Futurum frigidum

Gregory Benford rather sophmorically waxes on about the future of cryonics in the latest edition of Skeptic Magazine. The article, entitled, 'A Frozen Future? Cryonics as a Gamble', proposes a formula for determining what the odds are that one can successfully be frozen now, and revived later. (In case you didn't know, Benford is a Science Fiction author, a fact that I think is all too readily apparent from his trite musings. And I say this as a fan of Sci-Fi, not a critic.)

The formula consists of multiplying the probabilities of various different convergent factors. He labels them metaphysical, social, and technical.

This consists of M * E * T. M is the odds that the world is materialistic and that therefore the brain carries the mind. E is the odds that the brain contains all the information sufficient to define Self, ie Essence (hence his E). T is the odds that one day, technology will exist to revive a frozen brain intact. His MET is .99 * .99 * .9, which is 0.9.

This is the odds that your brain will last to some future time without thawing in the mean time. This is given by S * O * C. S is the odds of survival. O is the odds against civilisation itself melting down. C is the odds that your particular Cryonics business doesn't go belly-up. His SOC is .9 * .8 * .5, which is 0.36.

As an aside, I'd like to point out here that Benford sets O to be .8 and advises that in Europe it should be lower. This to me is a blatant recognition by the author that he is a product of his time, and (redundantly) not another. As if prognostication is hard enough, he seems to be arguing that because he believes that the US is more Socially stable now, it will remain so. The ancient Romans thought this, too, during the height of their empire. As I'm sure did Queen Elizabeth, Charlemagne, Ashoka, Alexander the Great, and Akenaton. (My apologies, gentle reader, for the lack of great rulers from the far east. I can't spell them.)

This is the odds that the technology to revive someone will one day exist and be practical and affordable. It is given by T * E * C * H. T is Technology itself, that it will exist (say nanotechnology) and be employable to the given task of unfreezing you. E is the cultural Engery to apply the technology to dead people. C is the cost. And H is his big unknown, Humans. Will future humans want to unfreeze corpsicles? Will our descents be interested in talking to anachronisms from another time? Benford's TECH is .5 * .9 * .5 * .9, which is 0.2

The total:
Multiplying all this out, one arrives at a probability of 0.07, or 7% chance, according to the numbers that Benford uses (and the formula as well).

I'm not going to analyze each of Benford's criteria, mostly because I think it consists of a lot of mental masturbation (and I'm being generous with my pejoratives here). I think Benford only errs on one major point and another minor one. The first is that any set of numbers will result in a probability higher than zero so long as the inputs are greater than zero. As a gamble then, you've always got some odds in your favour (if most are against). The minor point is a derivative of the major point: I think he's overly generous with his estimation.

For example, I would set the Technical H at exactly zero point zero. The odds that future humans would want to learn some archaic dialect so that they could talk to a frozen Community College professor from the middle of the 20th century is even ludicrous to consider. They won't care. This isn't Agamemnon, or Herecles, or even George Washington. Humans as a species, despite Benford's own optimism, aren't altruists. Secondly, I would put civilization's chances (his O from Social), at zero, or something close to it. Again, he's overly optimistic. It would only take a small perturbation in the fabric of society to unravel his chances of rejuvenation.

Science Fiction authors tell great stories around futuristic worlds and technologies, where, for some reason, all of the moralising is done in modern terms. Read classical Sci-Fi: it's a surreal experience to discover what people 50 and 100 years ago thought was morally relevant. Not to belabour the point, but Benford makes a mistake to apply this literary genre to reality: why should we think that people of the future will think, behave, and moralize like we do? Because we read it in a book? Written by men of our time? The future will be quite unlike anything we can imagine, not that that should stop us from trying.

At the end of his opinion piece, he derides Ray Bradbury for not taking a gamble on cryonics. Bradbury, it seems, knew he wasn't going to be happy in the future, as fugitive from his own world. In the end, I think that Benford, too, is a product of his time, thinking that somehow, someway, we occupy a special place in the history of humanity. If Benford wins his gamble, he might make the same discovery that Bradbury didn't need to gamble on to know.


At 12/14/04, 1:35 PM, Blogger Crinis said...

I'm going to break down and do my own math, though I have no inclination to modify the formula. For fun, I won't throw in any zeroes.
My M*E*T = 1 * 1 * .1 = .1
My S*O*C = .3 * .3 * .3 = .027
My T*E*C*H = .2 * .1 * .9 *.1 = .0018

Product: 0.000486%

I justify numbers as follows:
The odds of are a materialic universe are 1. If that's true then E is 1 as well (almost uninteresting and besides the point). I put technology odds very low because a) I don't drive a flying car, 2) I don't live on the moon, and c) People are dying of cancer like never before. There are a couple of logical steps between there and my .1, but I've them as an excercise for the reader.

Each SOC is so low because I think the odds of any of these things lasting long enough, much less converging, is terribly low.

I think the cost will come way down, but everything else about TECH stays aweful, especially H, which I expounded upon already in my post.


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