Gerald Feinberg, a Columbia university physicist who, among other things, hypothesized the existence of the muon neutrino, had a strong interest in the future of science and life extension. In 1966 he published the article “Physics and Life Prolongation” in Physics Today in which he reviews cryobiology research with the aim of realizing medical time travel. Unlike most of his scientific colleagues, Feinberg recognized that it might be possible for people dying today to benefit from future advances in science in the absence of perfected techniques:

For the living it is necessary to await successful completion of freezing research before attempting to freeze them. For the newly dead this consideration is irrelevant since the dead have nothing to lose by being frozen, even by imperfect methods…

He doubts, however, whether “the primitive freezing techniques now available” would be good enough to permit successful resuscitation in the future.  Although his article ends in endorsing cryonics as a procedure, Feinberg did not make cryopreservation arrangements himself, despite his familiarity with molecular nanotechnology and his association with the Foresight Institute.

In the June 1992 issue of Cryonics magazine, Mike Perry writes:

Only a few days ago, as I write this, Gerald Feinberg, aged 58, died of cancer.  He was not frozen.  It appears  that he didn’t lack the means to make the arrangements, nor the time. Somehow, he was just not interested enough.  Friends or acquaintances I’ve talked to could give little in the way of definite reasons for the lack of  interest, but I get the impression that, when all was said and done, the  interest he did show was mainly academic after all.  Another factor may  have been hostility from colleagues and family members.  Apparently he was well criticized for the Physics Today article on the prolongation of life, though not for something really scientifically daring, like the tachyon  theory.

Human cryopreservation procedures have changed considerably since 1992 and cryonics researcher Mike Darwin has composed an ambitious article to answer the question whether current cryopreservation techniques can preserve identity. One of the most important observations in this article is that we do not need to wait until the future to get a better understanding of how good our current procedures are in this regard.

As long as we keep in mind that the absence of ultrastructural evidence for the preservation of identity-critical information does not necessarily mean the absence of this information as such (after all, future imaging and data gathering technologies may be more powerful than today’s) it is very important for cryonics advocates to recognize that preliminary work to infer the original structure of the brain from (3D) images of ischemic and cryopreserved tissue can start right now. Even in the absence of physical technologies to restore those structures to their native state, demonstrating that we can infer the original state, and visually reconstruct it, can be another argument in favor of human cryopreservation.

Further reading: Gerald Feinberg – Physics and Life Prolongation

The website Alternative Right has an interesting article on the declining pace of technological progress:

The world of 1959 is pretty much the same world we live in today technologically speaking. This is a vaguely horrifying fact which is little appreciated…Certainly, people can be forgiven for thinking we live in a time of great progress, since semiconductor lithography has improved over the years, giving us faster and more portable computers. But can we really do anything with computers now that we couldn’t have done 30 or even 50 years ago?…Some wise acre is likely to pipe up and sing the glories of “Nanotech,” a “subject” which was “invented” in K. Eric Drexler‘s Ph.D. thesis in 1989. In the 20 years since he penned his fanciful little story, we have yet to see a single example of the wondrous miniature perpetual motion machines Drexler has been promising us “real soon now.” I wonder what his timeline for delivery of this “technology” will be?

The author dismisses the idea that the rapid technological progress between 1959 and 1909 was possible because these generations focused on the “easy stuff” but I wonder if this explanation can be so easily dismissed. Even if we allow for the credible hypothesis that laissez-faire capitalism is more conducive to accelerating technological change than a mixed economy, it cannot be ignored that commercial incentives favor picking the low-hanging fruit first. The current generation is left with more complicated technological  and biomedical objectives such as molecular nanotechnology and rejuvenation of the human body.

A sober mind should never get too carried away with either optimism or pessimism. One major advantage of making cryonics arrangements is that it eliminates some of the anxiety that comes from recognizing that credible rejuvenation therapies may not become available in your lifetime. Patients in cryostasis have time, a point that is not always fully recognized by skeptics of accelerating technological progress.

