19 September 2014

The new future of old age

In an enchanting four minute video, Korean artist Seok Jeong Hyeon, who is also known as Stonehouse, portrays the gradual aging of a baby girl. At first, the changes are slow, but they accumulate as years and then decades pass. The end result is an elderly woman, adorned with lines and wrinkles, who finally stops breathing.

The video is beautiful, and the woman maintains her own elegance to the end. As such, it presents a romantic view of aging. (And the video even hints at another romantic idea, namely reincarnation.)

In reality, as we age, we suffer from increasing numbers of aches and pains. We half-laugh when we say that we’re experiencing a “senior moment” of forgetfulness, but we notice our declining potency. Worse, every extra eight years that we live, past the age of around 35, we become twice as likely to die within the next year. In other words, our mortality rate increases exponentially. This was first observed in 1825 by British actuary and mathematician Benjamin Gompertz. Empirical data continues to support Gompertz, nearly two centuries later. For example, here’s a chart of the exponentially increasing death rate in the USA:


One of the factors underlying this upwards surge of mortality rate is the fact that, as we become older, we become increasingly vulnerable to various horrible diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and lung disorders. Aging researcher Avi Roy of Oxford has collected information from the Office of National Statistics as follows:

Death rates from diseases

These five diseases aren’t random choices, by the way. They’re currently all high up in the list of the current largest causes of death.

The romantic notion of death is that we grow old gracefully, lose our powers almost imperceptibly, and die in our sleep, contented, surrounded by happy thoughts. In all too many cases, alas, death is preceded by viciously nasty diseases.

The Palo Alto prize

One of the deeply cherished visions of potential human progress has been the hope that, one day, we could reverse this state of affairs. Instead of the rate of mortality increasing with chronological age, it could remain constant. The terrible diseases listed, and others like them, which all currently increase their impact the older we get, could be conquered by the development of medicine – much the same as medicine has already made huge inroads against infectious diseases. The best solution would be, not a wide range of individual interventions each targeted at specific diseases, but an intervention that undoes the underlying damage of aging – the damage which accumulates throughout our body, and which makes it more likely that we fall prey to “diseases of old age”.

Until recently, that vision has lain well outside scientific orthodoxy. People have been loath to mention the idea, as it could spell the end of their academic careers.

However, that reticence seems to be changing. No less than eleven research teams from universities around the world have already publicly committed to entering for the recently announced “Palo Alto Longevity Prize”, which has a $1M prize fund. This video provides an introduction to the prize:

This video introduces key personnel from the different teams who are already engaged in developing solutions for contest:


The eleven teams and their leaders are listed in a recent TechCrunch article about the prize:

Doris Taylor, Ph.D.
Texas Heart Institute, Houston, TX
http://paloaltoprize.com/team/team-taylor-lab/ ‎
TEAM NAME: T.H.I. REGENERATIVE MEDICINE (approach: stem cells)

Dongsheng Cai, M.D., Ph.D.
Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York, NY
TEAM NAME: CAI LAB (approach: hypothalamic regulation)

Andreas Birkenfeld, M.D.
Charite University School of Medicine, Berlin, Germany
TEAM NAME: INDY (approach: gene modification)

Jin Hyung Lee, Ph.D.
Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA
TEAM NAME: LEE LAB (approach: neuromodulation)

David Mendelowitz, Ph.D.
George Washington University, Washington, D.C.
TEAM NAME: MENDELOWITZ LAB (approach: oxytocin)

Scott Wolf, M.D.
Mountain View, CA
TEAM NAME: VOLTS MEDICAL (approach: inflammatory tissues)

Irving Zucker, Ph.D.
University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, NE
TEAM NAME: ZUCKER LAB (approach: neuromodulation)

Brian Olshansky, M.D.
University of Iowa Medical Center, Iowa City, IA
TEAM NAME: IOWA PRO-AUTONOMIA (approach: not yet public)

William Sarill, M.A.
Arlington, MA
TEAM NAME: DECO (approach: pituitary hormones)

Steven Porges, Ph.D.
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC
TEAM NAME: POLYVAGAL SCIENCE (approach: optimizing both the left & right vagal branches)

Shin-Ichiro Imai, M.D., Ph.D.
Washington University, St. Louis, MO
TEAM NAME: IMAI LAB (approach: gene modification)

Approaching rejuvenation

AR Cover page v2In the light of all the fascinating developments around the field of increasing healthy longevity, I’ve decided that my next book will focus on that field.

The book is entitled “Approaching rejuvenation: Is science on the point of radically extending human longevity”. My intent is that the book will provide a bird’s eye report from the frontiers of the emerging field of rejuvenation biology:

  • The goals and motivations of key players in this field
  • The rapid progress that has been achieved in the last few years
  • The challenges that threaten to thwart further development
  • The critical questions that need to be faced.

The book will be based around material from interviews with more than a dozen researchers, engineers, entrepreneurs, and humanitarians, who are making it their life’s quest to enable human rejuvenation. I’ve already started doing these interviews.

I’m far from being an expert in any branch of biochemistry or medicine. However, I hope to bring five important angles to this writing task:

  1. My background in history and philosophy of science, wrestling with the question of how to distinguish science from pseudoscience, and the more general dilemma of how to decide whether lines of research are likely to turn out to be misguided dead-ends
  2. My professional career within the smartphone industry, where I saw a lot of similar aspirations (though on a much smaller scale) regarding the breakthroughs that fast-moving technology could enable
  3. My experience as a writer, in which I seek to explain complicated subjects in a relatively straightforward but engaging manner
  4. The six years in which I have had the privilege to organise meetups in London dedicated to futurist, singularitarian, and technoprogressive topics – meetings which have featured a wide variety of different attitudes and outlooks
  5. My aspiration as a humanitarian to probe for both the human upsides and the human downsides of changing technology – in order to set possible engineering breakthroughs (such as rejuvenation biotech) in a broader societal context.

If you have any suggestions or comments about this new book project, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

The new future of old age

The London Futurists event next Saturday (27th September) addresses the same general theme. I close this blogpost with an excerpt from the description of the meetup. Please see the associated meetup page for more information about the speakers, for logistics details, and to register to attend. I hope to see some of you there!

Futurists, life extension advocates, transhumanists and others have been speaking for several decades already about the possibility, desirability, and broader consequences of significantly extending the human healthy lifespan. In this vision, the deteriorating effects of infirmity and old age could be radically postponed, and perhaps abolished altogether, via improvements in regenerative biotechnology.

Forget “70 is the new 50”. We might have the possibility of “150 is the new 50”. And alongside the existing booming cosmetics industry, with huge amounts spent to reduce the visible signs of aging, we might envision a booming rejuvenation industry, reversing the actual underlying biochemical damage that constitutes aging.

Recently, the pace of change in the field of healthy life extension seems to have increased: almost every day there are reports of possible breakthrough treatment methods, unexpected experimental results, new economic analyses of demographic changes, and innovative theoretical ideas. It’s hard to keep up with all these reports.

How can we evaluate this flurry of change?

