© 1991-2013 Jerry Emanuelson
In the final analysis, aging and death have only one cause: for whatever reason, the atoms and molecules in our bodies have moved from their proper positions; and other molecules and atoms have moved into positions where they should not be.
The molecular machinery in our bodies maintains our lives by handling molecules at the molecular level. A molecular machine is a large molecule that manipulates other molecules, one at a time.
We put random assortments of molecules, in the form of food, into our bodies; but these molecules are useless without the intricate molecular machinery in our bodies that sorts through the molecules, rearranging them as necessary, and transporting them to their proper places.
When we take a supplemental vitamin or hormone or a medicine, all we can do with today's technology is to inject it into our bloodstream or swallow it, and hope that the body's molecular machinery will transport and use the substances properly.
During surgery, even the most precise microsurgery, the surgeon's scalpel slices through thousands of cells -- moving trillions of molecules out of their proper positions. At the cellular level, every surgical procedure is an unbelievably crude operation. The surgeon relies heavily on the molecular machinery of the body to put things back in position after the surgery is over.
If we could develop machines the size of viruses to continuously and efficiently maintain the molecules of our bodies, augmenting the natural molecular machinery in our bodies, we would never get sick. Such maintenance would have to include getting rid of the molecules that aren't supposed to be there.
When an unfriendly bacteria or virus invades our bodies, the immune system mounts a defense against the invasion; but the production of antibodies is often slow, and the battle of antibody vs. invader is basically a battle of protein vs. protein. The outcome of the battle is not always favorable for the human.
If our natural antibodies were augmented by artificial antibodies made of carbon-fiber composites and guided by virus-sized computers more powerful than today's supercomputers, no intruder would have a chance of infecting us.
If similar artificial molecular machines were continuously checking our cells for damage, and our DNA for mutations, and making repairs, we would see the end of aging damage and of all natural causes of death.
This will probably happen within the next 25 years.
Natural molecular machinery is at the basis of all life. A peach tree contains intricate molecular machinery that rearranges the molecules in dirt, water and air into a peach. Artificial molecular machines developed in the next few decades will be able to do the same thing a peach tree does, but much more efficiently.
Many people alive today will live to see the day that they can pour some dirt and water into a tabletop machine and instruct the machine to make whatever fruit or vegetable they select. The finished product will be available, fully ripened, within the hour. Although this sounds like magic to most of us, trees and other biological plants do the same thing all the time, just at a much slower rate.
The agricultural revolution took centuries. The industrial revolution took decades. Molecular nanotechnology will change human civilization more than the agricultural or industrial revolution. The revolution of molecular nanotechnology, though, in its final stages, will only take a few months -- or, at most, a few years.
The cell repair machines of molecular nanotechnology will not only prevent the natural causes of death, but most death by trauma as well. Artificial molecular machines, that have so far only been developed in broad theoretical constructs, can perform repairs far faster than the natural healing process. If an injury is so severe that it overwhelms the artificial healing process, the molecular machines will be able to place the body into biostasis, halting all further damage until more help arrives.
The nanotechnology revolution could arrive within the next 15 years. The subject of molecular nanotechnology (although discussed among some scientists earlier) was introduced to the world by Eric Drexler in his book Engines of Creation. Anyone who plans to be alive for at least another 15 or 20 years should read that book. If all natural causes of death were eliminated, and if death by accident, suicide or homicide occurred at the same rate they do today, then the median life span would be a little less than 700 years. Since this level of molecular nanotechnology is likely to arrive within the next 30 years, many people alive today in advanced countries will very likely achieve a life span measured in centuries.
The term nanotechnology is often used today to refer to manufacturing products with nanoscale features. This nanoscale manufacturing is something that is often done today, but it has little to do with the manufacturing and manipulation by molecular machinery that is discussed in books such as Engines of Creation. The dual meaning of the term nanotechnology that has arisen in the past few years has caused a considerable amount of confusion. Many people now prefer the term Atomically Precise Manufacturing to refer to the manipulation that is discussed in Engines of Creation.
