Friday, October 27, 2006


Cryonics is a medical procedure aimed at preserving the bodies of terminal patients until such time as advanced medical procedures can provide for their resuscitation. To revive a patient in a state of cryopreservation would require not only curing the cause of death, which would be the easy part, but also reversing the damage caused by storing the body in liquid nitrogen at temperatures below -200 C.

A process resembling cryonics was envisioned by Benjamin Franklin as early as 1772. Franklin wrote to a friend:

“I wish it were possible… to invent a method of embalming drowned persons, in such a manner that they might be recalled to life at any period, however distant; for having a very ardent desire to see and observe the state of America a hundred years hence, I should prefer to an ordinary death, being immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira, until that time, then to be recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country! But… in all probability, we live in a century too little advanced, and too near the infancy of science, to see such an art brought in our time to its perfection.”

Surprising to reflect upon the possibility that a beta version of Franklin’s desired cask exists today in the form of Bigfoot Dewars, the thermos-like vacuum flasks in which cryonics patients are stored.

Bigfoot Dewar

There are no shortage of critics of cryonics who maintain that it would be impossible to revive someone placed in suspension regardless of any future technological developments. Dr Arthur Rowe, a cryobiologist often quoted by opponents of cryonics, claimed that believing cryonics could reanimate someone who had been frozen is like “believing you can turn hamburger back into a cow.” On a similar note, I was actually taught in high school by my physics teacher that cryonics could never work because when you freeze human tissue ice crystals form causing irreparable damage to the cells. As it turns out, these might have been a pertinent issues with early, failed experiments in cryonics, but they do not concern the methods used at Alcor, established in 1972. There is currently a process of tissue preservation in use called vitrification that preserves cells in a glassy solid state without the formation of ice crystals.

Some of the evidence supporting the feasibility of cryonics came as early as 1984, when a cardiothoracic surgery researcher at the UCLA school of medicine named Jerry Leaf helped develop a cryopreservant blood substitute shown to be capable of sustaining life in dogs for up to four hours. Leaf, who was involved in special operations during the Vietnam War that had over a 50% mortality rate, stated in an interview in 1986,

“I left my fear of death somewhere in the jungles of Vietnam. To this day, I have absolutely no fear of death, only the fear of not being able to save someone else that I care about. It’s not that I don’t want life for myself, because I do very much. I only have positive feelings towards life. I want more of it.”

Leaf was himself cryopreserved at Alcor in 1991 following a fatal heart attack.

Jerry Leaf with a survivor of reanimation

More recently, an article published in 2006 in Wired Magazine reports that Hasan Alam, a trauma surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital, has successfully suspended and revived pigs, over two hundred of them, for an hour each. This evidence all demonstrates that stopping the heart from beating does not positively denote the irremediable termination of life, if the existence of present-day defibrillators and heart transplant surgery weren’t already a sufficient demonstration of that fact.

A cryonics policy at Alcor can be secured through a life insurance policy, meaning that it can be paid for over the course of 25 years. If one happens to be younger than 60, chances are that if one started making monthly payments now, for about the cost of a cable television bill one could pay off a cryonics policy well before the actual medical intervention is needed. Some might contend that such a considerable sum of money would better be spent on those in dire poverty rather than invested in a method of life extension that’s never been demonstrated to work. However, those same voices of dissent will routinely spend the same amount, if not greater sums, on medical bills to extend the length of morbidity—that is, adding extra months and years to the time of greatest physical pain and mental deterioration.

To say that human civilization will never devise a means to revive patients from cryopreservation is an extreme statement, considering that before the 20th century heavier-than-air flight was generally considered scientifically impossible. There was no precedent for it in nature and no sign of its existence before the Wright brothers engineered its invention. For a terminal patient to wait in cryonic suspension for the entirety of the 21st century without hope of revival would require the extinction of our culture’s concern for scientific inquiry. All the available evidence points to its one-day being attainable. Imagining that one is granted the freedom to choose between suspension and burial, I would argue that there is an obvious rational basis to opting for cryonics.

Links to further material:

Alcor's website
The Molecular Repair of the Brain by Ralph Merkle
Death in the Deep Freeze television documentary
Suspended Animation by Vitrification video presentation by Brian Wowk at the Immortality Insitute conference

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Evolutionary Development

Unlike the meaningful designs lying behind human creativity, no intelligent decision-making underlies the process of evolution. Species evolve as the result of random mutations. Those mutations that ensure fitness are passed on, while those deleterious to survival prove short-lived. Here we find a two-sided process is at work. Random experimentation drives evolutionary change, while development prunes variety down to the optimum. These two factors work together to produce the phenomenon of evolutionary development.