Held in conjunction with the UN International Day of Older People (which occurs each year on 1st October), this event brings together a panel of expert speakers – William BainsMichael Price, Alex Zhavoronkov, and Sebastian Sethe – who will each give their assessment of “what’s new in the field of old age”:

  • What are some of the most significant research findings and other potential breakthroughs from the last five years?
  • What is the likelihood of significant practical change in healthy longevity within, say, the next 10-20 years?
  • What would be the economic, social, and psychological implications of such changes?
  • Are there any new grounds for scepticism or fear regarding these potential changes?
  • If individuals wish to help accelerate these changes, what should they do?
  • What are the major obstacles that could prevent real progress being made?

FB meeting image



17 September 2013

When faith gets in the way of progress

Is it good that we grow old, weak, disease-prone, and eventually succumb, dead, to the ravages of aging?

The rise and fall of our health and vigour is depicted in this sketch from leading biogerontology researcher Alex Zhavoronkov:

Aging Decline

This diagram is taken from the presentation Alex made at a London Futurists event on 31st August. Alex used the same slide in his presentation, several days later, to the SENS6 conference “Reimage aging” at Queens’ College, Cambridge.


My impression from the attendees at SENS6 that I met, over the four days I spent at the conference, is that the vast majority of them would give a resounding ‘No’ as the answer to the question,

Is it good that we grow old, weak, disease-prone, and eventually succumb, dead, to the ravages of aging?

What’s more, they shared a commitment that action should be taken to change this state of affairs. In various ways, they described themselves as “fighters against aging”, “healthy longevity activists”, and as “campaigners for negligible senescence”. They share an interest in the declaration made on the page on the SENS Research Foundation website describing the conference:

The purpose of the SENS conference series, like all the SENS initiatives, is to expedite the development of truly effective therapies to postpone and treat human aging by tackling it as an engineering problem: not seeking elusive and probably illusory magic bullets, but instead enumerating the accumulating molecular and cellular changes that eventually kill us and identifying ways to repair – to reverse – those changes, rather than merely to slow down their further accumulation.

This broadly defined regenerative medicine – which includes the repair of living cells and extracellular material in situ – applied to damage of aging, is what we refer to as rejuvenation biotechnologies.

This “interventionist” approach, if successful, would lead to a line, on the chart of performance against age, similar to that shown in the bright green colour: we would retain our youthful vigour indefinitely. Mechanisms supporting this outcome were explored in considerable technical details in the SENS6 presentations. The SENS6 audience collectively posed some probing questions to the individual presenters, but the overall direction was agreed. Rejuvenation biotechnologies ought to be developed, as soon as possible.

But not everyone sees things like this. SENS6 attendees agreed on that point too. Over informal discussions throughout the event, people time and again shared anecdotes about their personal acquaintances being opposed to the goals of SENS. You can easily see the same kind of negative reactions, in the online comments pages of newspapers, whenever a newspaper reports some promising news about potential techniques to overcome aging.

For example, the Daily Mail in the UK recently published a well-researched article, “Do lobsters hold the key to eternal life? Forget gastronomic indulgence, the crustacean can defy the aging process”. The article starts as follows:

They are usually associated with a life of gastronomic indulgence and heart-stopping excess. But away from the dinner table, lobsters may actually hold the secret to a long, healthy — and possibly even eternal — life.

For this crustacean is one of a handful of bizarre animals that appear to defy the normal aging process.

While the passing years bring arthritis, muscle loss, memory problems and illness to humans, lobsters seem to be immune to the ravages of time. They can be injured, of course. They can pick up diseases. They can be caught and thrown into a pot, then smothered in béchamel sauce.

But rather than getting weaker and more vulnerable over the years, they become stronger and more fertile each time they shed their shells.

The typical lobster weighs 1 to 2 lb. But in 2009, a Maine fisherman landed a colossus of 20 lb, which was estimated to be 140 years old. And that isn’t even the oldest lobster found so far. According to Guinness World Records, a 44 lb leviathan was caught in 1977, with claws powerful enough to snap a man’s arm.

The species belongs to an elite group that appears to be ‘biologically immortal’. Away from predators, injury or disease, these astonishing creatures’ cells don’t deteriorate with age…

For healthy longevity activists, there was lots of good news in the article. This information, however, was too much for some readers to contemplate. Some of the online comments make for fascinating (but depressing) reading. Here are four examples, quoted directly from the comments:

  1. How would humankind cope with tens of millions of extremely old and incredibly crabby people?
  2. People have to die and they’re not dying quickly enough. Soon the earth will run out of water and food for the ever increasing masses.
  3. These “researchers” should watch Death Becomes Her
  4. The only guarantee of eternal life is to read your Bibles. Though even if you don’t, eternal life of another kind exists, though it’s not particularly appealing: “And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever” (Rev 14:11).

To be clear, the goal of project such as those in the SENS umbrella is to extend healthy lifespans (sometimes known as “healthspans”) rather than simply extending lifespans themselves. Rejuvenation technologies are envisioned to undo tendencies towards unwelcome decrepitude, crabbiness, and so on.

As for the reference to the 1992 Hollywood film “Death Becomes Her” featuring Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn in a frightful “living dead” immortality, I’ll get back to that later.

Infinite ResourceThe question of potential over-population has a bit more substance. However, the worry isn’t so much the number of people on the earth, but the rate at which everyone is consuming and polluting. With potential forthcoming improvements in harnessing solar energy, we’ll have more than enough energy available to look after a planet with 10 billion people. Arguably the planet could sustain at least 100 billion people. (That argument is made, in a well-balanced way, by Ramez Naam in his recent book “The infinite resource” – a book I thoroughly recommend. I’ve also covered this question from time to time in earlier blogposts – see e.g. “Achieving a 130-fold improvement in 40 years”.)

However, I believe that there are deeper roots to the opposition that many people have to the idea of extending healthy lifespans. They may offer intellectual rationalisations for their opposition (e.g. “How would humankind cope with tens of millions of extremely old and incredibly crabby people?”) but these rationalisations are not the drivers for the position they hold.

Instead, their opposition to extending healthy lifespans comes from what we can call faith.

This thought crystallised in my mind as I reflected on the very last presentation from SENS6. The speaker was Thomas Pyszczynski of the University of Colorado, and his topic was “Understanding the paradox of opposition to long-term extension of the human lifespan: fear of death, cultural worldviews, and the illusion of objectivity”.

The presentation title was long, but the content was clear and vivid. The speaker outlined some conclusions from decades of research he had conducted into “Terror Management Theory (TMT)”. I’ve since discovered that the subject of “Terror Management Theory” has its own article in Wikipedia:

Terror management theory (TMT), in social psychology, proposes a basic psychological conflict that results from having a desire to live but realizing that death is inevitable. This conflict produces terror, and is believed to be unique to humans. Moreover, the solution to the conflict is also generally unique to humans: culture. According to TMT, cultures are symbolic systems that act to provide life with meaning and value. If life is thought meaningful, death is less terrifying. Cultural values therefore serve to manage the terror of death by providing life with meaning…


Here’s the “paradox” to which Pyszczynski (pictured) referred: people oppose the idea that we could have longer healthy lives, because of the operation of a set of culture and philosophical ideas, which were themselves an adaptive response to the underlying fact that we deeply desire indefinitely long healthy lives. So the opposition is self-contradictory, but the people involved don’t see it like that.

