Over the past few years there has been increasing friction between a subset of cryonicists, and people in the Transhumanist (TH) and Technological Singularity communities, most notably those who follow the capital N, Nanotechnology doctrine.[1, 2] Or perhaps more accurately, there has been an increasing amount of anger and discontent on the part of some in cryonics over the perceived effects these “alternate” approaches to and views of the future have had on the progress of cryonics. While I count myself in this camp of cryonicists, I think it’s important to put these issues into perspective, and to give a first-hand accounting of how n(N)anotechnology and TH first intersected with cryonics.
At left, the cover the first cryonics brochure to use the idea of nanotechnological cell repair as a rescue strategy for cryopatients. The brochure was sent out as a mass mailing (~10,000 copies) to special interest groups deemed of relevance in 1984.
It is important to understand that the nanotechnology folks didn’t come to cryonicists and hitch a ride on our star. Quite the reverse was the case. Eric Dexler was given a gift subscription to Cryonics magazine by someone, still unknown, well before the publication of Engines of Creation. When he completed his draft of Engines, which was then called The Future by Design, he sent out copies of the manuscript to a large cross-section of people – including to us at Alcor. I can remember opening the package with dread; by that time we were starting to receive truly terrible manuscripts from Alcor members who believed that they had just written the first best selling cryonics novel. These manuscripts had to be read, and Hugh Hixon and I switched off on the duty of performing this uniformly onerous task.
At left, Eric Drexler, circa the 1980s.
It was my turn to read the next one, so as soon as I saw there was a manuscript in the envelope, I put my legs up on my desk and started reading, hoping to “get it over with” before too much of the day had escaped my grasp. I was probably 5 or 10 pages into the Velobound book, when I uttered an expletive-laced remark to the effect that this was a really, really important manuscript, and one that was going to transform cryonics, and probably the culture as a whole. After Hugh read it, he concurred with me.
At right, Brian Wowk, Ph.D.
Drexler was soliciting comments, and he got them – probably several hundred pages worth from Hugh, Jerry Leaf and I. And he listened to those comments – in fact, a robust correspondence began. I think that the ideas in Eric’s book, and to large extent the way he presented them were overwhelmingly positive, and that they were very good for cryonics, in the bargain. As just one small example, a young computer whiz kid, who was writing retail point-of-sale programs in Kenora, Canada, was recruited mostly on the basis of Drexler’s scenarios for nanotechnology and cell and tissue repair. His name, by the way, was Brian Wowk. As an amusing aside, the brochure that recruited Brian to cryonics is reproduced at the end of this article; we thought it was cutting edge marketing at the time (hokey though it was, it was indeed cutting edge, in terms of content, if not artistic value).
At left, one of the first conceptualizations of what a nanoscale cell repair machine might look like. This drawing was made by Brian Wowk and appeared the article, “Cell Repair Technology,” Cryonics Magazine, July 1988; Alcor Foundation, pp. 7, 10. More sophisticated images were to follow (see below).
Engines and Drexler’s subsequent book Nanosystems, explored one discrete, putative pathway to achieving nanoscale engineering, and to applying it to a wide variety of ends. That was and is a good thing, and both books were visionary and scientifically and technologically important, as well. Drexler never claimed that his road was the only road, and for the record, neither did we (Alcor). What was exciting and valuable about those books and the ideas they contained was that they opened the way to exploring the kinds of technology that would likely be required to rescue cryopatients. Even more valuably, they demonstrated that such technologies were, in general (and in principle) possible, and that they did not violate physical law. That was enormously important – in no small measure because they did so by providing a level of detail that was previously largely missing in cryonics. Yes, prior to this time Thomas Donaldson had explored biologically-based repair ideas (as had I), but these ideas were more nebulous and they lacked the necessary detail.
The idea of cell repair machines has now entered mainstream science and culture, as is apparent in the illustration above, by artist Svidinenko Yuriy in 2008 (http://www.nanotech-now.com/Art_Gallery/svidinenko-yuriy.htm).
If nanotechnology had stayed nanotechnology, instead of becoming Nanotechnology, then it would all have been to the good. By way of analogy, I’m not irrevocably wed to the idea of cryopreservation. I have no emotional investment in low temperatures and on the contrary, the need to maintain such an extreme and costly environment without any break or interruption, scares the hell out of me. I’d much prefer a preservation approach that has been validated over ~45 million years, such as the demonstrated preservation of cellular ultrastructure in glasses at ambient temperature, in the form plant and animal tissues preserved in amber.
Buthidae: Scorpiones in Dominican Amber ~25-40 Million Years Old [Poinar G and Poinar R. The Quest for Life in Amber, Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, 1994.]
Plant Cell Ultra-structure in Baltic Amber ~45 Million Years Old: Transmission electron micrographs of ultrathin cross-sections of the amber cypress tissue. (a) Section of a parenchyma cell with a chloroplast, the double membrane envelope (env), thylakoid membranes (th) and large plastoglobuli (pg), membranes of the endoplasmic reticulum (er), the golgi aparatus (g), the plasmalemma (pl) and part of a mitochondrion (m). (b) Crosssection of a mitochondrion with the outer envelope (env) and cristae (cr). (c) Cross-section of a double-bordered pit from a tracheid-like cell with fine structures of the primary and secondary cell walls. Size bars: (a) 500 nm; (b) 200 nm; (c) 1 mm.Cypress [Proc. R. Soc. B272, 121–126 (2005)]
And if such an approach is ever developed, I’ll give it every consideration, with no ego or emotional attachment to cryopreservation.
At right, nanoscale “rod-logic” mechanical computer, as envisioned by Drexler.
