Science and Technology

Cryonics, Nanotechnology and Transhumanism: Utopia Then and Now

Over the past few years there has been increasing friction between a subset of cryonicists, and people in the Transhumanist (TH) and Technological Singularity communities, most notably those who follow the capital N, Nanotechnology doctrine.[1, 2] Or perhaps more accurately, there has been an increasing amount of anger and discontent on the part of some in cryonics over the perceived effects these “alternate” approaches to and views of the future have had on the progress of cryonics. While I count myself in this camp of cryonicists, I think it’s important to put these issues into perspective, and to give a first-hand accounting of how n(N)anotechnology and TH first intersected with cryonics.

At left, the cover the first cryonics brochure to use the idea of nanotechnological cell repair as a rescue strategy for cryopatients. The brochure was sent out as a mass mailing (~10,000 copies) to special interest groups deemed of relevance in 1984.

It is important to understand that the nanotechnology folks didn’t come to cryonicists and hitch a ride on our star. Quite the reverse was the case. Eric Dexler was given a gift subscription to Cryonics magazine by someone, still unknown, well before the publication of Engines of Creation.[3] When he completed his draft of Engines, which was then called The Future by Design, he sent out copies of the manuscript to a large cross-section of people – including to us at Alcor. I can remember opening the package with dread; by that time we were starting to receive truly terrible manuscripts from Alcor members who believed that they had just written the first best selling cryonics novel. These manuscripts had to be read, and Hugh Hixon and I switched off on the duty of performing this uniformly onerous task.

At left, Eric Drexler, circa the 1980s.

It was my turn to read the next one, so as soon as I saw there was a manuscript in the envelope, I put my legs up on my desk and started reading, hoping to “get it over with” before too much of the day had escaped my grasp. I was probably 5 or 10 pages into the Velobound book, when I uttered an expletive-laced remark to the effect that this was a really, really important manuscript, and one that was going to transform cryonics, and probably the culture as a whole. After Hugh read it, he concurred with me.

At right, Brian Wowk, Ph.D.

Drexler was soliciting comments, and he got them – probably several hundred pages worth from Hugh, Jerry Leaf and I. And he listened to those comments – in fact, a robust correspondence began. I think that the ideas in Eric’s book, and to large extent the way he presented them were overwhelmingly positive, and that they were very good for cryonics, in the bargain. As just one small example, a young computer whiz kid, who was writing retail point-of-sale programs in Kenora, Canada, was recruited mostly on the basis of Drexler’s scenarios for nanotechnology and cell and tissue repair. His name, by the way, was Brian Wowk.  As an amusing aside, the brochure that recruited Brian to cryonics is reproduced at the end of this article; we thought it was cutting edge marketing at the time (hokey though it was, it was indeed cutting edge, in terms of content, if not artistic value).

At left, one of the first conceptualizations of what a nanoscale cell repair machine might look like. This drawing was made by Brian Wowk and appeared the article, “Cell Repair Technology,” Cryonics Magazine, July 1988; Alcor Foundation, pp. 7, 10. More sophisticated images were to follow (see below).

Engines and Drexler’s subsequent book Nanosystems,[4] explored one discrete, putative pathway to achieving nanoscale engineering, and to applying it to a wide variety of ends. That was and is a good thing, and both books were visionary and scientifically and technologically important, as well. Drexler never claimed that his road was the only road, and for the record, neither did we (Alcor). What was exciting and valuable about those books and the ideas they contained was that they opened the way to exploring the kinds of technology that would likely be required to rescue cryopatients. Even more valuably, they demonstrated that such technologies were, in general (and in principle) possible, and that they did not violate physical law. That was enormously important – in no small measure because they did so by providing a level of detail that was previously largely missing in cryonics. Yes, prior to this time Thomas Donaldson had explored biologically-based repair ideas[5] (as had I[6]), but these ideas were more nebulous and they lacked the necessary detail.

The idea of cell repair machines has now entered mainstream science and culture, as is apparent in the illustration above, by artist Svidinenko Yuriy in 2008 (

If nanotechnology had stayed nanotechnology, instead of becoming Nanotechnology, then it would all have been to the good. By way of analogy, I’m not irrevocably wed to the idea of cryopreservation. I have no emotional investment in low temperatures and on the contrary, the need to maintain such an extreme and costly environment without any break or interruption, scares the hell out of me. I’d much prefer a preservation approach that has been validated over ~45 million years, such as the demonstrated preservation of cellular ultrastructure in glasses at ambient temperature, in the form plant and animal tissues preserved in amber.

Read more.

Leave a Reply