This book review was originally published in Cryonics magazine, 1st Quarter, 2011.

Editor-in-chief, cryobiologist, and aging researcher Gregory M. Fahy and his associate editors Michael D. West, L. Stephen Cole and Steven B. Harris have compiled what might be the most impressive collection of articles on interventive gerontology to date in their 866 page collection The Future of Aging: Pathways to Human Life Extension. The book is divided into 2 parts. The first part includes general, scientific, social and philosophical perspectives on life extension. The second part is a collection of proposed interventions, which are organized in chronological order, starting with the (projected) earliest interventions first. Of course, such an organization of the materials necessitates a subjective estimation of when such technologies will be available and is bound to be controversial. The collection closes with a number of appendices about contemporary anti-aging funding and projects (SENS, Manhattan Beach Project).

I have read the book with the following two questions in mind:

1.     Which approaches for increasing the maximum life span show clear near-term potential?

2.     Is meaningful rejuvenation possible without advanced cell repair technologies?

What follows are my comments on selected chapters of the book.

I cannot say that I am a big fan of Ray Kurzweil’s work. His general introduction to life extension, “Bridges to Life,” co-written with Terry Grossman, starts out on a restrained note, discussing the benefits of caloric restriction, exercise, basic supplementation, and predictive genomics. But it then ratchets up into bold claims about the future that rest on controversial premises: about biology and health following the same path as information technology; about the technical feasibility of molecular nanotechnology; and about the nature of mind. One thing that remains a mystery to me is how such an accelerating pace of anti-aging technologies could be validated considering the relatively long life expectancy of humans. Presumably we are expected to adopt a lot of these technologies based on their theoretical merits, success in animal studies, or short-term effects in humans.

Associate Editor Stephen Cole contributes a chapter on the ethical basis for using human embryonic stem cells. I suspect that his argument in favor of these therapies relies on adopting a definition of personhood that has more far-reaching, and more controversial, consequences than just permitting the use of human embryonic stem cells. One of the most disconcerting aspects of the bioethical debate on stem cell research is that many of its advocates seem to feel that if they do not see an ethical case against it, government funding for such research should be permitted.  In essence, this means that opponents of embryonic stem cell research are obliged to financially support it as well. This is a recipe for further aggravating what has already become a passionate political debate.

As someone with relatively limited exposure to the biogerontology literature I should be cautious in singling out one technical contribution for high praise, but Joshua Mitteldorf’s chapter on the evolutionary origins of aging is one of the best and most inspiring articles in the field of aging research I have read and worth the hefty price of the book alone. Mitteldorf outlines a case for the theory that evolution has selected aging for its own sake and presents experimental findings that falsify other explanations for aging such as wear-and-tear and metabolic trade-offs. That aging is firmly under genetic control may appear the most pessimistic finding in terms of the prospects of halting aging but in fact allows for the manipulation of a number of selected upstream interventions that can inhibit or mitigate these programs.

It is clear from this ambitious book that cryobiologist Greg Fahy also has a strong interest in biogerontology but nothing prepared me for the encyclopedic knowledge that he displays in his lengthy chapter on the precedents for the biological control of aging. Fahy’s chapter further corroborates the view that aging is under genetic control. He also reviews a great number of beneficial mutations and interventions in animals and humans that can extend lifespan. Reading all these inspiring examples, however, I found myself faced with the same kind of despair as when reading about all the neuroprotective interventions in stroke and cardiac arrest. There is great uncertainty how such interventions would fare in humans (or other animals) and, more specific to the objective of human life extension, how we ourselves can ascertain that there are no long-term adverse consequences. Fahy does not run away from the most formidable challenge of all, rejuvenation of the brain without losing identity-critical information, but points out that identity-critical information might be retained despite the turnover and replacement of components that a meaningful life extension program for the brain would most likely require. Fortunately, people who make cryonics arrangements can feel a little better about this issue because their survival is not dependent on safe technologies becoming available in their lifetime.

Zheng Sui’s report on using high potency granulocytes to cure cancer in mice is one of the more exciting chapters in the book and a fine example of the role of chance discoveries in biomedical research (Zheng by accident discovered a mouse innately resistant to cancer). With substantial support of the Life Extension Foundation and other private donors, Sui is aggressively pursuing Leukocyte Infusion Therapy (LIFT) human trials instead of pursuing the torturous path of trying to illuminate the biochemical and molecular mechanisms that drive the successful results in mice. I should mention that a unique concern for cryonicists is that eliminating cancer in the absence of other effective anti-aging technologies could increase the likelihood of dying as result of identity-threatening insults such as cardio-vascular complications, ischemic stroke, or Alzheimer’s disease.

