Cryonics and transhumanism
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.