3 August 2008

Human obstacles to audacious technical advances

Filed under: cryonics, flight, leadership, UKTA — David Wood @ 7:11 pm

[A] French noblewoman, a duchess in her eighties, …, on seeing the first ascent of Montgolfier’s balloon from the palace of the Tuilleries in 1783, fell back upon the cushions of her carriage and wept. “Oh yes,” she said, “Now it’s certain. One day they’ll learn how to keep people alive forever, but I shall already be dead.”

Throughout history, individual humans have from time to time dared to dream that technological advances could free us from some of the limitations of our current existence. Fantastic tales of people soaring into the air, like birds, go back at least as far as Icarus. Fantastic tales of people with lifespans exceeding the biblical “three score years and ten” go back at least as far as, well, the Bible. The French noblewoman mentioned above, in a quote taken from Lewis Lapham’s 2003 Commencement speech at St. John’s College Annapolis, made the not implausible connection that technology’s progress in solving the first challenge was a sign that, in time, technology might solve the second challenge too.

Mike Darwin made the same connection at an utterly engrossing UKTA meeting this weekend. Since the age of 16 (he’s now 53), Mike has been trying to develop technological techniques to significantly lower the temperature of animal tissue, and then to warm up the tissue again so that it can resume its previous function. The idea, of course, is to enable the cryo-preservation of people who have terminal diseases (and who have nominally died of these diseases) until reviving them at such time in the future when science now has a cure for that disease.

Mike compared progress with the technology of cryonics to progress with the technology of powered manned flight. Renowned physicist Lord Kelvin had said as late as 1896 that “I do not have the smallest molecule of faith in aerial navigation other than ballooning“. Kelvin was not the only person with such a viewpoint. Even the Wright brothers themselves, after some disappointing setbacks in their experiments in 1901, “predicted that man will probably not fly in their lifetime“. There were a host of detailed, difficult engineering problems that needed to be solved, by painstakingly analysis. These included three kinds of balance and stability (roll, pitch, and yaw) as well as lift, power, and thrust. Perhaps it is no surprise that it was the Wright brothers, as accomplished bicycle engineers, that first sufficiently understood and solved this nexus of problems. Eventually, in 1903, they did manage one small powered flight, lasting just 12 seconds. Later that day, a flight lasted 59 seconds. That was enough to stimulate much more progress. Only 16 years later, John Alcock and Arthur Brown flew an airplane non-stop across the Atlantic. And the rest is history.

For this reason, Mike is particularly keen to demonstrate incremental progress with suspension and revival techniques. For example, there is the work done by Brian Wowk and Gregory Fahy and others on the vitrification and then reanimation of rabbit kidneys.

However, the majority of Mike’s remarks were on topics different from the technical feasibility of cryonics. He spoke for over two hours, and continued in a formal Q&A session for another 30 minutes. After that, informal discussion continued for at least another 45 minutes, at which time I had to make my excuses and leave (in order to keep my date to watch Dark Knight that evening). It was a tour-de-force. It’s hard to summarise such a lengthy passionate yet articulate presentation, but let me try:

  1. Cryonics is morally good
  2. Cryonics is technically feasible
  3. By 1968, Cryonics was a booming enterprise, with many conferences, journals, and TV appearances
  4. However, Cryonics has significantly failed in its ambitions
  5. Unless we understand the real reasons for these failures, we can’t realise the potential benefits of this program
  6. The failures primarily involve people issues rather than technical issues
  7. In any case, we should anticipate fierce opposition to cryonics, since it significantly disrupts many core elements of the way society currently operates.

The most poignant part was the description of the people issues during the history of cryonics:

  • People who had (shall we say) unclear ethical propriety (“con-men, frauds, and incompetents”)
  • People who failed to carry out the procedures they had designed – yet still told the world that they had followed the book (with the result that patients’ bodies suffered grievous damage during the cryopreservation process, or during subsequent storage)
  • People who were technically savvy and emotionally very committed yet who lacked sufficient professional and managerial acumen to run a larger organisation
  • People who lacked skills in raising and handling funding
  • People who lacked sufficient skills in market communications – they appeared as cranks rather than credible advocates.

This rang a lot of bells for me. The technology industry as a whole (including the smartphone industry) often struggles with similar issues. The individuals who initially come up with a great technical idea, and who are its first champions, are often not the people best placed to manage the later stages of development and implementation of that idea. The transition between early stage management and any subsequent phase is tough. But it is frequently essential. (And it may need to happen more than once!) You sometimes have to gently ease aside people (ideally at the same time finding a great new role for them) who are your personal friends, and who are deeply talented, but who are no longer the right people to lead a program through its next stage. Programs often grow faster than people do.

I don’t see any easy answers in general. I do agree with Mike on the following points:

  • A step-by-step process, with measurable feedback, is much preferable to reliance on (in essence) a future miracle that can undo big mistakes made by imprecise processes today(this is what Mike called “the fallacy of our friends in the future“);
  • Feedback on experiments is particularly important. If you monitor more data on what happens during the cryopreservation process, you’ll discover more quickly whether your assumptions are correct. Think again about the comparable experiences of the Wright brothers. Think also of the importance of carrying out retrospectives at regular intervals during a project;
  • Practice is essential. Otherwise it’s like learning to drive by just studying a book for six months, and then trying to drive all the way across the country the first time you sit in the drivers seat;
  • The quality of the key individuals in the organisations is of paramount importance, so that sufficient energies can be unleashed from the latent support both in the organisation and in wider society. Leadership matters greatly.

Footnote: I first came across the reference to the tale of the venerable French duchess in the commentary to Eliezer Yudkowsky’s evocative online reminiscences regarding the death of his 19-year old brother Yehuda Nattan Yudkowsky.

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