I must admit being somewhat disappointed in the chapter about “evolutionary nutrigenomics” by Michael Rose and his collaborators. Michael Rose has always struck me as one of the more level-headed and empirical aging researchers, and his work with fruit flies is a resounding demonstration of using evolutionary tools to investigate and combat aging. His short contribution to this book reads more as a quickly thrown together status update of their company, Genescient, than a rigorous treatment of the issues. Dispersed throughout the text are a number of interesting perspectives on alternative approaches to aging research and the validation of anti-aging interventions, but these issues are not discussed in much detail. Michael Rose’s work is of great interest, but this chapter is neither a good introduction to his work nor an in-depth treatment of the practical applications of his research.

Anthony Atala’s chapter, “Life Extension by Tissue and Organ Replacement,” is a fascinating update on the current status and potential of regenerative medicine and tissue engineering. Unlike most of the chapters in this book, the author reports a number of examples of successful clinical applications. It is a good example of how working with nature (instead of trying to improve upon it) can have meaningful near-term benefits. Unfortunately, there is no discussion of the progress in regenerative medicine for the brain. Obviously, such strategies cannot involve a simple replacement of the brain with a newly grown brain but selected repair technologies can play an important role in brain-damaging diseases and insults. The inclusion of “life extension” in the chapter title seems somewhat artificial to me because there is no distinct treatment about how tissue and organ replacement will be expected to contribute to life extension. Additionally, there is little discussion of contemporary artificial and mechanical alternatives to organs (or biological structural components) in this chapter, or in any other chapters in the book, which I think is a minor oversight.

Robert J. Shmookler Reis and Joan E. McEwen contribute a chapter about identifying genes that can extend longevity. Their discussion of the prospects for mammals includes the sobering observation that “many of the gains we can attain by a single mutation in the simpler organism may already have been incorporated in the course of achieving our present longevities.” Then again, unless aging is firmly under genetic control in simple organisms but the result of wear and tear in humans there should be (unique) approaches in humans that should confer similar benefits as well.

The publication of this book came to my attention when I learned about Robert Freitas’s contribution, “Comprehensive Nanorobotic Control of Human Morbidity (PDF),” so I was quite interested in reading this final chapter of the book. I am not qualified to comment on the technical aspects of his vision of nanotechnology. I think it is fair to say, though, that if resuscitation of cryonics patients is possible they will most likely be resuscitated in a future that has nanomedical capabilities resembling those that are outlined in this chapter. For this reason alone, this chapter should be of great interest to readers of this magazine. Of particular interest is the discussion of cell repair technologies and brain rejuvenation, a topic of great interest to cryonics. Freitas devotes considerable space discussing how anti-aging strategies like SENS can be achieved with medical nanorobots but the chapter falls short of offering a distinct exposition of a nanomedical approach to aging and rejuvenation. With such profound molecular capabilities one would think that such an approach would not just consist of updating existing biotechnological approaches to eliminate aging related damage with more powerful tools. I think that the distinct capabilities that molecular technologies have to offer would have benefitted from a more extensive discussion of their transformative capabilities. In particular, the section on nanorobot-medicated rejuvenation could have benefitted from a more rigorous treatment of the question of how these interventions would produce actual rejuvenation. Rejuvenation will be a practical requirement for most cryonics patients and it would be interesting to see a more detailed technical discussion of this topic.

Robert Freitas introduces the phrase NENS (Nanomedically Engineered Negligible Senescence) for his vision of how the goals of SENS can be achieved through nanomedicine. This raises an important question: is there any reason to believe that the timeline for “conventional” SENS will be different from the timeline for mature molecular medicine? It is hard to tell, but one could argue that the development of mature nanotechnology is more comprehensive than any strategies designed to deal with the causes or effects of the aging process. So why not just fund the work of biological and mechanical molecular nanotechnologists to accelerate meaningful re-design of the human organism? I think that the best answer is that our current state of knowledge does not justify giving a privileged position to any particular approach and having these visions of the future compete may be the best hope that we have for seeing meaningful rejuvenation and the resuscitation of cryonics patients in the future.

