Foresight Update 50
A publication of the Foresight Institute
by Jim Lewis
[Editor’s note: Because of the rapid expansion of press coverage of nanotechnoology coupled with the omission of Media Watch from Update 49, only some of the extensive backlog of relevant press items is covered here; we will catch up next issue.]
Celebrity suspension puts cryonics, Alcor, nanotechnology, and Foresight into the news
The cryonic suspension of baseball great Ted Williams after his “deanimation” July 5, 2002, at age 83 attracted intense public scrutiny and controversy to the concept of cryonic suspension and to Alcor, the cryonics organization that has custody of Williams’s cryonically preserved body. More indirectly, the spotlight has been on molecular nanotechnology for its proposed role in resuscitating cryonics patients.
On July 11, the San Francisco Chronicle carried the story “Pioneers in icy space: Ted Williams’ body would join 97 other frozen ‘cryonauts'” by staff writer Rick DelVecchio. The article is balanced and accurate. A brief description of the suspension procedure (including mention of the new vitrification process), the number of patients preserved by Alcor and by Cryonics Institute, and the fees charged by each organization, was combined with a clear description of the expected role of nano-robots in performing molecular level repairs on damaged cells. Ralph Merkle, Alcor board member and Foresight Vice President, Technology Assessment, was quoted on the feasibility of molecular level cellular repairs by nanomachines: “We’re going to have very powerful computers — highly automated, highly computerized repair technologies using large numbers of molecular machines.” Foresight President Christine Peterson is also quoted on the need for molecular repairs, even with the improved vitrification process, “At the end of this process, you still have someone who’s in extremely bad shape. You’re going to have to go there and do molecular-level repairs. We’re nowhere near that today.” Peterson is also quoted on why cryonics is an emotional subject that even many scientists will not discuss calmly. “You have to be very unemotional about it,” she said. “New medical technologies — like heart transplants — always have a high ‘yuck’ factor.”
Even small, local newspapers are getting the relationship between cryonics and nanotechnology right. The Lancaster Eagle-Gazette of Lancaster, OH ran a brief story July 11 on Williams’ suspension because a local son works for Alcor: “BU graduate freezes the dead: Sullivan works for facility that stores Ted Williams.” The story explains, “Nanotechnology is a theoretical science that proposes that one day humans will invent machines so small they can manipulate individual atoms. These machines could enter the bloodstream and heal the body one cell at a time.”
“Just Chillin’: Putting Mortality on Ice,” by Henry Fountain and Anne Eisenberg, was published July 14 in The New York Times, and gets to nanotechnology about half way through the story, in response to skepticism that it will ever be possible to repair damage in frozen bodies. “Led by Ralph Merkle and Eric Drexler, two scientists with legitimate research credentials, those who believe in cryonics have argued that nanotechnology will be the answer.” Quoting Merkle, who is identified as the author of “a seminal treatise” called “The Molecular Repair of the Brain”: “Computer memory, hardware or sequencing DNA, all are progressing rapidly. The trend is toward more rapid development of more powerful tools.” In rebuttal, Richard Smalley is quoted as saying “We have no technologies that I am aware of that are anywhere close to being able to go into an individual cell, fix the damage, and turn it on again. Let alone the gazillions of cells in Ted Williams’ body.” A slightly abridged version of the story ran under the title “Ted Williams family flap thaws interest in cryonics,” on July 14 in the Sunday Times (West Contra Costa) of Richmond, CA.
“They’ve Seen the Future and Intend to Live It,” by Bruce Schechter, published July 16 in the National Edition of The New York Times provides an informed and positive portrayal of the long range outlook that Dr. Ralph C. Merkle, Dr. K. Eric Drexler, and other Foresight members bring to their views of life and the development of nanotechnology. Describing some of what was said at theMay 2002 Foresight and IMM Senior Associates Gathering, the article travels from the National Nanotechnology Initiative and near term prospects to the “far more expansive vision of the future” held by Foresight members, and the link to cryonics. “After they die (if they do), many senior associates plan to have their bodies or heads frozen in liquid nitrogen until the day they can be resurrected, either into flesh or silicon, by a herd of nanobots.” Available on the web athttp://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/16/science/physical/16FUTU.html
An article by Charles W. Petit in the July 22 U.S. News & World Report takes a more skeptical look at cryonics: “Cold comfort: Putting Ted Williams into ‘cryonic suspension’ is unlikely to give him another turn a bat.” The article describes cryonics as having “wandered on the scientific fringe for decades.” It only gets as positive as saying “[Cryonics] continues to draw enough credentialed adherents to avoid rank crackpotism. Ralph Merkle of the Foresight Institute in Northern California, a high-profile advocate of nanotechnology and an Alcor director, thinks that in the future, tiny medical robots ‘should be able to go through a body literally molecule by molecule, undoing damage. … Alcor’s other notable advisers include artificial intelligence guru Marvin Minsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and cloning researcher Michael West of Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass.” Petit does leave a door open to the possibility cryonics might work. After summarizing the damage that freezing does to a brain, the article concludes “It seems like only magic could fix such a mess. But, says Merkle, ‘Imagine explaining a heart transplant, or a jet plane, in 1800. That would sound like magic too.'”