For all of history up until the present age, the idea of having an indefinitely long healthy life was at stark variance to everything else that we saw around ourselves. Death seemed inevitable. In order to avoid collapsing into terror, we needed to develop rationalisations and techniques that prevented us from thinking seriously about our own finitude and mortality. That’s where key aspects of our culture arose. These aspects of our culture became deeply rooted.

Our culture operates, in many cases, below the level of conscious awareness. We find ourselves being driven by various underlying beliefs, without being aware of the set of causes and effects. However, we find comfort in these beliefs. This faith (belief in the absence of sufficient reason) helps to keep us mentally sane, and keeps society functional, even as it prepares us, as individuals, to grow infirm and die.

In case any new ideas challenge this faith, we find ourselves compelled to lash out against these ideas, even without taking the time to analyse them. Our motivation, here, is to preserve our core culture and faith, since that’s what provides the foundation of meaning in our lives. We fight the new ideas, even if these new ideas would be a better solution to our underlying desire to live an indefinitely long, healthy life. The new ideas leave us with a feeling of alienation, even though we don’t see the actual connections between ideas. Our faith causes us to lose our rationality.

Incidentally, similar factors apply, of course, when other things that have profound importance to us are challenged. For example, when we think we may lose a cherished romantic partner, we can all too easily become crazy. When your heart’s on fire, smoke gets in your eyes.

Ending AgingIt turns out that Aubrey de Grey, the chief science officer of SENS, has already written on this same topic. In chapter two of his 2007 book “Ending aging”, he notes the following:

There is a very simple reason why so many people defend aging so strongly – a reason that is now invalid, but until quite recently was entirely reasonable. Until recently, no one has had any coherent idea how to defeat aging, so it has been effectively inevitable. And when one is faced with a fate that is as ghastly as aging and about which one can do absolutely nothing, either for oneself or even for others, it makes perfect psychological sense to put it out of one’s mind – to make one’s peace with it, you might say – rather than to spend one’s miserably short life preoccupied by it. The fact that, in order to sustain this state of mind, one has to abandon all semblance of rationality on the subject – and, inevitably, to engage in embarrassingly unreasonable conversational tactics to shore up that irrationality – is a small price to pay….

Aubrey continues this theme at the start of chapter three:

We’ve recently reached the point where we can engage in the rational design of therapies to defeat aging: most of the rest of this book is an account of my favoured approach to that design. But in order to ensure that you can read that account with an open mind, I need to dispose beforehand of a particularly insidious aspect of the pro-aging trance: the fact that most people already know, in their heart of hearts, that there is a possibility that aging will eventually be defeated.

Why is this a problem? Indeed, at first sight you might think that it would make my job easier, since surely it means that the pro-aging trance is not particularly deep. Unfortunately, however, self-sustained delusions don’t work like that. Just as it’s rational to be irrational about the desirability of aging in order to make your peace with it, it’s also rational to be irrational about the feasibility of defeating aging while the chance of defeating it any time soon remains low. If you think there’s even a 1 percent chance of defeating aging within your lifetime (or within the lifetime of someone you love), that sliver of hope will prey on your mind and keep your pro-aging trance uncomfortably fragile, however hard you’ve worked to convince yourself that aging is actually not such a bad thing after all. If you’re completely convinced that aging is immutable, by contrast, you can sleep more soundly.

Underwood_Mair_2013_smallAnother speaker from the final session of SENS6, Mair Underwood of the University of Queensland, provided some timely advice to the SENS6 community, that dovetails well with the discussion above. Underwood’s presentation was entitled “What reassurances do the community need regarding life extension? Evidence from studies of community attitudes and an analysis of film portrayals”. The presentation pointed out the many ways in which popular films (such as “Death Becomes Her”, mentioned above) portray would-be life extensionists in a bad light. These people, the films imply, are emotionally immature, selfish, frustrated, obstructive, and generally unattractive. This is the pro-death culture at work.

To counteract these impressions, and to help free the broader community from its faith that aging and death are actually good things, Underwood gave the following advice:

  1. Assure that life extension science, and the distribution of life extension technologies, are ethical and regulated, and seen to be so
  2. Assuage community concerns about life extension as unnatural or playing god
  3. Assure that life extension would involve an extension of healthy lifespan
  4. Assure that life extension does not mean a loss of fertility
  5. Assure the community that life extension will not exacerbate social divides, and that those with extended lives will not be a burden on society
  6. Create a new cultural framework for understanding life extension.

This advice is all good, but I suspect that the new few years may see a growing “battle of faiths”, as representatives of the old culture fight harder in opposition to the emerging evidence that we we are on the point of possessing the technological means to extend human healthspans very significantly. This is a battle that may need more tools, to influence the outcome, than mere hard-honed rationality. At the very least, we’ll need to keep in mind how culture works, and the ways in which faith draws strength.

Follow ups: Several forthcoming London Futurists meetups address topics that are directly relevant to the above line of thinking:

  • Futurism, Spirituality, and Faith, in Birkbeck College on Saturday 21st September, discusses ways in which committed technoprogressives can best interact with faith-based movements, without these interactions leading to fruitless irrationality and loss of direction
  • Projects to accelerate radical healthy longevity, a Google Hangout On Air (HOA) on Sunday 29th September, features a panel discussion on the question, “What are the most important ongoing projects to accelerate radical healthy longevity?”
  • Futurists discuss The Transhumanist Wager, with Zoltan Istvan, another Google HOA, on Sunday 20th September, reviews a recently published novel about a possible near-future scenario of a growing battle between the old human culture and an emerging new culture that favours indefinitely long healthspans.
  • Finally, if you’re interested in the question of whether solar energy will be able, as I implied above, to address pending shortages in global energy supplies, even as human population continues to increase, you should make it a priority to attend the London Futurists event on Saturday 5th October, The Energy of Nations, with Jeremy Leggett. The speaker on this occasion is one of the world’s foremost authorities on solar energy, oil depletion, climate change, and dysfunctional investment. The topic of the best energy systems for the decades ahead is, alas, another one in which faith tends to subvert reason, and in which we need to be smart to prevent our thinking being hijacked by adverse factors.

For more information about the evolution of London Futurists, you can take a peek at a new website which is in the process of being implemented, at http://londonfuturists.com/.

24 August 2012

Duplication stuplication

Filed under: Accenture, Android, brain simulation, Connectivity, cryonics, death, futurist, Symbian — David Wood @ 12:04 am

I had a mixture of feelings when I looked at the display of the Agenda application on my Samsung Note smartphone:

On the face of things, I was going to be very busy at 09:00 that morning – I had five simultaneous meetings to attend!

But they were all the same meeting. And in fact I had already cancelled that meeting. Or, at least, I had tried to cancel that meeting. I had tried to cancel it several times.