If there is one serious omission in this impressive collection of articles it is a more comprehensive chapter on the topic of biomarkers of aging in humans. As reiterated throughout this review, the gold standard and most rigorous determination of the efficacy of anti-aging therapies and interventions is to empirically determine whether they increase maximum human lifespan. For obvious reasons, most medical professionals and healthcare consumers are pressed to make decisions based on less rigorous criteria and the development of a set of reliable biomarkers of aging is highly desirable. Of course, the most rigorous case for successful biomarkers would require the same kind of long-term studies, leading to an infinite regress problem. How to break out of this predicament while retaining a framework to make rational decisions about life extension technologies is not a trivial problem and can be the topic of a whole new volume of articles. Interestingly enough, one of the most insightful perspectives on this issue is given in Appendix A by SENS researcher Michael Rae when he points out that therapies aimed at rejuvenation can be tested at much more rapid timescales than therapies to retard the aging process or increase the maximum lifespan.

Michael Rae also notes that SENS’s “engineering heuristic” is well established in other fields of biomedicine. It is certainly the case that aging research could benefit from a stronger emphasis on solving problems and repairing damage instead of completely trying to understand the underlying pathologies but it also needs to be pointed out that the engineering approach has not fared much better in areas of research that are notoriously resistant to effective solutions such as neuroprotection in stroke. Ultimately, the SENS approach cannot completely escape studying the mechanisms and metabolic pathways involved when treatments are compared and side-effects are studied. In this sense, the difference between SENS and alternative approaches is a matter of degree, not principle.

I think that the editors are justified in claiming that the prospects for solving the aging challenge have never looked better. A close inspection of all the chapters, however, shows that no significant interventions in the aging process in humans are available now, and I doubt they will become available in the near future. And even if the aging process can be eliminated, there will still be medical conditions and accidents that require placing a person in cryostasis until effective treatment is available. For the foreseeable future there is good reason to agree with Thomas Donaldson’s advice* that making cryonics arrangements is the most fundamental and sensible decision one can make in order to reap the benefits of powerful future life extension therapies.

*Thomas Donaldson – Why Cryonics Will Probably Help You More Than Antiaging, Physical Immortality 2(4) 28-29 (4th Q 2004)


Ken Hayworth’s idea of promoting a fixation-based alternative to brain cryopreservation is something I am highly sympathetic to overall, and I hope some progress in this direction results from the work he is doing and trying to induce others to do. That said, I wanted to comment on Hayworth’s remarks about straight freezing of brain tissue.

Figure 1B shows the horrific damage (destroyed cells) that occurs when such a slice is “preserved” using a freezing technique typical of those employed early in cryonics. Such damage is clearly irreversible by any future technology and it should come as no surprise that such techniques were flatly rejected by the scientific and medical community.

While it’s true that straight-frozen tissue as shown looks pretty awful I think it’s too strong a statement to say that “such damage is clearly irreversible by any future technology” unless you have further supporting arguments. To invoke a relevant analogy, we could run a phone book through a garden-variety shredder found in many offices, and still be able to reconstruct it from the resulting debris. The fact that there is debris remaining with the frozen tissue (as opposed to the cases of decay or burning) means we cannot, without further argument, rule out some sort of reconstructive process using future technology, including nanotechnology. It is also worth noting that with imperfect chemical fixation you run a risk of tissue loss over time that does not occur with cryopreservation; even debris resulting from straight freezing will remain as-is so long as cryogenic temperatures are maintained.

I also note that Hayworth says his proposed plastination could only be done properly if you start with a living patient with still-beating heart to distribute the initial fixative.

It is important to understand that the standard fixation and plasticization protocol is started while the animal is still alive. If the animal’s heart is allowed to stop for even a few minutes before the glutaraldehyde is perfused into the vasculature, then the quality of the preservation is markedly reduced. This fact will also be true for any whole brain protocol based on perfusion.

This of course would be problematic for any procedure to be used on humans; you’d have to treat it as some form of euthanasia.

The biggest obstacle to the acceptance of cryonics is medical myopia; the idea that someone who has been pronounced dead by contemporary medical criteria will still be considered dead by future criteria. Advocates of human cryopreservation strongly argue against this. There are few things more discomforting than the idea that medical professionals of the future will look back in horror and wonder why we gave up on people who still possessed the neuroanatomical basis of their identities and memories.

