley then points to the possibility of a fully immaterial resurrection of one’s gray matter, where a “computerized uploaded model (aka emulation) of the brain’s information-processing functionality [enters] a software system.”
In this case, Wiley said, “not even the biological brain would remain in this scenario. As with the brain-in-a-vat, this computerized mind could conceivably interact with the physical world.”
Finally, there’s the Matrix option, wherein we “dispense with physical reality and allow the mind to wire into a virtual three-dimensional world that provides very similar sensorial and motor experiences even without an underlying physical reality.”
In both cases, one fundamental question is left unanswered: Would an uploaded Suozzi actually be Suozzi?
With the character of Dixie Flatline (née McCoy Pauley), William Gibson explored this in his groundbreaking cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer. Gibson’s conclusion? No, it’s not the same person — but you’d have a hard time telling the difference.
How Human Is the Human Brain?
What of our more basic human needs? A fully resurrected body, of course, would once again need to act, well, human. The healed subject would resume eating, breathing, sleeping and so forth to the best of its corporeal ability. But, reborn as a resurrected mind, would Suozzi 2.0 have these biological needs? For example, would she sleep?
It depends on the recovery method, said Susana Martinez-Conde. “If we froze and recovered a brain, the brain would still need sleep, but if we’re talking about the ability to implement human consciousness into unknown biological substrate, like a computer — through cryogenics or another method — then, presumably sleep might not be necessary.”
Wiley agrees. “The artificial intelligence we will eventually create may not need sleep,” he said, “and the sort of brains that human brains may become as we incorporate deeply invasive computerized prosthetics may eventually not need sleep.”
But it’s simply too early, technologically, to draw any conclusions.
“We have no idea how to do this at the moment,” said Blackmore, “nor any even half-baked ideas about what kind of hardware would support an uploaded brain. The answer would depend critically on the hardware. For example, would neuroscientists grows neurons and glial cells, etc., and upload information from the unfrozen old brain to a new brain? Would it all be done in silicon?”
The potential relationship between virtualized brains and sleep is unanswerable in part because we don’t even understand how real brains make use of downtime. Clearly, there are biological benefits — and probably even imperatives — to getting shuteye. But precisely what happens during our various sleep stages is still unclear.
Steve Macknik explained, “Some evidence suggests that sleep is important to memory consolidation. So if you could artificially consolidate memories in an uploaded brain without a sleep process, it may not be necessary.” But by the same token, he continued, “it may not be necessary biologically either if one could, say, take a drug that accomplished the same biological process without sleep.”
For Susana Martinez-Conde, our brains may use sleep as a time to clean house. “Recent research indicates a main function might be clearing of waste product during sleep, and that function would only relate to biological substrate.” A perfectly efficient virtualized brain may not generate waste, and would therefore not need to sleep.
Wiley’s not so sure. “I suspect that sleep is a requirement of the way human brains process information, even if those brains have no bodies, and even if those brains are fully computerized. That doesn’t mean I believe all conceivable brains require sleep. Aliens may not need sleep because they evolved completely differently.”
Wiley points to giraffes, which don’t need much sleep, while cats need tons of sleep. Even within mammalian brains, he said, “There is wide variation in this requirement.”
Finally, there’s the possibility that our brains want to sleep.
“Just because something is no longer necessary does not mean we won’t be driven to do it,” said Steve Macknik. “Biological parthenogenesis is now possible using two eggs rather than sperm [but] to the best of my knowledge this has not decreased anybody’s sex drive.” On even more basic terms, it’s nutritionally sufficient to receive all of our nutrients via a feeding tube or IV. That hasn’t eliminated the human desire to eat.
The future is unclear for Suozzi’s brain, the loved ones she left behind and the community of cryo-sympathizers and believers who helped fund her posthumous existence. They may be waiting a long time for clarity. After all, Dr. James Bedford’s body has been frozen for nearly 50 years, and there’s no plan to bring him back anytime soon.