There are various competing strategies how to achieve meaningful life extension or rejuvenation, including , but not limited to, genetic manipulation, periodical elimination of damage, caloric restriction,  molecular nanotechnology and mind uploading. A useful review of these strategies has been published in the book The Scientific Conquest of Death: Essays on Infinite Lifespans (2004) by the Immortality Institute. Most people will recognize that these strategies are not mutually exclusive. Some of them can be practiced right now (e.g., caloric restriction) and others ( e.g., periodical elimination of damage) could serve as a bridge to more comprehensive interventions such as a comprehensive genetic overhaul of human biology. As has often been recognized on this website, cryonics holds a special place among life extension strategies because it enables one to benefit from progress in the biomedical sciences that may not occur during one’s lifetime. We would like to think we can escape death by jumping from one successful biomedical innovation to another and that, of course, all the good things will happen in our lifetime, but reality often interferes with such optimism.

One thing that might greatly accelerate the pace of progress in the field of longevity science is the development of an integrated framework that studies the logical and empirical relationships among all these strategies. For example, a recent blog entry on the technical challenges surrounding chemopreservation of the brain triggered a meaningful private exchange about issues concerning the perfusion of ischemic tissue, empirical criteria for information-theoretic death, and the options for histological validation of cryonics technologies.  Such overlapping areas of investigation are plentiful and it would be helpful to explicate them.

Too much focus on “the big picture” can interfere with the identification of original ideas and rapid progress. Too little attention to the adverse effects of compartmentalization risks the waste of resources, which is not a trivial concern in the still poorly funded life extension community.

Reducing compartmentalization can have other sobering effects as well. For example, it is not unusual to see a group of researchers advocating a new approach to their field that is routine in other areas of investigation. For example, the idea that anti-aging research could benefit from less emphasis on illuminating the exact molecular mechanisms of aging and simply treat the observable manifestations of aging is no news to researchers in the field of cerebral ischemia. The pathophysiology of stroke is so complex that greater progress could be achieved by identifying clear targets for pharmacological intervention. But after decades of research it has become abundantly clear that such a paradigm change is no guarantee for more rapid progress. Despite this goal-oriented approach not one single neuroprotective agent has survived clinical trials.  This does not mean that such pragmatic approaches should be abandoned. It does mean, however, that research ideas should be evaluated on their empirical success and not just on their logical merits.

There are obvious examples where the claims in one field seem to make the claims in another field redundant. The most obvious example is the case of molecular nanotechnology. The projected timescales that are envisioned for this technology are not much different from the timescales that are envisioned by some anti-aging researchers to develop meaningful rejuvenation. In that case one could argue that (exclusive) preference should be given to those research programs that allow for the most comprehensive manipulation of biology. For example, a mature nanotechnology would be able to rejuvenate people, resuscitate cryonics patients, and alter the human endoskeleton to make us far less prone to fatal accidents. Such an argument would be a logical extension of the argument against devoting too much time to find treatments for specific age-related diseases instead of tackling aging itself.  Similar reasoning can be employed against anti-aging research. If accelerated change will bring the prospect of general molecular control within reach in the next few decades it makes little sense to spend vast amounts of time agonizing over specific anti-aging interventions. Why not just launch a “Manhattan Project” to pursue the much more comprehensive vision of molecular nanotechnology?

From a logical point of view, this is a persuasive argument. The limitations of such a perspective should now be obvious too.  We do not have certainty about the future of technological progress, let alone its specifics. As a matter of fact, in such matters it is not even evident how we should think about statistical or inductive probabilities.  To some people, the progress in one field is indicative of the progress we are going to observe in other fields, including fields in which there has been little progress to date. The problem with such naive inductivism is that it can just as well be used to  make the opposite case if a different reference class is chosen.

The logical empiricist philosopher Rudolf Carnap once wrote:

The acceptance or rejection of abstract linguistic forms, just as the acceptance or rejection of any other linguistic forms in any branch of science, will finally be decided by their efficiency as instruments, the ratio of the results achieved to the amount and complexity of the efforts required. To decree dogmatic prohibitions of certain linguistic forms instead of testing them by their success or failure in practical use, is worse than futile; it is positively harmful because it may obstruct scientific progress.