But there is another kind of myopia in the public discussion of cryonics that warrants consideration. It is taken for granted by some critics of contemporary cryonics that cryonics has always been framed as a form of medicine. Nothing could be further from the truth. The history of cryonics is replete with debates between advocates of the medical model and those who believe that timely transport of the patient to a cryonics facility for low temperature storage should be adequate for future resuscitation by advanced nanotechnology. It is only because  cryonics advocates with medical and research backgrounds such as Mike Darwin and Jerry Leaf vigorously argued for adopting conventional medical techniques and protocols that today’s cryonics organizations can even be criticized  for falling short of these criteria.

There is a silver lining to a lot of the controversy that surrounds today’s cryonics . Critics now adopt the premise that cryonics is a form of medicine to make a case against practices they consider suboptimal.  It was not long ago that public critics of cryonics simply dismissed the whole idea as pseudo-science. This was never a sophisticated response but ongoing advances in cryobiology (such as vitrification of the central nervous system) and synthetic biology/nanotechnology have made this position even more of a showcase of ignorance. When people read the news about animals being cloned from straight frozen DNA they will be less receptive to tendentious claims that existing cryonics technologies are hopelessly inadequate to preserve the identity of a person.

The current development in which cryonics is being criticized from a clinical framework should have positive effects on how cryonics will be approached from a regulatory framework. It does not make sense to argue that cryonics is a pseudo-science and offering false hope but at the same time insist that cryonics organizations adopt high standards of medical care. The acceptance of the concept of “patient care” in cryonics would be incoherent without (implicitly) embracing the premise that cryonics patients have interests and deserve legal recognition of that fact. As more public information is disseminated about the quality of brain vitrification that is possible today, the need to recognize cryonics as an elective medical procedure will receive more attention from bioethicists and medical professionals.

There are those who believe that the acceptance of cryonics itself is being held back by amateurism. If this is the case there should be unexploited profit opportunities for cryonics providers that pursue the highest standards of medical care.

On the forum of the Immortality Institute there is an interesting exchange about the feasibility and time line for reversible cryopreservation. Cryobiologist Brian Wowk weighs in with some interesting observations:

I think in the next 20 years more small animal organs, and perhaps some human organs, may be reversibly cryopreserved. The best scenario for cryonics would be improved, and possibly demonstrably reversible, cryopreservation of animal brains. It has been long observed that if reversible solid-state brain preservation could be demonstrated, then cryonics revival becomes a purely technical problem (albeit very complex one) of tissue regeneration. There would be no remaining doubt about whether the preservation itself was viably preserving human beings….Reversible solid-state cryopreservation of whole mammals is a very difficult problem with existing technology. This is why when asked about it people will often defer to nanotechnology. References to nanotechnology as a solution to a medical problem basically say, “We have no idea how to solve this problem with existing tools, but future abilities to completely analyze and repair tissue at the molecular level will be implicitly sufficient.” It’s a valid argument, but saying that a medical problem will be solved when someday technology exists to solve *every* medical problem is not very illuminating about time lines or nature of the problem.

Advocates of cryonics often push for demonstration of reversible small animal cryopreservation as  a means to persuade the medical establishment and the general public of the technical feasibility of cryonics. The limitation of this approach, however, is that this goal cannot be achieved until we are able to successfully vitrify all vital organs of the animal, including such difficult organs  as the lungs and the kidney. A more promising approach is to keep improving vitrification of the central nervous system. As argued in a recent piece for Alcor’s Cryonics Magazine, if organized electrical activity can be demonstrated after whole brain cryopreservation a strong case can be made for the acceptance of cryonics as a medical procedure and improved legal protection of cryonics patients.  It should be noted, however, that these research efforts constitute only one objective in cryonics. Another objective of cryonics research is to optimize procedures and protocols for existing patients, who invariably suffer some degree of circulatory arrest.

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).

The association of cryonics with “transhumanism” seems inevitable but is problematic.  It seems inevitable because cryonics should be most attractive to people with a very positive perspective on the future capabilities of technology. Barring rapid advances in mitigating aging, cryonics  offers the only credible option for transhumanists to become a part of that future. It is unfortunate because it can have adverse effects on the objective of making cryonics a part of conventional medicine, and further alienates people who are open to the idea of human cryopreservation but fear the future.

For some people the choice for cryonics does not so much represent optimism about the pace of technological progress, or a desire for immortality, but rather skepticism about our contemporary definition of death.  This is not a trivial distinction. Despite some popular misconceptions, cryonics is not necessarily linked to having an extreme position on the pace of technological progress.  One can be a conservative regarding the timescale that it will take to develop credible cell repair technologies and be a staunch cryonics advocate without any contradiction.  Similarly, a commitment to cryonics does not necessarily mean that one has to root for the most radical and optimistic school of thought in nanotechnology.

