Technology Festival Report

by Charles Platt

Alcor's annual Cryonics Technology Festival took place in Scottsdale, Arizona on the weekend of February 1st, 1997.

Saturday's program was preceded at 8:30 AM with a tour of the Alcor facility hosted by Steve Bridge (who was scheduled to resign as president that night, handing the job over to Fred Chamberlain, one of the founders of Alcor). Steve has been an indefatigable public-relations spokesperson during the past three years, and I was curious to see his presentation. I also wanted to see how Alcor would look compared with CryoCare, from a prospective member's perspective.

The tour started at the one-person dewar that once contained the "first cryonaut," James Bedford, who is still maintained at Alcor today. The antique white-painted horizontal cylinder gives cryonics an historical context, encouraging a sense of permanence and continuity.

[Photo Caption]
Steve Bridge shows the antique dewar that contained the first cryonaut, James Bedford.
[Photo Caption] At near left he stands between the mobile life-support systems cart and the operating table where patients are perfused.

From here Steve moved through the administration areas of Alcor's modern building, and the large number of separate offices reminded me that this full-service organization functions very much as a community, with several employees residing nearby and three actually living at the facility. Personally I believe that CryoCare's dispersed, unbundled organization is more efficient, but I suspect that potential members would find the full-service community-oriented model more comprehensible and reassuring.

From the admin area Steve took us into a small lab (about ten feet by fifteen) used for perfusion. I was surprised to see relatively little monitoring equipment--no x-ray machine, for instance, and no fiber-optic probes of the type used at BioPreservation for visual inspection of brain capillaries during perfusion. The lab would make a good impression on visitors, though, since it is clean, neat, and well organized.

There is a larger, separate lab for analysis work and research at Alcor, but Steve didn't show it to us. In fact he barely touched on technical topics, giving just a brief explanation of the need for cryoprotectants before moving us into the tank room for the final ten minutes of his 25-minute tour.

The big, enigmatic dewars always impress visitors and have been featured prominently in every TV documentary shot at Alcor. Undoubtedly they are the most potent symbol in cryonics. Ironically, by placing its dewars in underground silos, CryoSpan has made cryonics safer--hence more plausible--yet harder to promote. Thus CryoCare has a double disadvantage in PR terms: its organizational structure is harder to understand, and the storage provider chosen by most of our members can show only a couple of circular steel manhole covers in a concrete floor.

One of the visitors on the Alcor tour expressed concern that Alcor's dewars would be vulnerable if an airplane happened to hit the building, which is located one block away from a commercial airport where four crashes have occurred in the last two years. Steve replied that Alcor's facility is not on the flight path, and thus a plane crash is extremely unlikely. His manner was calmly reassuring, and indeed this was the primary characteristic of the whole tour. Using a nontechnical vocabulary and a friendly, relaxed style he made cryonics seem as routine as dentistry--and much less frightening. This of course is the exact opposite of the tough, confrontational approach used by Curtis Henderson and Mike Darwin through to the end of the 1980s.

[Aido&Mike.jpg] [Photo Caption]
Mike Perry, caretaker of the Alcor facility, and Aido, the Alcor cat.

After the tour we drove to a nearby hotel where the conference took place. Linda Chamberlain welcomed an audience of about 40 attendees and gave a brief preliminary orientation describing the basics of cryonics. She focused in particular on stabilization, showing a picture of Alcor's latest remote standby kit that breaks down into four boxes.

Linda, like Steve, was extremely positive in her presentation. "It used to be that hospital acceptance of our procedures was an exception rather than the rule," she said. "Today it is the rule rather than the exception. They love working with us. They feel that this is exciting, this is important!"

After Linda Chamberlain, Olga Visser made a brief appearance and answered questions from the audience. (For a full chronology of the Visser story, see "Hearts, Brains, and Minds" on page 4.) She was asked if her research on rat hearts has been repeated anywhere. "Yes, by me!" she said. "Also in Australia we have a group working on livers, they brought a liver back that was stored for three days. And we have people working in London as well." She did not name the researchers or their affiliations, and when someone asked what she meant by "bringing a liver back," she admitted that it had not been reimplanted but had merely been examined using light microscopy.