The meeting in question – “TPR” – the Technology Planning Review that I chair from time to time inside Accenture Mobility – is a meeting I had organised, on a regularly repeating basis. This particular entry was set to repeat every four weeks. Some time earlier, I had decided that this meeting no longer needed to happen. From my Outlook Calendar on my laptop, I had pressed the button that, ordinarily, would have sent cancellation messages to all attendees. At first, things seemed to go well – the meeting disappeared from sight in my Outlook calendar.

However, a couple of hours later, I noticed it was still there, or had re-appeared. Without giving the matter much thought, I imagined I must have experienced some finger problem, and I repeated the cancellation process.

Some time later, I glanced at my engagements for that day on my smartphone – and my heart sank. The entry was shown no less than nine times, stacked on top of each other. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. Woops.

(The screenshot above only shows the entry appearing five times. That’s because I deleted four of the occurrences before I had the presence of mind to record the image for posterity.)

To tell the truth, I also had a wry, knowing smile. It was a kind of “aha, this confirms that synchronising agendas can be hard” smile. “Thank goodness there are duplicate entry bugs on Android phones too!”

That uncharitable thought had its roots in many moments of personal embarrassment over the years, whenever I saw examples of duplicated entries on phones running Symbian OS. The software that synchronised agenda information across more than one device – for example, between a PC and a connected Symbian smartphone – got into a confused state on too many occasions. Symbian software had many strengths, but laser accuracy of agenda entry synchronisation was not one of them.

But in this case, there was no Symbian software involved. The bug – whatever it was – could not be blamed on any software (such as Symbian OS) for which I personally had any responsibility.

Nevertheless, I still felt bad. The meeting entry that I had created, and had broadcast to a wide number of my Accenture Mobility colleagues, was evidently misbehaving on their calendars. I had to answer several emails and instant messaging queries: Is this meeting happening or not?

Worse, the same problem applied to every one of the repeating entries in the series. Entries show up in the calendars of lots of my Accenture colleagues, once every four weeks, encouraging them to show up for a meeting that is no longer taking place.

Whether I tried to cancel all the entries in the series, or just an individual entry, the result was the same. Whether I cancelled them from my smartphone calendar or from Outlook on my laptop, the result was the same. Namely, the entry disappeared for a while, but re-appeared a few hours later.

Today I tried again. Looking ahead to the meeting slot planned for 30th August, I thought I would be smart, and deleted the entry, both from my smartphone calendar, and from Outlook on my laptop, within a few seconds of each other, just in case a defective synchronisation between the two devices was to blame. You guessed it: the result was the same. (Though this time it was about three hours before the entry re-appeared, and I was starting to think I had cracked it after all.

So what’s going on? I found a clue in an unexpected place – the email folder of Deleted Items in Microsoft Outlook. This showed an email that was unread, but which had somehow moved directly into the Deleted Items folder, without me seeing it.

The entry read as follows:

Microsoft Outlook on behalf of <one of the meeting participants>

One or more problems with this meeting were detected by Exchange 2010.

This meeting is missing from your calendar. You’re the meeting organizer and some attendees still have the meeting on their calendar.

And just as Outlook had silently moved this email into the Deleted Items folder, without drawing my attention to it, Outlook had also silently reinstated the meeting, in my calendar and (it seems) in everyone else’s calendar, without asking me whether or not that was a good idea. Too darned clever.

I still don’t know how to fix this problem. I half-suspect there’s been some kind of database corruption problem – perhaps caused by Microsoft Exchange being caught out by:

  • Very heavy usage from large numbers of employees (100s of 1000s) within one company
  • Changes in policy for how online meetings are defined and operated, in between when the meeting was first created, and when it was due to take place
  • The weird weather we’ve experienced in London this summer
  • Some other who-knows-what strange environmental race conditions.

However, I hear of tales of other colleagues experiencing similar issues with repeating entries they’ve created, which provides more evidence of a concrete software defect, rather than a random act of the universe.

Other synchronisation problems

As I said, when I reflected on what was happening, I had a wry smile. Synchronisation of complex data between different replications is hard, when the data could be altered in more than one place at the same time.

Indeed, it’s sometimes a really hard problem for software to know when to merge apparent duplicates together, and when to leave them separated. I’m reminded of that fact whenever I do a search in the Contacts application on my Android phone. It often lists multiple entries corresponding to a single person. Some of these entries show pictures, but others don’t. At first, I wasn’t sure why there were multiple entries. But closer inspection showed that some details came from my Google mail archives, some from my collection of LinkedIn connections, some from my set of Facebook Friends, and so on. Should the smartphone simply automatically merge all these instances together? Not necessarily. It’s sometimes not clear whether the entries refer to the same person, or to two people with similar names.

If that’s a comparatively simple example, let me finish with an example that takes things further afield. It’s not about the duplication and potential re-integration of agenda entries. Nor is it about the duplication and potential re-integration of pieces of contacts info. It’s about the duplication and potential re-integration of human minds.

Yes: the duplication and potential re-integration of human minds.

That’s a topic that came up in a presentation in the World Future 2012 conference I attended in Toronto at the end of July.

The talk was given by John M. Smart, founder and president of the Acceleration Studies Foundation. The conference brochure described the talk as follows:

Chemical Brain Preservation: How to Live “Forever”

About 57 million unique and precious human beings die every year, or 155,000 people every day. The memories and identities in their brains are permanently lost at present, but may not be in the near future.

Chemical brain preservation is a technique that many scientists believe may inexpensively preserve our memories and identity when we die, eventually for less than $10,000 per person in the developed world, and less than $3,000 per person in the developing world. Preserved brains can be stored at room temperature in cemeteries, in contract storage, or even in private homes. Our organization, the Brain Preservation Foundation (brainpreservation.org), is offering a $100,000 prize to the first scientific team to demonstrate that the entire synaptic connectivity of mammalian brains, where neuroscientists believe our memories and identities reside, can be perfectly preserved using these low-cost chemical techniques.

There is growing evidence that chemically preserved brains can be “read” in the future, like a computer hard drive, so that memories, and even the complete identities of the preserved individuals can be restored, using low-cost automated techniques. Amazingly, given the accelerating rate of technological advance, a person whose brain is preserved in 2020 might “return” to the world, most likely in a computer form, as early as 2060, while their loved ones and some of their friends are still alive…

Note: this idea is different from cryonics. Cryonics also involves attempted brain preservation, at an ultra-low temperature, but with a view to re-animating the brain some time in the future, once medical science has advanced enough to repair whatever damage brought the person to the point of death. (Anyone serious about finding out more about cryonics might be interested in attending the forthcoming Alcor-40 conference, in October; this conference marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of the most famous cryonics organisation.)

In contrast, the Brain Preservation Foundation talks about reading the contents of a brain (in the future), and copying that information into a computer, where the person can be re-started. The process of reading the info from the brain is very likely to destroy the brain itself.

There are several very large questions here:

  • Could the data of a brain be read with sufficient level of detail, and recreated in another substrate?
  • Once recreated, could that copy of the brain be coaxed into consciousness?
  • Even if that brain would appear to remember all my experiences, and assert that it is me, would it be any less of a preservation of me than in the case of cryonics itself (assuming that cryonics re-animation could work)?
  • Given a choice between the two means of potential resurrection, which should people choose?