Unfortunately, that’s not what happened vis a vis nanotechnology, and a clique of people emerged who were heavily emotionally invested in a 19th century mechanical approach to achieving a “technological singularity.” I know I never thought that rod logic computers would be the technology used to run teensy tiny mechanical robots that would repair cryopatients. Truth to tell, I have only vague ideas how repair will be carried out on severely injured patients, and the most credible of those involve information extraction and “off-board” virtual repair. And while I agree that the pace of technological advance is accelerating, I don’t believe in some utopian singularity, because I also know that these advances are not one-sided; they carry enormous costs and liabilities, which will to some degree offset their advantages.
To sum up, it isn’t the ideas of accelerating technological advance, nanotechnology, or any combination of these ideas per se that have been so pernicious; rather, it is the adoption of a utopian (all positive) framework which is socially enforced as the mandatory context in which these ideas must be viewed, that has been so destructive. That is certainly not Eric Drexler’s fault, and I would go so far as to argue that it was at least as much the responsibility of the cryonics organizations that systematically purged people who didn’t adhere to this party line for (among many reasons) the simple fact that failure to project this idealized and easily grasped view of the future was not good for sales. These ideas, presented in an inevitably utopian framework, do in fact get customers. And customers were exactly what every then (and now) extant cryonics organization wanted, and still want: not members, not people to join in the task at hand, but customers. Customers pay their money, get their goods and services, and that’s it, unless they come back as repeat business.
I think we can forget the “repeat business” element in cryonics, for the moment. So, what we now have are people who are increasingly showing up, no longer even alive, paying their ~ $45K, plopping into liquid nitrogen, and sitting there with the expectation that we are going to revive them. And, after all, why shouldn’t they do this, since it is what they are being sold.
For all practical purposes, there is no easily imaginable amount of money that would really cover the costs of a single person’s truly reliable cryopreservation and revival. From the start, cryonics societies were conceived of as mutual aid organizations. This was because of the open-ended and uncertain nature of the idea. Traveling to the future is most akin to signing on to a wagon train to the western United States in the 19th century. You paid your money, and then you worked your ass off. If you were lucky, you made it to California, to Salt Lake, or wherever else you were pioneering to, alive and in one piece. In no way did “going west” imply buying a ticket on the Super Chief, or even on the stage coach. That is where cryonics is right now; it is a pioneering undertaking, but more importantly it is an experimental procedure, and almost everyone seems to have lost track of that reality.
As to FM-2030 (left), I have a lot of sympathy with John La Valley’s article, and I took one hell of a lot of heat for running it, as I was the editor of Cryonics magazine at the time. However, in so many ways FM was a special case, and I believe he deserves considerable forbearance from us – if for no other reason that he was, indeed, one of us.
I met FM for the first time in the early to mid-1980s, when he invited me to his apartment in Los Angeles to talk about how he could practically and immediately help cryonics. He started by signing up, and followed through by taking me to countless social functions to meet a lot of very influential (and very interesting people). I gained a lot of insight from those efforts. He also relentlessly exhorted people to sign up, and to do it now, and he recruited at least 5 people to Alcor in the 1980s-90s, that I am personally aware of. He was also a good and decent man; someone who people in general liked – and there were not then, or now, many people promoting cryonics who fit that description. He was a wildly overoptimistic man, but more importantly, he put his money and his actions where his mouth was, and that cannot be said for most of the others in the TH community.
Ray Kurzweil (right) is frustrating in many ways, but again, this is a man who has, on balance, made really important contributions to the broad set of issues that confront us. His discrete analysis of the historical trend of diverse technologies would make him invaluable as a stand-alone contribution. That we don’t agree with his conclusions is a different matter, and shouldn’t be conflated with the overall intellectual worth of his contributions. Also, and this is very important, he has not in any way directly involved himself in cryonics, nor has he been critical of it, let alone someone who has ever even remotely attacked it. If he, or FM, had sought out leadership positions in cryonics, and then imposed their world view, my attitude would be very different. As it is, we as cryonicists invited both FM and Kurzweil to speak at our functions and to write for and about us. We were only too happy to accept their help (and indeed to solicit it) when we thought it to our advantage. As a consequence, I’m unwilling to attack these men, or to devalue their very real contributions. Sure, we can and should be critical of ideas and approaches that we believe (or know) are damaging to cryonics. But it is very important to separate the men from their ideas, and our friends from our enemies. We have far too few the former, and far too many of the latter.
1. Plus M: Editor’s Blog March 8, 2011: Is Transhuman Militance a Threat to H+? : http://hplusmagazine.com/2011/03/08/is-transhuman-militance-a-threat-to-h/. In: Humanity +.
2. deWolf A: Cryonics and transhumanism: http://www.depressedmetabolism.com/2009/02/11/cryonics-and-transhumanism/. Depressed Metabolism February 11th, 2009
3. Drexler K: Engines of Creation: http://e-drexler.com/p/06/00/EOC_Cover.html. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell; 1986.
4. Drexler K: Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation: http://e-drexler.com/d/06/00/Nanosystems/toc.html. New York: John Wiley & Sons 1992.
5. Donaldson T: 24th Century Medicine: http://www.alcor.org/Library/html/24thcenturymedicine.html. Analog 1988, 108(9).
6. Darwin M: The anabolocyte: a biological approach to repairing cryoinjury: http://www.nanomedicine.com/NMI/22.214.171.124.htm. Life Extension Magazine: A Journal of the Life Extension Sciences 1977, 1(July/August ).
7. La Valley J: Are You A Transhuman? A short, irate book review: http://www.alcor.org/cryonics/cryonics9008.txt. Cryonics 1990 11 (121):41-43.
8. Kurzweil R: The law of accelerating returns: http://www.kurzweilai.net/the-law-of-accelerating-returns. Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence March 7, 2001.
1984 Alcor Brochure