A related argument can be made about the science of personal survival. We should be cautious about privileging any line of research on  “logical” grounds. The fate of competing visions should be decided through empirical investigation.  This position should not be interpreted as saying that there is no place for logic in choosing research programs.  Logic has a central place in research design and interpretation of experimental observation but it cannot be solely relied upon a guide for decision making. Empirical observation disciplines thinking and ample room should be left for the unexpected. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb has pointed out:

There is a lot more randomness in biotechnology and any form of medical discovery. The role of design is overestimated. Every time we plan on trying to find a drug we don’t because it closes our mind. How are we discovering drugs? From the side-effects of other drugs.

Many experimental researchers have had the experience of engaging in research to find a solution to one problem but to discover the solution to another problem instead. Researchers who have recognized and embraced this phenomenon by becoming less fond of their own ideas and more open to run with such unexpected discoveries have reaped great benefits.

There is a growing literature that discusses the technical aspects of revival of cryonics patients. The following list of the published literature was compiled by Ralph Merkle and Robert Freitas and published as an appendix of their article on molecular nanotechnology in Cryonics Magazine 2008-4:

Robert C.W. Ettinger, The Prospect of Immortality, Doubleday, NY, 1964

Jerome B. White, “Viral Induced Repair of Damaged Neurons with Preservation of Long-Term Information Content,” Second Annual Cryonics Conference, Ann Arbor MI, 11 April 1969

Michael G. Darwin, “The Anabolocyte:  A Biological Approach to Repairing Cryoinjury,” Life Extension Magazine (July-August 1977):80-83

Thomas Donaldson, “How Will They Bring Us Back, 200 Years From Now?” The Immortalist 12 (March 1981):5-10

K. Eric Drexler, Engines of Creation:  The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, Anchor Press/Doubleday, New York, 1986, pp. 133-138

Brian Wowk, “Cell Repair Technology,” Cryonics 9(July 1988)

Mike Darwin, “Resuscitation: A Speculative Scenario for Recovery,” Cryonics 9(July 1988):33-37

Thomas Donaldson, “24th Century Medicine,” Analog 108(September 1988):64-80 and Cryonics 9(December 1988)

Ralph C. Merkle, “Molecular Repair of the Brain,” Cryonics 10(October 1989):21-44

Gregory M. Fahy, “Molecular Repair Of The Brain: A Scientific Critique, with a Response from Dr. Merkle,” Cryonics 12(February 1991):8-11 & Cryonics 12(May 1991);  “Appendix B. A ‘Realistic’ Scenario for Nanotechnological Repair of the Frozen Human Brain,” in Brian Wowk, Michael Darwin, eds., Cryonics: Reaching for Tommorow, Alcor Life Extension Foundation, 1991

Ralph C. Merkle, “The Technical Feasibility of Cryonics,” Medical Hypotheses 39(1992):6-16

Ralph C. Merkle, “The Molecular Repair of the Brain,” Cryonics 15(January 1994):16-31 (Part I) & Cryonics 15(April 1994):20-32 (Part II)

Ralph C. Merkle, “Cryonics, Cryptography, and Maximum Likelihood Estimation,” First Extropy Institute Conference, Sunnyvale CA, 1994

Ralph Merkle, “Algorithmic Feasibility of Molecular Repair of the Brain,” Cryonics 16(First Quarter 1995):15-16

Michael V. Soloviev, “SCRAM Reanimation,” Cryonics 17(First Quarter 1996):16-18

Mikhail V. Soloviev, “A Cell Repair Algorithm,” Cryonics 19(First Quarter 1998):22-27

Robert A. Freitas Jr., “Section 10.5 Temperature Effects on Medical Nanorobots,” in Nanomedicine, Volume I: Basic Capabilities, Landes Bioscience, Georgetown, TX, 1999, pp. 372-375

Ralph C. Merkle, Robert A. Freitas Jr., “A Cryopreservation Revival Scenario using MNT,” Cryonics 30(Fourth Quarter 2008).