The unfortunate association between cryonics and transhumanism has recently been addressed by ex-Alcor president and cryonics advocate Steve Bridge in his perceptive article Has Cryonics taken the Wrong Path? The Unnoticed Conflict between Rescue Technology and Futurist Philosophies. So far Bridge’s article has had limited effect and cryonics representatives are rarely invited to speak at any conferences outside of the predictable “Transhumanism-Singularity Industrial Complex.” This development does not just reflect a lack of effective and credible spokespersons that can make a persuasive scientific case for cryonics, it also reflects a lack of concern about cryonics being perceived as one element in a larger transhumanist or Singularitarian project.

There seem to be indications, however, that this climate is changing.  Cryonics activists such as Mark Plus and longevity advocates such as Anne Corwin have increasingly  expressed reservations about certain strands of futurism and the unsolicited identification with these movements. Another welcome development is scientific researchers such as Richard Jones who do not necessarily disagree about the  possibility of molecular cell repair technologies but reject the meliorist and quasi-religious tendencies in contemporary futurism.

In a recent blog entry about Ray Kurzweil, Richard Jones writes:

One difficulty is that Kurzweil makes many references to current developments in science and technology, and most readers are going to take it on trust that Kurzweil’s account of these developments is accurate. All too often, though, what one finds is that there’s a huge gulf between the conclusions Kurzweil draws from these papers and what they actually say – it’s the process I described in my article The Economy of Promises taken to extremes – “a transformation of vague possible future impacts into near-certain outcomes”….The difficulty, then, is not that there is no science underlying the claims Kurzweil makes, nor that this science isn’t very exciting on its own terms. It’s that this science can’t sustain the sweeping claims and (especially) the fast timescales that Kurzweil insists on.

It would be unfortunate for cryonics to be identified with naive thinking about society and technology and sellers of snake oil. Recent management and staff changes at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation indicate a renewed emphasis on sound business operations and medical credibility. It remains to be seen if these changes constitute a broader effort to re-position cryonics as an important player in the world of medical innovation.

11. December 2008 · Comments Off · Categories: Health, Science · Tags: , ,

Nanotechnology idea-man Robert Freitas, Jr. has published an article in the January 2009 issue of Life Extension Magazine providing a tutorial in nanomedicine and documenting its progression toward real-world application.

In “Nanotechnology and Radically Extended Life Span,” Freitas describes several theoretical medical nanorobots, such as the microbiovore, which would “act like an artificial mechanical white cell, seeking out and digesting unwanted pathogens including bacteria, viruses, or fungi in the bloodstream.” In addition to fighting infection, medical nanorobots could invigorate old or diseased cells by replacing chromosomes with fresh new ones, correcting the cellular damage and mutations that lead to aging.

Freitas and colleagues have performed many analyses and simulations of the types of technologies and tools that will be necessary to create these nanoscale medical robots, filing two patents for the mechanosynthesis of nanorobots. Together with Ralph Merkle, Freitas founded the Nanofactory Collaboration to “coordinate a combined experimental and theoretical R&D program to design and build the first working diamandoid nanofactory.” This effort has involved many collaborations with researchers from nine different organizations and four countries, and has resulted in a dozen academic articles.

Now Freitas is eager to test his theories with the help of scanning probe microscopist Philip Moriarty, who is attempting to build several of Freitas’ mechanosynthesis tooltips. Presumably, the creation of working tooltips will lead directly to their intended purpose: the creation of nanorobots. Freitas hopes to manufacture medical nanorobots that can contribute to radical life extension therapies by the 2020s.

Of course, most cryonicists are of the opinion that nanotechnological interventions will be necessary for the reversal of aging and disease in cryopreserved patients. As we move closer to reversible cryopreservation with improved stabilization protocol and cryoprotectant solutions, perhaps the maturation of nanomedicine and cryonics will coincide.

In the past Alcor has supported Freitas’ work at the expense of supporting research that could improve the quality of its cryopreservation procedures for existing members. It is therefore encouraging to learn that the Life Extension Foundation has contributed money to support Freitas’ work on nanomedicine.

08. December 2008 · Comments Off · Categories: Science, Society · Tags: , ,

A recently conducted study brings a warning to technophiles who think that the facts are all that matter when informing a group of people about a new technology. The fact of the matter is that the message matters more.