She stated that even her successfully resuscitated rat hearts still suffer from edema, for reasons that are unclear to her. "But in electron microscopy we see no difference between the cells that were frozen and not frozen."

Ms. Visser mentioned her difficulties obtaining funds for her research in South Africa. "In America," she said, "transplants are acceptable and there is money for research. And I find the people here are hard workers, which I don't find back in South Africa. I hope to move to the United States."

In accordance with instructions from her attorney, she said nothing about her recent AIDS research.

I was not able to attend short presentations by Fred Chamberlain, Robert Ettinger, Thomas Donaldson, and Paul Segall. In the afternoon, however, I attended talks on nanotechnology, tissue engineering, the Prometheus Project, and new methods of fund raising.

Ralph Merkle gave an entertaining, succinct update on nanotech research. Progress has been disappointing, but he offered a few examples of new work (for more details, see

The famous experiment in which scientists spelled out "IBM" using atoms was performed at a very low temperature (4 degrees Kelvin) in order to minimize thermal noise. At IBM Zurich, another group has now been able to push around molecules (not atoms) at room temperature. Their work still requires an ultrahigh vacuum, plus "a lot of patience and good technique."

A molecular abacus has been demonstrated, using Bucky balls (spherical arrays of 60 carbon atoms each) on a ridged surface.

Bucky tubes (tubular carbon lattices) offer a different kind of promise, to serve as the tip for the probe on a scanning-tunneling microscope. According to Merkle, a molecular tube of this type "can image rough terrain without crushing it, is flexible, and does not break."

At New York University, veteran nanotech researcher Ned Seeman is still synthesizing new configurations of DNA. He has now persuaded the molecule to form truncated octahedrons.

A molecular computational nanotechnology study group at NASA Ames has been modeling Bucky tubes with modifications and has suggested wrapping benzene rings around the tubes to form nano-gears.

Merkle showed a computer graphic simulating a new configuration of a molecular planetary gear. "The previous version of our gear didn't work well at half a terahertz," he said. The new version has a helical core and is designed to pump neon. Naturally, there is no hope of constructing anything so complex for the foreseeable future.

I asked if there's any molecular nanotech with immediate practical applications. "No, I've just described the creme-de-la-creme of the experimental work," said Merkle, "and we'll have to wait for these developments to proceed forward. But a Bucky tube on an STM can do some useful assembly."

Next, Mark Muhlestein spoke about tissue engineering. Muhlestein is a software engineer, but he has a strong part-time interest in bioscience, and since no one else was able to give this talk, he volunteered. He defined tissue engineering as a product of medicine, molecular biology, genetics, materials science, computer science, chemistry, chemical engineering, and cell biology. Research generally aims to use cells and tissues to build basic human components such as bones, muscles, cartilage, or organ systems.

Heart valves have been grown. Artificially grown livers and kidneys are being tested. In the future, it may be possible to harness the capabilities of stem cells, which continually reproduce, never die, and have the capability to differentiate into any cell type.

Currently artificial skin has a shelf life of only three days, creating logistical problems that could be alleviated with reliable cryo-preservation. Muhlestein sees an obvious opportunity, here, to promote acceptance of cryonics. He also hopes that "growing" body parts will help to legitimize neuro-preservation.

Next Paul Wakfer gave a presentation on the Prometheus Project. He summarized its goals succinctly:

Wakfer said he hoped for true suspended animation within 20 years and pointed out that there would be a clear ethical imperative for doctors to use it, especially since it would not be afflicted with the "stigma" of extending maximum life span.

Wakfer also predicted that the Prometheus Project will make cryonics "more salable to the unimaginative," because proven reversible cryopreservation would be usable on people who are still alive, thus circumventing people's skepticism about "resurrecting the dead."

He announced that he had received pledges from 64 people, and he obtained a couple of new pledges at the conference. (For an up-to-date report on Prometheus Project finances, see page 22.) He was unable to rouse any interest at the A4M meeting last year, and finds it difficult to raise more money via the Net.