In the early stages of an evolutionary paradigm, one finds a larger degree of variation before development pares down design to optimum efficiency. For instance, in some lizards one finds a vestigial third eye on top of the head. The functional photosensory organ found atop the heads of some lizards lends evidence to the supposition that nature throws out all sorts of variations upon a common theme before a dominant paradigm develops, like that of dual forward-facing eyes.

parietal eye, iguana
parietal eye, lizard

Certain factors in the evolutionary development of dinosaurs suggest those animals were converging upon evolutionary paradigms more closely resembling our own. The body plans of the Troodon, a relatively small pack-hunter of the late Cretacious period, are conspicuously anthropomorphic by design. These creatures had the largest known brains of any dinosaur, sported forward-facing eyes. Paleontologist Dale Russel assembled a nearly complete Troodon skeleton in 1969. He speculated that had the species not been killed off by a meteorite extinction event, the evolutionary result would have been an intelligent “Dinosauroid.”

Dinosauroid image
The dinosauroid hypothesis

If Russel’s intuitions are accurate, the Dinosauroid hypothesis has profound implications for the future trajectory of the human species. If the vagaries of blind evolutionary selection predictably settle upon dominant archetypes, such as those found in large-brained mammals, there may well be a general path along which intelligent species are destined to follow. The best way to verify the hypothesis would be to look at examples of extraterrestrial intelligent life. But first we might ask just how likely we would be to find the existence of ETI’s in the first place.

In 1961, astronomer Frank Drake conceived of an equation for estimating the number of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy by multiplying the number of stars in the Milky Way by the fraction of stars that have orbiting planets, the average number of planets capable of sustaining life, and the fraction of those civilizations currently communicating via electromagnetic radiation. The resultant Drake Equation includes many uncertain variables, for there is no way of knowing how likely life is to evolve on a planet like the earth, or if radio transmission is an inevitable convergent phenomenon arising from intelligence. Drake estimated there should be around ten thousand radio-capable civilizations in the galaxy. Carl Sagan guessed one million.

The Drake equation states that:
Drake Equation
N is the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which we might expect to be able to communicate at any given time and
R* is the rate of star formation in our galaxy
fp is the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne is average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fl is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life
fi is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
fc is the fraction of the above that are willing and able to communicate
L is the expected lifetime of such a civilization

Arecibo telescope
SETI observations have been conducted at the 305m radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico

The implications of the Drake equation were a motivating factor behind the SETI Institute’s search for extraterrestrial intelligence. SETI’s senior astronomer, Seth Shostak, in a New Scientist article entitled “ET First Contact Within 20 Years,” cited the Drake and Sagan estimates as likely bounds within which one could expect to find the actual number of humanlike alien civilizations. Ray Kurzweil notes in The Singularity is Near, “The assumption behind SETI is that life—and intelligent life—is so prevalent that there must be millions if not billions of radio-capable civilizations in the universe… Not a single one of them, however, has made itself noticeable to our SETI efforts thus far” (347). In 1950, Enrico Fermi famously asked, “Where is everybody?” The question proves even more puzzling today, now that SETI has provided evidence that we are alone.

Acceleration Watch bannerThe Acceleration Watch webpage

One common response to the Fermi paradox is that earth may well be the first planet in the universe to carry intelligent life. For if an intelligent species within this galaxy developed advanced technologies thousands of years before humans, let alone millions, we should have heard from them by now. Futurist John Smart, president of the Acceleration Studies Foundation, has proposed an alternate solution to the Fermi paradox, one that does not require humankind to have preternaturally “lucked out.” Smart’s universal transcension scenario hypothesizes that as intelligent life develops advanced technologies, these civilizations choose not to spread throughout the universe. Rather, they delve into inner and virtual space, essentially escaping this universe.

John Smart
Futurist John Smart, President of the Acceleration Studies Foundation

Smart describes universal transcension as an inevitable result of Convergent Evolution. As life evolves, it undergoes what Smart has termed MEST compression, yielding greater efficiencies of matter, energy, space, and time. Seen this way, both the evolutionary development of living species and the accelerating progress of information technologies follow the same paradigm of increasingly efficient design. The reason that homo sapiens dominate the planet is because of their MEST efficient phenotype. The body plans of humans are ideal, when compared to their extant earthbound alternatives, for developing intelligent machines. As a natural result, the next step in life on earth must necessarily be human equivalent AI. We should expect self-modifying artificial intelligence to be more interested in modifying its MEST efficiency by iteratively redesigning its hardware. This course will take intelligent life deeper and deeper into innerspace.

John Smart
and power point slides of John Smart's presentation on MEST compression at the Singularity Summit at Stanford

Expanding through space would not only be a waste of time and energy to our superintelligent progeny, the trip would prove dangerous and unenlightening. Forget trashing the universe with our genes, memes, and other viral junk. Had another civilization been so messy, ours would never have seen the light of day. In thinking about the future, we ought to consider nanometers, nanoseconds, and the infinite expanses of virtual reality. If convergent evolution demonstrates anything, it is that the definition of vision in future intelligences will reveal vast and complex vistas in the hospitable domains of the tiny and invisible.