The first two of these questions are scientific, whereas the latter two appear to veer into metaphysics. But for what it’s worth, I would choose the cryonics option.

My concern about the whole program of “brain copying” is triggered when I wonder:

  • What happens if multiple copies of a mind are created? After all, once one copy exists in software, it’s probably just as easy to create many copies.
  • If these copies all get re-animated, are they all the same person?
  • Imagine how one of these copies would feel if told “We’re going to switch you off now, since you are only a redundant back-up; don’t worry, the other copies will be you too”

During the discussion in the meeting in Toronto, John Smart talked about the option to re-integrate different copies of a single mind, resulting in a whole that is somehow better than each individual copy. It sounds an attractive idea in principle. But when I consider the practical difficulties in re-integrating duplicated agenda entries, a wry, uneasy smile comes to my lips. Re-integrating complex minds will be a zillion times more complicated. That project could be the most interesting software development project ever.

3 June 2012

Super-technology and a possible renaissance of religion

Filed under: death, disruption, Humanity Plus, rejuveneering, religion, Singularity, UKH+ — David Wood @ 11:02 pm

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” – Arthur C. Clarke

Imagine that the human race avoids self-destruction and continues on the path of increased mastery of technology. Imagine that, as seems credible some time in the future, humans will eventually gain the ability to keep everyone alive indefinitely, in an environment of great abundance, variety, and  intrinsic interest.

That paradise may be a fine outcome for our descendants, but unless the pace of technology improvement becomes remarkably rapid, it seems to have little direct impact on our own lives. Or does it?

It may depend on exactly how much power our god-like descendants eventually acquire.  For example, here are two of the points from a radical vision of the future known as the Ten cosmist convictions:

  • 5) We will develop spacetime engineering and scientific “future magic” much beyond our current understanding and imagination.
  • 6) Spacetime engineering and future magic will permit achieving, by scientific means, most of the promises of religions — and many amazing things that no human religion ever dreamed. Eventually we will be able to resurrect the dead by “copying them to the future”.

Whoa! “Resurrect the dead”, by “copying them to the future”. How might that work?

In part, by collecting enormous amount of data about the past – reconstructing information from numerous sources. It’s similar to collecting data about far-distant stars using a very large array of radio telescopes. And in part, by re-embodying that data in a new environment, similar to copying running software onto a new computer, giving it a new lease of life.

Lots of questions can be asked about the details:

  • Can sufficient data really be gathered in the future, in the face of all the degradation commonly called “the second law of thermodynamics”, that would allow a sufficiently high-fidelity version of me (or anyone else) to be re-created?
  • If a future super-human collected lots of data about me and managed to get an embodiment of that data running on some future super-computer, would that really amount to resurrecting me, as opposed to creating a copy of me?

I don’t think anyone can confident about answers to such questions. But it’s at least conceivable that remarkably advanced technology of the future may allow positive answers.

In other words, it’s at least conceivable that our descendants will have the god-like ability to recreate us in the future, giving us an unexpected prospect for immortality.

This makes sense of the remark by radical futurist and singularitarian Ray Kurzweil at the end of the film “Transcendent Man“:

Does God exist? Well I would say, not yet

Other radical futurists quibble over the “not yet” caveat. In his recent essay “Yes, I am a believer“, Giulio Prisco takes the discussion one stage further:

Gods will exist in the future, and they may be able to affect their past — our present — by means of spacetime engineering. Probably other civilizations out there already attained God-like powers.

Giulio notes that even the celebrated critic of theism, Richard Dawkins, gives some support to this line of thinking.  For example, here’s an excerpt from a 2011 New York Times interview, in which Dawkins discusses an essay written by theoretic physicist Freeman Dyson:

In one essay, Professor Dyson casts millions of speculative years into the future. Our galaxy is dying and humans have evolved into something like bolts of superpowerful intelligent and moral energy.

Doesn’t that description sound an awful lot like God?

“Certainly,” Professor Dawkins replies. “It’s highly plausible that in the universe there are God-like creatures.”

He raises his hand, just in case a reader thinks he’s gone around a religious bend. “It’s very important to understand that these Gods came into being by an explicable scientific progression of incremental evolution.”

Could they be immortal? The professor shrugs.

“Probably not.” He smiles and adds, “But I wouldn’t want to be too dogmatic about that.”

As Giulio points out, Dawkins develops a similar line of argument in part of his book “The God Delusion”:

Whether we ever get to know them or not, there are very probably alien civilizations that are superhuman, to the point of being god-like in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine. Their technical achievements would seem as supernatural to us as ours would seem to a Dark Age peasant transported to the twenty-first century…

In what sense, then, would the most advanced SETI aliens not be gods? In what sense would they be superhuman but not supernatural? In a very important sense, which goes to the heart of this book. The crucial difference between gods and god-like extraterrestrials lies not in their properties but in their provenance. Entities that are complex enough to be intelligent are products of an evolutionary process. No matter how god-like they may seem when we encounter them, they didn’t start that way…

Giulio seems more interested in the properties than the provenance. The fact that these entities have god-like powers prompts him to proclaim “Yes, I am a believer“.  He gives another reason in support of that proclamation: In contrast to the views of so-called militant atheists, Giulio is “persuaded that religion can be a powerful and positive force”.

Giulio sees this “powerful and positive force” as applying to him personally as well as to groups in general:

“In my beliefs I find hope, happiness, meaning, the strength to get through the night, and a powerful sense of wonder at our future adventures out there in the universe, which gives me also the drive to try to be a better person here-and-now on this little planet and make it a little better for future generations”.

More controversially, Giulio has taken to describing himself (e.g. on his Facebook page) as a “Christian”. Referring back to his essay, and to the ensuing online discussion:

Religion can, and should, be based on mutual tolerance, love and compassion. Jesus said: “love thy neighbor as thyself,” and added: “let he who is without sin, cast the first stone”…

This is the important part of his teachings in my opinion. Christian theology is interesting, but I think it should be reformulated for our times…

Was Jesus the Son of God? I don’t think this is a central issue. He certainly was, in the sense that we all are, and he may have been one of those persons in tune with the universe, more in tune with the universe than the rest of us, able to glimpse at veiled realities beyond our senses.

I’ve known Giulio for several years, from various Humanity+ and Singularity meetings we’ve both attended – dating back to “Transvision 2006” in Helsinki. I respect him as a very capable thinker, and I take his views seriously. His recent “Yes, I am a believer” article has stirred up a hornets’ nest of online criticism.

Accordingly, I was very pleased that Giulio accepted my invitation to come to London to speak at a London Futurist / Humanity+ UK meeting on Saturday 14th July: “Transhumanist Religions 2.0: New Cosmist religion and spirituality for our boundless future (and our troubled present)”. For all kinds of reason, this discussion deserves a wider airing.

First, I share the view that religious sentiments can provide cohesion and energy to propel individuals and groups to undertake enormously difficult projects (such as the project to avoid the self-destruction of the human race, or any drastic decline in the quality of global civilisation).  The best analysis I’ve read of this point is in the book “Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society” by David Sloan Wilson.  As I’ve written previously:

This book has sweeping scope, but makes its case very well.  The case is that religion has in general survived inasmuch as it helped groups of people to achieve greater cohesion and thereby acquire greater fitness compared to other groups of people.  This kind of religion has practical effect, independent of whether or not its belief system corresponds to factual reality.  (It can hardly be denied that, in most cases, the belief system does not correspond to factual reality.)