[Photo Caption]
Linda Chamberlain welcomes guests to the Alcor Cryonics Technology Conference.
[Photo Caption]
Paul Wakfer speaks about the Prometheus Project.
[Photo Caption]
Michael Cloud outlines his vision for doubling Alcor membership within a year.

This talk of money led naturally to the last speaker, Michael Cloud. The lectern was dragged aside to provide space for him to pace restlessly to and fro as he gave the kind of relentlessly dynamic presentation that's more normally seen in infomercials on late-night TV.

He began with a basic proposition: a cryonics organization runs a greater risk of failure if it remains small. He received a powerful round of applause when he proposed doubling the membership of Alcor within a year.

How can this be done? He began by summarizing "What doesn't work," and placed free information at the top of the list. "We waste our time courting reporters. They will present our story their way. Free media is really very expensive, because it takes a lot of your time and doesn't generate new members."

Next he suggested that presentations at science-fiction conventions also don't work. Science-fiction fans, he said, are "people with a rich fantasy lives, no jobs, and the intelligence level of people in Mensa."

So, what's the alternative? "I'm a genius at outreach," Cloud told his audience, and mentioned that his methods have helped to raise membership of the Libertarian Party from 9,000 to 23,000. "There are easy things we can do right now. I'm willing to bet we can reduce the cost of recruiting each new member to $14 or $15. First you get a partial mailing list from a special-interest magazine, and you test just 1,000 names. You ask if they want to live forever. If the list doesn't respond, doesn't send us checks, we try another list."

His strategy would be to lure members gradually, in small steps. "First we offer them an opportunity to subscribe to Alcor Phoenix and Cryonics magazine for $29. We call them a basic member, not a subscriber. That's the first rung on the ladder. The next rung is a $50 sustaining member, to give people an opportunity to get more involved. The top rung is getting them to pay for suspension--but there have to be more rungs in between."

In addition to mailing lists, he advocated direct-contact marketing. "Say you have 100 people you know, you want to sit down and discuss cryonics with them. A better way is to give them an audio tape so they can listen to it in their cars. The average drive time in America is 25 minutes, so the tape should be 22 minutes. Amway uses this method. Amway doesn't advertise, but it does $6.8 billion of business a year."

Lastly he advocated talk radio, where "90 percent of the audience are registered voters, and 65 percent are college educated. They're listening to talk radio because they don't think they get honest news from newspapers."

Cloud's ideas for promotion certainly made sense to me, but he lacks experience of the real problem, which is the demanding process of helping a prospective member to obtain funds and deal with cryonics documents. Almost always, people need explanations, reassurance, and encouragement before they are ready to reorient their lives around the concept of cryonics.

Maybe the sign-up process can be simplified--but this is a potentially dangerous line of thought. As soon as we focus on growth as the primary objective, there is an immediate incentive to skip over the "hard parts" of cryonics and sell a less difficult version. I am unwilling even to consider doing this, since all those grim warnings and caveats in cryonics documents are included for very important ethical reasons. Cryonics is still an experimental procedure that doesn't work properly. Anyone who isn't made fully aware of this and is simply asked "Do you want to live forever?" is being recruited under false pretenses.

Many attendees were surprised that Michael Cloud's presentation was on the agenda. After all, this was supposed to be a "technology festival." Personally, though, I'm glad that he was present, because his hard sell underlined the most important decision to be made in cryonics in the 1990s. Should we go all out for growth, hoping that growth will bring more money for research? Or should we devote all our efforts toward research, on the principle that better brain cryopreservation will catalyze membership growth far more effectively (and more ethically) than better marketing techniques?

For thirty years, cryonicists have given outreach a higher priority than research. Some growth has been achieved, but cryonics has never achieved the kind of acceptance that its advocates believe should be possible. To some extent, then, the growth-before-research option has discredited itself.

At one point Michael Cloud told his audience, "If you don't like the results of what you've been doing, it's time to do something different." I agree--although not in the sense that Mr. Cloud intended.

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