In their article “What drives acceptance of nanotechnology?” (Nature Nanotechnology), the Cultural Cognition Project and the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies reported that, when presented with balanced information about the benefits and risks of nanotechnology, a diverse sample of 1500 people who were largely unfamiliar with nanotechnology became deeply divided regarding its safety as compared to a group not shown such information.

The dividing line was cultural: “People who had more individualistic, pro-commerce values, tended to infer that nanotechnology is safe,” said Kahan, the lead author of the study, “while people who are more worried about economic inequality read the same information as implying that nanotechnology is likely to be dangerous.”

Seeing that people respond so differently to the same information has caused many experts in the field to call for risk-communication strategies that take these findings into account. In this way, they hope to prevent a nanotechnology “culture war”:

“The message matters,” said David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. “How information about nanotechnology is presented to the vast majority of the public who still know little about it can either make or break this technology.

Molecular nanotechnology pioneer and cryonics advocate Eric Drexler has launched his own blog called Metamodern: The Trajectory of Technology. This is what we can expect:

In this blog, I’ll discuss current progress in science and technology, often with a specific perspective in mind: how current progress can contribute to the development of advanced nanosystems. This system-building perspective often highlights research opportunities and rewards that might otherwise be missed. As the topics come up, I’ll be suggesting research objectives that seem practical, valuable, and ready for serious pursuit.

However, like Engines of Creation, this blog isn’t intended to be “about nanotechnology”, but about broader issues involving technologies that will bring global change. Social software and the computational infrastructure of society are high on the list.

In his first post Drexler talks about the data explosion and the scientific method:

Tradition demands that science always be hypothesis-driven: First, try to guess the truth, and only afterward collect experimental data to test whether the guess predicts the results. Indeed, this has been termed “The Scientific Method”. The new data-driven approach suggests that we collect data first, then see what it tells us. This becomes practical when experimental methods can amass enormous amounts of data, enough data to test more hypotheses than any mortal scientist could conceivably imagine.

Eric Drexler has received a fair amount of uninformed and some informed criticism over the years. It is therefore encouraging to see Drexler making his presence known online.

HT Overcoming Bias

Brownian motion started when Robert Brown looked into his microscope and observed that pollen suspended in water moved around in a continuous random motion. Wanting to rule out some “vital life force,” Brown also  investigated dead things such as sand and metals but he observed the same jittery motion. The dead danced as well. Or perhaps the Epicureans anticipated the phenomenon of Brownian motion in Lucretius‘s scientific poem On the Nature of Things:

Observe what happens when sunbeams are admitted into a building and shed light on its shadowy places. You will see a multitude of tiny particles mingling in a multitude of ways… their dancing is an actual indication of underlying movements of matter that are hidden from our sight… It originates with the atoms which move of themselves.

The writer Mark Haw has been so fascinated with the phenomenon and history of Brownian motion that he decided to write a book about it called Middle World: The Restless Heart of Matter and Life. This accessible introduction covers the history of Brownian motion, the “mesoscopic” middle world between the (sub)atomic world and the world of “large” objects,  taking us from the puzzling observations of Robert Brown to its relevance for the upcoming science of nanotechnology. Commenting on the challenges that the middle world, where “objects simply cannot  stand still,” presents to Eric Drexler’s vision of  “hard” nanotechnology, the author observes:

Matter in the middle world does things differently.  You could insist on modeling your machines after the macroworld and finding chemical ways to achieve that. But why not use the fantastically rich range of things that matter does in the middle world to come up with whole new ways of solving engineering problems? Why not profit from unavoidable restlessness? We know it can be done: life has already done it.

Although published 3 years earlier than Haw’s book, Richard Jones picks up this very theme in his excellent book Soft Machines: Nanotechnology and Life. This book presents a more technical treatment of Brownian motion and other nanoscale phenomena that an advanced nanotechnology simply cannot work around.  But instead of resisting the unruly world of randomness and sticky objects, Jones proposes to embrace these phenomena as the most obvious road to build nanoscale devices. Although the author does not completely dismiss the “top-down” Drexler approach, he strongly prefers to use the bionanotechnological tools that nature has provided and to improve upon them. He also introduces an approach called “biomimetic nanotechnology” that would involve “the copying of the principles of operation of biological nanotechnology, but executing them in synthetic materials.”

Since August 2004, Richard Jones also publishes a blog that reports on the future of nanotechnology  and has featured informed critiques of the Drexlerian vision of radical nanotechnology and Singularitarianism.