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.

11 July 2008

Into the long, deep, deep cold

Filed under: cryonics, Methuselah, UKTA — David Wood @ 9:11 pm

My interest in smartphones stems from my frequent observation and profound conviction that these devices can make their human users smarter: more knowledgeable, more connected, and more in control. It’s an example of the careful use of technology to make users that are, in some sense, better humans. Technology – including the wheel, the plough, the abacus, the telescope, the watch, the book, the steam engine, the Internet, and (of course) much more besides – has been making humans “better” (stronger, fitter, and cleverer) since the dawn of history. What’s different in our age is that the rate of potential improvement has accelerated so dramatically.

The website “Better Humans” often has interesting articles on this theme of accelerating real-world uses of technology to enhance human ability and experience. This morning my attention was taken by some new articles there with an unusual approach to the touchy subject of cryonics. For example, the article “Cryonics: Using low temperatures to care for the critically ill” starts by quoting the cryobiologist Brian Wowk:

“Ethically, what is the correct thing to do when medicine encounters a difficult problem? Stablize the patient until a solution can be found? Or throw people away like garbage? Centuries from now, historians may marvel at the shortsightedness and rationalizations used to sanction the unnecessary death of millions.”

The article (originally from a site with a frankly less-than-inspiring name, Depressed Metabolism) continues as follows:

In contemporary medicine terminally ill patients can be declared legally dead using two different criteria: whole brain death or cardiorespiratory arrest. Although many people would agree that a human being without any functional brain activity, or even without higher brain function, has ceased to exist as a person, not many people realize that most patients who are currently declared legally dead by cardiorespiratory criteria have not yet died as a person. Or to use conventional biomedical language, although the organism has ceased to exist as a functional, integrated whole, the neuroanatomy of the person is still intact when a patient is declared legally dead using cardiorespiratory criteria.

It might seem odd that contemporary medicine allows deliberate destruction of the properties that make us uniquely human (our capacity for consciousness) unless one considers the significant challenge of keeping a brain alive in a body that has ceased to function as an integrated whole. But what if we could put the brain “on pause” until a time when medical science has become advanced enough to treat the rest of the body, reverse aging, and restore the patient to health?

Putting the brain on pause is not as far fetched as it seems. The brain of a patient undergoing general anesthesia has ceased being conscious. But because we know that the brain that represents the person is still there in a viable body, we do not think of such a person as “temporarily dead.”

One step further than general anesthesia is hypothermic circulatory arrest. Some medical procedures, such as complicated neurosurgical interventions, require not only cessation of consciousness but also complete cessation of blood flow to the brain. In these cases the temperature of the patient is lowered to such a degree (≈16 degrees Celsius) that the brain can tolerate a period without any circulation at all. Considering the fact that parts of the human brain can become irreversibly injured after no more than five minutes without oxygen, the ability of the brain to survive for at least an hour at these temperatures without any oxygen is quite remarkable.

And so it continues. See also, by the same author, “Why is cryonics so unpopular?

Is it really conceivable that the human body (or perhaps just the human head) could be placed into deep, deep cold, potentially for decades, and then subsequently revived and repaired, using the substantially improved technology of the future? Never mind conceivable, is it desirable?

I’m reminded of a book that made a big impression on me, several years ago – the provocatively titled “The first immortal” by James Halperin. It’s written as fiction, but it’s intended to describe a plausible future scenario. I understand that the author did a great deal of research into the technology of cryonics, in order to make the account scientifically credible.

As a work of fiction, it’s no great shakes. The characterisation, the plotting, and the language is often laboured – sometimes even embarrassing. But the central themes of the book are tremendously well done. As a reader, you get to think lots of new thoughts, and appreciate the jaw-dropping ups and downs that cryonics might make possible. (By the way, some of the ideas and episodes in the book are very vivid indeed, and remain clearly in my mind now, quite a few years after I read the book.) As the various characters in the book change their attitudes towards the possibility and desirability of cryonic preservation and restoration, it’s hard not to find your own attitude changing too.

Footnote: Aubrey de Grey, one of the speakers at tomorrow’s UKTA meeting (“How to live longer and longer yet healthier and healthier: realistic grounds for hope?“), has put on public record the fact that he has signed up for cryopreservation. See here for some characteristically no-nonsense statements from Aubrey himself on this topic.