An article on cryonics in the Sunday Times, Valley Edition, Pleasanton, CA looks at cryonics through the eyes of a few Bay Area residents who are signed up for the process. “Tech workers dominate those drawn to cryonics, believing science will advance enough to bring them back from the dead,” by Jessica Gunn and Ellen Lee. For example, Tad Hogg is a research scientist with Hewlett Packard Co. Technologists cited as drawn to the cryonics movement include Ralph Merkle, K. Eric Drexler, Marvin Minsky, and Ray Kurzweil. “Their final question is nearly always the same: If these are the clinical trials, which control group would you rather be in 100 years from now: the one playing cryonics roulette suspended in liquid nitrogen or the one dead and buried.” Skeptics are quoted as saying that cryonics is ‘future magic.’ Michael Shermer who publishes Skeptic magazine claims “There is not a shred of evidence that this ever could be done. It all depends on having faith in the future of science.”
Not all debates raised by the Williams suspension are about technical feasibility. The Waterbury Republican-American of Waterbury, CT, July 25, published an article by Mark Azzara “Chilly search for fountain of youth: Ted Williams debate raises ethical questions.” The article appears in a column entitled “Faith & Morals,” and asks questions about property rights of revived cryonics patients, moral requirements of future generations to revive cryonics patients, whether the revived would be treated well, especially if they awake in an overcrowded world, etc. Nick Bostrom, co-chairman of the Artificial Intelligence, Nanotechnology and Transhumanism: Ethics, Technology and Utopian Visions bioethics research working group, a part of the Yale Interdisciplinary Bioethics Project, is cited as saying that by the time resuscitation becomes feasible, other technologies will have evolved too; for example, colonization of other planets. The article does not take a stand on the many questions that it raises. It closes by asking what cryonics will do to the structure of religions, and then surveys negative attitudes towards “breathing new life into old bodies” in Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Islamic, and Hindu thinking.
There are, however, those who do take a very strong stand for death and against extended life, as cited in the August issue of Reason magazine [” Forever Young: The new scientific search for immortality,” by Ronald Bailey, http://www.reason.com/0208/fe.rb.forever.shtml] The article surveys what is known about aging and proposed therapies ranging from diet and biotechnology, to nanotechnology, nanomedicine and their roles in cryonics. However, early on, Bailey warns that the barriers to achieving radically extended life spans may be political as well as technical. “Believe it or not, some of our most influential contemporary intellectuals are opposed to the idea of long, healthy lives.” Then he cites statements by Leon Kass, the president’s favorite bioethicist, Francis Fukuyama, and Daniel Callahan to the effect that death is a blessing. “The defining political conflict of the 21st century will be the battle over life and death. On one side stand the partisans of mortality, who counsel humanity to quietly accept our morbid fate and go gentle into that good night. On the other is the party of life, who rage against the dying of the light and yearn to extend the enjoyment of healthy life to as many as possible for as long as possible.”
Finally, taking a very practical look, the August issue of Trusts & Estates (Atlanta, GA) carries the article by Al W. King III “Freezers—Our Future Coffins?” which notes “But seriously folks, frozen clients are a fascinating problem for financial and estate planners. And this is no hypothetical. … When, and if, medical science discovers how to wake these people, they will need to be declared legally alive, and have access to their money.” The article addresses issues like how to recoup death taxes paid by your estate after you’re revived. Also, apparently if you want to get your money back after being revived, you only have about a century for technology to advance to that point, since most states require that trusts end within 90 to 110 years. However 15 states allow for unlimited duration trusts.