The book has some great examples – from the religions in hunter-gatherer societies, which contain a powerful emphasis on sharing out scarce resources completely equitably, through examples of religions in more complex societies.  The chapter on John Calvin was eye-opening (describing how his belief system brought stability and prosperity to Geneva) – as were the sections on the comparative evolutionary successes of Judaism and early Christianity.  But perhaps the section on the Balinese water-irrigation religion is the most fascinating of the lot.

Of course, there are some other theories for why religion exists (and is so widespread), and this book gives credit to these theories in appropriate places.  However, this pro-group selection explanation has never before been set out so carefully and credibly, and I think it’s no longer possible to deny that it plays a key role.

The discussion makes it crystal clear why many religious groups tend to treat outsiders so badly (despite treating insiders so well).  It also provides a fascinating perspective on the whole topic of “forgiveness”.  Finally, the central theme of “group selection” is given a convincing defence.

But second, there’s no doubt that religion can fit blinkers over people’s thinking abilities, and prevent them from weighing up arguments dispassionately. Whenever people talk about the Singularity movement as having the shape of a religion – with Ray Kurzweil as a kind of infallible prophet – I shudder. But we needn’t lurch to that extreme. We should be able to maintain the discipline of rigorous independent thinking within a technologically-informed renaissance of positive religious sentiment.

Third, if the universe really does have beings with God-like powers, what attitude should we adopt towards these beings? Should we be seeking in some way to worship them, or placate them, or influence them? It depends on whether these beings are able to influence human history, here and now, or whether they are instead restricted (by raw facts of space and time that even God-like beings have to respect) to observing us and (possibly) copying us into the future.

Personally my bet is on the latter choice. For example, I’m not convinced by people who claim evidence to the contrary. And if these beings did have the ability to intervene in human history, but have failed to do so, it would be evidence of them having scant interest in widespread intense human suffering. They would hardly be super-beings.

In that case, the focus of our effort should remain squarely on building the right conditions for super-technology to benefit humanity as a whole (this is the project I call “Inner Humanity+“), rather than on somehow seeking to attract the future attention of these God-like beings. But no doubt others will have different views!

15 October 2010

Radically improving nature

Filed under: death, evolution, UKH+ — David Wood @ 10:50 pm

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man – George Bernard Shaw

Changing the world is ambitious.  Changing nature is even more ambitious.

After all, nature is the output of countless generations of refinement by natural selection.  Evolution has found many wonderful solutions.  But natural selection generally only finds local optima.  As I’ve written on a previous occasion:

In places where an intelligent (e.g. human) designer would “go back to the drawing board” and introduce a new design template, biological evolution has been constrained to keep working with the materials that are already in play.  Biological evolution lacks true foresight, and cannot do what human designers would call “re-factoring an existing design”.

And as I covered in my review “The human mind as a flawed creation of nature” of the book by Gary Marcus, “Kluge – the haphazard construction of the human mind”:

The basic claim of the book is that many aspects of the human mind operate in clumsy and suboptimal ways – ways which betray the haphazard and often flawed evolutionary history of the mind….

The framework is, to me, both convincing and illuminating.  It provides a battery of evidence relevant to what might be called “The Nature Delusion” – the pervasive yet often unspoken belief that things crafted by nature are inevitably optimal and incapable of serious improvement.

For these reasons, I applaud thoughtful attempts to improve human nature – whether by education, meditation, diet and smart drugs, silicon co-processors for our biological brains, genetic re-engineering, and so on.  With sufficient overall understanding, we can use the best outputs of human thought to create even better humans.

But what about the rest of nature?  If we can consider creating better humans, what about creating better animals? If the technology of the near future can add 50 points, or more, to our human IQs, could we consider applying similar technological enhancements to dolphins, dogs, parrots, and so on?

There are various motivations to considering this question.  First, there are people who deeply love their pets, and who might wish to enhance the capabilities of their pets, in a manner akin to enhancing the capabilities of their children.  Someone might wonder, if my dog could speak to me, what would it say?

In a way, the experiments to teach chimps sign language already take steps down this direction.  (Some chimps that learned sign language seem in turn to have taught elements of it to their own children.)

A different motivation to consider altering animal nature is the sheer amount of horrific pain and trauma throughout the animal kingdom.  Truly is “nature, red in tooth and claw“.

In his essay “The end of suffering“, British philosopher David Pearce quotes Richard Dawkins from the 1995 book River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life:

During the minute it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive; others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear; others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites; thousands of all kinds are dying from starvation, thirst and disease. It must be so. If there is ever a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored.

But Pearce takes issue with Dawkins:

“It must be so.” Is Richard Dawkins right? Are the cruelties of the food chain an inescapable fact of Nature: no more changeable than, say, Planck’s constant or the Second Law of Thermodynamics? The Transhumanist Declaration expresses our commitment to the “well-being of all sentience”. Yet do these words express merely a pious hope – or an engineering challenge?

My own recent work involves exploring some of the practical steps entailed by compassionate ecosystem redesign – cross-species immunocontraception, genomic rewrites, cultured meat, neurochips, global surveillance and wildlife tracking technologies, and the use of nanorobots for marine ecosystems. Until this century, most conceivable interventions to mitigate the horrors of Nature “red in tooth and claw” would plausibly do more harm than good. Rescue a herbivore [“prey”] and a carnivore [“predator”] starves. And if, for example, we rescue wild elephants dying from hunger or thirst, the resultant population explosion would lead to habitat degradation, Malthusian catastrophe and thus even greater misery. Certainly, the computational power needed to micromanage the ecosystem of a medium-sized wildlife park would be huge by today’s standards. But recall that Nature supports only half a dozen or so “trophic levels”; and only a handful of “keystone predators” in any given habitat. Creating a truly cruelty-free living world may cost several trillion dollars or more. But the problem is computationally tractable within this century – if we acknowledge that wild animal suffering matters.

David’s fan page on Facebook boldly includes the forecast:

“I predict we will abolish suffering throughout the living world”

Unreasonable? Probably. Scientifically credible? Perhaps. Noble? Definitely. Radical? This is about as radical as it gets. Thoughtful? Read David’s own writings and make up your own mind.

Alternatively, if you’re in or nearby London, come along to this month’s UKH+ meeting (tomorrow, Saturday 16th October), where David will be the main speaker.  He wrote the following words to introduce what he’ll be talking about:

The Transhumanist Declaration advocates “the well-being of all sentience, including humans, non-human animals, and any future artificial intellects, modified life forms, or other intelligences to which technological and scientific advance may give rise.” Yet is “the well-being of all sentience” serious science – or just utopian dreaming? What does such a commitment entail? On what kind of realistic timeframe might we command enough computational power to police an entire ecosystem?