27 June 2008

Aubrey de Grey’s preposterous campaign to cure aging

Filed under: Methuselah, UKTA — David Wood @ 6:39 am

At first sight, Aubrey de Grey is clearly preposterous. Not only does he look like a relic of the middle ages, with his huge long beard, but his ideas on potentially “curing aging” within the present generation apparently run counter to many well-established principles of science, society, philosophy, and even religion. So it’s no surprise that his ideas arouse some fervent opposition. See for example a selection of the online comments to the article about him, “The Fight to End Aging Gains Legitimacy, Funding“, in today’s Wired:

Guess what, jackasses… we’re supposed to die! Look up the 2nd law of thermodynamics, you might learn something. We’ve even evolved molecular mechanisms to make sure our cells can’t reproduce beyond a certain point… check out “Hayflick limit” on Wikipedia. The stark biological reality is that we are here to pass along our genes to our progeny and the DIE. What the hell, wasn’t this settled back in the 1800s? Why are we debating this stupidity?


Aging and death is an evolutionary response to cancer in mammals. You’ll have to resolve the cancer issue (and remember kids – cancer is actually a whole lot of different but related diseases) before you can resolve the aging and death issue.

However, first appearances can be deceptive. I had my own first serious discussions with Aubrey at the “Tomorrow’s People” conference in Oxford in March 2006. Not only did I pose my own questions, I listened and observed with increasing admiration as Aubrey addressed issues posed by other audience members, and during many coffee breaks as the conference progressed. Later that year in August, at Transvision 2006 in Helsinki (by the way, as well as being home to the world’s leading mobile phone manufacturer, Finland hosts a disproportionate number of self-described transhumanists; perhaps both reflect an unusually pragmatic yet rational approach to life), I had the chance to continue these discussions and observations. I saw that Aubrey has good, plausible answers to his critics. You can find many of these answers on his extensive website.

Since that time, I’ve been keen to take the opportunity to watch Aubrey speak whenever it arises. Unfortunately, I’ll miss the conference that’s happening at UCLA this weekend: “AGING: The Disease – The Cure – The Implications” – which has a session this afternoon (4pm West Coast time) that’s open to the general public. However, I’m eagerly looking forward to some good debate at the July 12 meeting of the UKTA, at Birkbeck College in London, where Aubrey will be one of the speakers on the topic, “Living longer and longer yet healthier and healthier: realistic grounds for hope?”. (If you’re interested to attend that, and you Facebook, you can indicate your interest and RSVP here.)

As I’ve come to see it, addressing aging by the smart and imaginative uses of technology fits well with the whole programme of medicine (which constantly intervenes to prevent nature taking its “natural toll” on the human body). It also has some surprising potential cost-saving benefits, as aging-related diseases are responsible for a very significant part of national health expenditure. But that’s only the start of the argument. To help explore many of the technical byways of this argument, I strongly recommend Aubrey’s 2007 book, “Ending Aging: The rejuvenation breakthroughs that could reverse human aging in our lifetime“.

In terms of disruptive technology trends (some of which I study in my day job), this is about as big as it gets.

I’ll end by quoting from today’s Wired article:

“In perhaps seven or eight years, we’ll be able to take mice already in middle age and treble their lifespan just by giving them a whole bunch of therapies that rejuvenate them,” de Grey said. “Gerontologists all over, even my most strident critics, will say yes, Aubrey de Grey is right.”

Even as he imagines completing Gandhi’s fourth step, de Grey always keeps his eye on the ultimate prize — the day when the aging-as-disease meme reaches the tipping point necessary to funnel really big money into the field.

“The following day, Oprah Winfrey will be saying, aging is a disease and let’s fix it right now,” de Grey said.

11 June 2008

Technology and the risks of global catastrophe

Filed under: risks, UKTA — David Wood @ 10:45 pm

I’m a passionate enthusiast about the capabilities of technologies. But at the same time, I’m keenly aware of the potential for technology to wreak havoc and destruction. So I’m eagerly looking forward to the UKTA technology debate on Saturday (14th June):

Technology risks and the survival of humanity: Is emerging technology more likely to destroy human civilisation or to radically enhance it?

This is taking place in Birkbeck College, central London, from 2pm-4pm. Everyone is welcome to attend – there’s no charge. (If you Facebook, you can RSVP here.)

This event will in some ways be a preview of a considerably longer event taking place in Oxford during July: The Future of Humanity Institute’s conference on “Global Catastrophic Risks“. Speakers at this later conference include:

  • Professor Jonathan Wiener, current President of the Society of Risk Analysis;
  • Professor Steve Rayner, Director of the James Martin Institute for Science and Civilisation;
  • Professor William Potter, Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies;
  • Sir Crispin Tickell, a leading authority on the interaction between science and global governance, and an advisor on climate change to successive British Prime Ministers;
  • Eliezer Yudkowsky, Research Fellow, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence;
  • Mike Treder , co-founder and Executive Director, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology;
  • Professor Bill Napier , Honorary Professor, Institute for Astrobiology, Cardiff University.

I’m anticipating a lot of thought-provoking discussion. For this conference, advance registration is essential. There’s about a week left before registration closes.

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