One fear than many people have regarding extremely long lifespans is what is known as the Tithonus Error. The Tithonus Error is the belief that an extremely long lifespan means an extremely long period of years becoming increasingly debilitated and demented, spending a significant fraction of one's life with extreme mental and physical disability. Any close analysis of how lifespan might reasonably be extended to any significant degree shows that humans cannot gain a significantly longer lifespan than we have today unless there is genuine progress at getting to the root cause of the aging process. We cannot get much longer periods of physical and mental disability than we have now unless people deliberately have the goal of putting large numbers of elderly humans on artificial life support. For an excellent analysis of this problem, see the article The Tithonus Option is Not an Option by Chris Lawson.
Since the early 1960s, people have seriously discussed the idea of freezing those who die in the hope that future technology would be able to revive them and restore them to health. This process is known as cryonics, although the process has changed dramatically since the idea was first conceived.
Until the mid-1980s, the probability of cryonics being successful had to be considered as very slim. One problem was that no one knew what sort of technology would be able to revive the frozen dead. The hope of cryonics was based on faith that new technologies would continue to develop so that, perhaps 200 years in the future, the frozen could be revived. (Conventional freezing processes are no longer used by cryonics organizations unless they are forced to do it, due to circumstances beyond their control, in order to fulfill their contractual obligations.)
The more serious problem with cryonics was that few organizations survive for centuries. If it takes centuries to develop a method for reviving cryopreserved patients, it is likely that, no matter how well-intentioned the cryonics organization, after a number of years or decades, the cryonics organization would dissolve -- or the people caring for the frozen bodies would lose the will or the resources to continue.
In fact, one of the early cryonics organizations did dissolve, and the frozen bodies under its care thawed and decayed and were buried.
Once the prospect of molecular nanotechnology became apparent, the grim prognosis for cryonics changed. We now know what technology (molecular nanotechnology) is likely to be used to revive those in cryopreservation, and it is likely that the cryonics organizations need only survive for a few decades until the revolution of molecular nanotechnology. One cryonics organization has already survived for 38 years, and one man has already been cryonically suspended in liquid nitrogen continuously since 1967.
At this particular time in the evolution of human technology, anyone who dies before the advent of nanotechnology may be losing centuries of healthy life. Burial or cremation eliminates the possibility of being revived by nanotechnology, but cryonics provides an ambulance to the future.
One does not need to be wealthy to take advantage of cryonics. Most people pay for cryonics through a life insurance policy. This means that the younger you are the less it costs. The policy value generally needs to be $50,000 to $120,000 depending upon the cryonics organization and the method of cryonic preservation to be used.
There are three major organizations in the United States providing cryonic suspension services. The Alcor Foundation is by far the largest of the organizations and is clearly more advanced than the others in terms of both medical technology and legal organization. (See the Resources section of this manual for contact information.) Anyone signing up for cryonic preservation should read everything about Alcor and about cryonics that they can, and make the decision carefully.
Alcor uses very sophisticated cryonic preservation procedures, although they will surely be regarded as crude in the future as medical technology continues to advance. Shortly after legal death the body is infused with a cryoprotectant (a biological "antifreeze") in a carefully controlled procedure in a well-equipped operating room. The process used now is known as vitrification. Straight freezing is rarely done. About the only case where ordinary freezing would be done today is in the cases where someone blocks immediate access to the body using the legal system, making vitrification impossible. The cryonics organizations are constantly refining their techniques, but the entire vitrification process from legal death to liquid nitrogen temperature usually takes about three weeks.
The major obstacle to successful cryonic preservation is intrusive government bureaucracies. In some years, most of the money spent by cryonics organizations has gone for legal fees. This has, however, given people at Alcor considerable experience that will be useful in dealing with government problems in the future. Another major legal expense for the cryonics organizations has been the result of disputes among relatives regarding cryopreservation. Any such dispute usually blocks the ability of the cryonics organization to use vitrification, and consequently dramatically reduces the probability of ever successfully bringing a person out of a cryopreserved state.
Those signed up for cryonic preservation wear a necktag or bracelet that has the phone number of the cryonics organization and tells medical personnel what to do if the patient is legally dead before the cryonics people arrive.
One advantage of signing up for cryonic preservation is that you have to take care of all those documents that everyone should take of care of anyway: documents like wills, living wills, health care directives and durable powers of attorney for health care. There is a rather large amount of paperwork required for signing up for cryonic suspension, but much of it consists of the documents that everyone should have, but do not.
Next Section: Resources and Recommended Reading
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Back to the Futurescience Home Page