In this talk, the speaker wants to review recent progress in understanding the neurobiology of pleasure, pain and our core emotions. Can mastery of our reward circuitry ever deliver socially responsible, intelligent bliss rather than crude wireheading? He also wants to examine and respond to criticisms of the abolitionist project that have been levelled over the past decade – and set out the biggest challenges, as he sees them, to the prospect of a totally cruelty-free world.

17 March 2010

Suspended animation is within our grasp

Filed under: cryonics, death — David Wood @ 12:44 pm

You’re not dead until you’re warm and dead

That’s a saying mentioned by University of Washington Cancer Research Center suspended animation researcher Mark B Roth, in his recent TEDtalk “Suspended animation is within our grasp“.

The same phrase – You’re not dead until you’re warm and dead – is used as the title of a January 1982 Yankee magazine account by Evan Mcleod Wylie of a real life drama:

… The girl on the table was without visible signs of life, her body cold, her lips blue, her muscles flaccid. When Herman lifted her eyelids, he found the pupils of the eyes staring fixed and dilated. By all the usual signs, the girl was clinically dead, a victim of drowning.

A major medical discovery of recent years, however, has been that sometimes such victims of prolonged submersion may be recalled to life, The chances for a recovery depend upon several factors: the age of the victim; the length of time submerged; the temperature of the water; the efficiency of the initial rescue effort, including the crucial CPR; and the intensity and sophistication of the ensuing medical treatment.

The girl’s temperature was too low to register on an ordinary medical thermometer, but Nurse Anne Torres had used a rectal thermometer to obtain an internal temperature of 82 degrees Fahrenheit, the lowest anyone on the emergency medical team had ever encountered.

“She is so cold,” Herman said, “that there is a chance she might still be alive.”

He knew that he was looking at a case of acute hypothermia — a condition in which the central core temperature of the body is reduced far below normal limits. It begins when the core temperature falls from a normal 98.6 degrees to 95. As it drops to 88 degrees, all major body functions cease. In such cases the victims may enter a state in which body functions are so arrested that the brain may need little oxygen to survive, At the same time there is a sudden transfer of blood supply from the skin, muscles, and abdominal organs to the heart, lungs, and brain, which are most sensitive and dependent upon oxygen.

But if life does linger in such a case of severe ‘hypothermia, any sudden warming of the exterior body may cause such a shock as to bring death. Many experts believe that the proper medical treatment must be to restore the beat of the heart and then slowly rewarm the body from the core outward. The message today in emergency rooms and ambulances and rescue squads is, “No one is dead until he is warm and dead.”

Although Dr, Herman was a recent graduate of Tufts Medical School, he had participated in the treatment of an extraordinary case of hypothermia. At St. E1izabeth’s Hospital in Brighton, Massachusetts, he had been a member of a medical team led by Dr. Kenneth F, MacDonnell that had successfully treated Elizabeth “Libby” Margolis, 24, after she had been trapped in the back seat of a car that had been submerged in the winter-chilled Charles River for 25 minutes…

Mark Roth’s TEDtalk provides an up-to-the-minute report of some findings about suspended animation.  It includes a fascinating tale of a search for a chemical agent that can trigger de-animation of a mammal: a search with numerous failures before the serendipitous discovery of something that does work – hydrogen sulphide.

The core idea is that, ordinarily, if the supply of oxygen is reduced to a mammal, without reducing that organism’s demand for oxygen, that mammal will die.  However, if the demand can be reduced – via an agent that triggers the de-animated state – then the organism would subsequently withstand environments with reduced oxygen (and/or intense cold).

In such a state, the organism (such as a mouse) can also withstand significant loss of blood.  Similarly, if a heart attack has been suffered, much less heart damage ensues.  As Mark describes, there are many possible applications – including for humans.

This research, not unexpectedly, is of interest to the military – as a means to quickly treat battlefield trauma casualties.  You can read about some of Mark’s interplay with DARPA in a quirky 2008 Esquire magazine article, “The Mad Scientist Bringing Back the Dead…. Really“.

The research is also of clear interest to cryonicists – and to many others.  I recommend it!

14 August 2009

Deadly serious changes

Filed under: cryonics, death, medicine, Uncategorized — David Wood @ 12:26 am

Who could fail to be moved by the story that emerged in Asuncion, Paraguay last weekend, of the baby boy Angel Salvador born 16 week premature?  Doctors declared the boy to be dead shortly after birth.  But four hours later, when family member Liliana Alvarenga removed the baby’s body from a cardboard box to dress it ahead of burial, the baby started crying.  The baby was not dead after all.

The baby’s grandfather, Guarani Caceres, was certainly moved.  He said of the doctors at the hospital, “they are criminals”.

Knowing when someone is “dead beyond all chance of recovery” can be a tough problem. History contains many horrific accounts of premature burials.  A short list includes:

  • The grammarian and metaphysician, Johannes Duns Scotus died in Cologne in 1308.  When the vault his corpse resided in was opened later he was found lying outside the coffin.
  • Thomas A Kempis died in 1471 and was denied canonization because splinters were found embedded under his nails. Anyone aspiring to be a saint would not fight death if he found himself buried alive!
  • Ann Green was hanged by the neck until dead – or so they thought – in 1650 at Oxford  She was found to be alive after being placed in a coffin for burial.  One kindly gentleman attempted to assist her back to the land of the dead by raising his foot and stamping her chest and stomach with such severe force that he only succeeded in completely reviving her.  She lived a long life and bore several children.
  • Virginia Macdonald was buried in a Brooklyn cemetery in 1850.  Her mother was so persistent that she had been buried alive that authorities finally relented and raised her coffin.  The lid was opened to find that her delicate hands had been badly bitten and she was lying on her side.
  • When the Les Innocents cemetery in Paris, France was moved from the center of the city to the suburbs the number of skeletons found face down convinced the lay people and several doctors that premature burial was very common.

(One source for many of these points is the book “Death: A History of Man’s Obsessions and Fears” by Robert Wilkins.)

Changes in technology are on the point of throwing a big new twist on this age-old problem. We have to bear in mind, not only the power of present-day medicine to revive someone from near-deadly diseases and traumas, but also the significantly greater power of future medicine.  The practice of cryonics is focused on preserving the body of someone who has many of the signs of death, in a state so that there is at least a chance that, at some time in the future, the body can be revived and cured of whatever disease or trauma was inflicting it.  Of course, it’s a controversial topic.

And there are at least two big legal and ethical issues that are bound to be discussed more and more often, in connection with cryonics.  These issues potentially apply to anyone who believes in cryonics and who makes provision for the preservation of their body at around the time of death.

The first issue is when medical professionals or other officials demand the right to autopsy the person following death. To quote from the website “Autopsy choice“:

Autopsy is a process of cutting open the body and removing all organs for examination. The organs are [later] placed together to the chest cavity and the wounds are sown up and the body made presentable for the funeral profession…

Advantages are that the medical profession has information for research and quality control, and the legal profession has information for research which it may be able to use in cases of crime or professional misconduct…

Nevertheless, some individuals because of religious or moral belief, would prefer not to be autopsied.

Indeed, anyone signed up for cryonics needs to give careful consideration to avoiding the risk of being autopsied in any way that significantly reduce the chances of subsequent revivification.  An autopsy that destroys the brain is particularly to be feared.  The Cryonics Insitute has a useful webpage “Avoiding Autopsy for Cryonics” on this topic.  Evidently, there’s a potential “clash of rights”:

  • The right of the state, to conduct an autopsy in order to advance knowledge beneficial to society as a whole;
  • The right of any individual, who is alive or potentially revivable, not to be treated in a way that destroys the potential for life.

Depending on the degree of credence that society is prepared to give to the possibility that future technology could revive someone who has recently died, this balance of rights is bound to change.

The second issue is if an individual wishes to start the body preservation process even before the medical profession is ready to declare them as dead. For example, someone whose brain is deteriorating under dementia may feel that their chances for eventual full mental recovery will be better if they are cryogenically vitrified sooner rather than later.

This seems close to the case of someone seeking the right to “assisted suicide“.  That’s already a hot potato!  But many of the same arguments apply for what we might term “early cryonic suspension”.

I’m expecting both these issues to receive increasing public debate.  My hope is that the debate avoids being hijacked by any claims that “death is natural and inevitable”.  If society is prepared to grant certain respect and concessions to people with a variety of religious beliefs, it should also be prepared to grant certain respect and concessions to people who sincerely believe that cyronics might be a pathway to life beyond death.

At some not-too-distant future date, if post-cryonic revival is successfully demonstrated in a laboratory, there may be many more people venting the same kind of anger expressed by Guarani Caceres, denouncing as “criminals” the people who interfered with access to cryonics procedures for their dead relatives.

Footnote: The story of baby Angel Salvador did not have a happy ending.  Shortly after his apparently miraculous recovery, he lost the fight to live.  Medical staff explained that he had now died as his vital organs were not strong enough to survive.  It’s not clear if the four hours the baby spent in the cardboard box (instead of a hospital incubator) contributed to these organ failures.

12 August 2009

No magic dry rice

Filed under: death, E71, Nokia, twitter, Uncategorized — David Wood @ 10:28 pm

Rice potHere’s a tale of my personal naivety.  Hopefully others can learn from my errors.

Last Thursday, at about 6pm, I bent forward.  When I’m not looking at it, my Nokia E71 smartphone usually resides in my shirt pocket.  But because I was bending forwards, it slid out, and started crashing towards the floor.

I was disconcerted, but not too much.  The same thing had happened several times before.  I had learned that the E71 has incredible engineering, and it usually survives falling onto the floor, without even a dent or scratch to show for the experience.  It’s a solid piece of work.

But this time was different.

I was in a toilet, and the E71 landed straight in the water closet.

Things were bad, but they could have been worse.

Thankfully, I had flushed the toilet a few minutes earlier, so the bowl was clean.  (Well, as clean as toilets get.)

Without any conscious thought that I can remember, my hand shot into the water after the E71, and pulled it out.  Immediately.

I shook some water off the phone, and looked at the screen.  Everything seemed fine.  The phone was still switched on, the home screen was still live, and when I pressed up or down, the highlight moved up and down the display.  “What a great device”, I thought to myself.

There was still some water dripping off the device, so I thought I’d better dry it out.  I took off the back, removed the battery, and dabbed every visible area with paper towels.  A few seconds later, I put everything back together again, and pressed the On key.

In retrospect, that was my first big mistake.

The E71 seemed to boot up as normal.  The screen lit up, and the apps started.

Then I saw that there was no signal.  No problem, I thought, there’s poor signal strength in this hotel.  (I was in The Bingham, in Richmond upon Thames, for a work leadership team offsite meeting.  It’s a fine hotel, but we had been remarking all day that the cellular signal strength was poor in the rooms we were using.)

I rejoined my colleagues, and for a while forgot about my phone’s big escapade.  After all, there were plenty of other things to discuss.  (And I felt too embarrassed to mention that I had just thrust my hand into a water closet.)

That was probably my second mistake.

About 15 minutes later, I pulled out the phone again, curious to see if the signal had returned.  This time I noticed some fading at the bottom of the screen.  The two pieces of text for the soft buttons were illegible.  Water vapour had clearly got in behind the screen.  Woops.  So I separated all the parts of the phone again.

When I finally got home, I tried drying everything again, putting everything back together, and switching on.  This time things looked much worse.  The phone still gave the little vibrate immediately after the On button was pushed, and the screen and keyboard lit up.  But nothing else happened.  After around 30 seconds, the screen and keyboard switched off again.

I tried a different battery, and I tried plugging in a mains lead.  The result remained the same.

Then I thought of something different to try.  Twitter.  At 1.22 in the morning I tweeted:

dw2 wonders how long it will take his Nokia E71 to start working again, after dropping it in a basin of (clean) water yesterday

Twitter produced results.  Lots of them.

The first was at 1.23 in the morning:

kevinmcintyre09 @dw2 Would suggest leaving it in the airing cupboard for a few days to dry out

The next came at 1.27:

croozeus @dw2 It took my Nokia N95 a week before it dried out completely! Still it doesn’t charge but works properly…

Then at 1.28:

jomtwi Heh 🙂 RT @OscarB: Everytime I write “Symbian Foundation” I think of @dw2 as Hari Seldon

Then at 1.42:

dan_mcneil @dw2 http://bit.ly/83A1 may have some clues…

Then at 1.54:

jebbrilliant @dw2 Have you tried putting the E71 in a bag of DRY white rice?

And so the stream of tweets continued…

[I confess: one of the above tweets is irrelevant to this particular tale – but it’s so funny I left it in.]

Whoever said “the Internet never sleeps” has a point.  However, I was tired.  I put the E71 in the airing cupboard and retired to bed.

The next morning, I started reading some of the links, and a dawning realisation set in.

The above bit.ly link resolves to “How to Save a Wet Cell Phone” which contains the elementary advice (which I had failed to consider):

  1. Get it out of the water as soon as possible. The plastic covers on cell phones are fairly tight, but water can enter the phone in a short period of time, perhaps only 20 seconds or less. So grab your phone quickly! If you can’t get to it in time, your best bet is to remove the battery while it is still under water. Water helps dissipate heat from shorts that can damage the phone, so most damage occurs when the inside of the phone is merely wet and there is a power source. This can go both ways. Being under water is more likely to short the battery to even more sensitive contacts, so be careful.
  2. Don’t panic. Your phone will probably not be too damaged if you right away take it out of the water. While it’s in the water, immediately take it out.
  3. Remove the battery. This is one of the most important steps. Don’t take time to think about it; electricity and water do not mix. Cutting power to your phone is a crucial first step in saving it. Many circuits inside the phone will survive immersion in water provided they are not attached to a power source when wet.

To repeat: “most damage occurs when the inside of the phone is merely wet and there is a power source … electricity and water do not mix … Cutting power to your phone is a crucial first step in saving it”.

There’s not much more to say, except that I left the E71 in the airing cupboard for several days, with no luck, then I put it in a bowl of dry white rice for several more days, with no luck either.  There are certain kinds of damage that no amount of embalming will fix.

To be philosophical, there are points I could make about the need for prompt and skillful action following an accident to ensure good chances of survival, but I’ll save that for my next blog post.

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