Interview with Cryonics Institute president Ben Best
This is the first in a series of interviews with individuals in the life extension and cryonics movement. We start off with an interview with Ben Best, president of the Cryonics Institute.
What is your philosophy toward life?
I think that “sense of life” or emotional involvement in life is the most crucial determinant of orientation toward life per se. I can rationalize and try to understand my sense of life — and probably exert influence — but to assert that I have “control” of it would be saying too much. Existentially, although I sometimes feel “thrown” helplessly into the world, for the most part I have a conviction that I must accept responsibility for my conditions and exert effort & intelligence to improve — and that effort & intelligence can produce results.
I have an immense appreciation of my life and experiences whether those experiences are positive or negative. I certainly don’t enjoy negative or painful experiences at the time I am experiencing them (and do not seek them out), but I am glad to have them in my history. My greatest regrets in life are not so much things that I have done or that have happened to me, but things that I have not done. The great evils of life are aging and death. If these two evils could be remedied there would be time enough to use all that has been learned from the negative experiences and to create positive experiences that fulfill the promises of life which I have experienced in tantalizing tastes. (This is not to say that I have not already experienced life in a wide variety of ways.)
But regrets aside, I love all that I have gotten from life, and I simply want more, more, more… And I am sad that there aren’t more people who feel the same way. I have written on these themes on my website:
Are you still a practitioner of caloric restriction?
I practice calorie restriction only to the extent of eating fewer calories than I would eat were I not so conscious of benefits of restricting calories. I was once far more aggressive in restricting my calories than I currently am. My CRAN (Caloric Restriction with Adequate Nutrition) practices have been described on my website:
Do you believe that taking supplements can extend life?
Yes, I think there is no question that supplements can “square the curve” and extend average lifespan. A major breakthrough occurred in the mid-1990s when the AMA published a study showing that selenium supplements caused a 50% reduction in cancer incidence [JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION; Clark,LC; 276(24):1957-1963 (1996)]. Formerly the medical establishment insisted that dietary supplements are of no benefit. My website contains considerable evidence of supplements reducing the incidence of various disease conditions:
More controversial is the claim that supplements can extend maximum lifespan. Unfortunately, too many people believe that lack of convincing evidence that supplements can extend maximum lifespan is equivalent to evidence that supplements do not extend lifespan in any way. “Squaring the curve” and preventing disease may be a means to live long enough (and healthy enough) to benefit from rejuvenation technologies — whether or not supplements can extend maximum lifespan.
How did you get involved in cryonics?
I was very interested in my health from an early age — and not because I had serious health problems (I haven’t). I also had an early aversion to death, and later, as a teenager, enjoyed science fiction stories that described immortality and endless youth. I found the PROSPECT OF IMMORTALITY in a health food store and I also read Alan Harrington’s THE IMMORTALIST. I argued in favor of the idea of cryonics years before I became seriously involved. After getting my computing science degree and beginning work as a programmer in Toronto in 1987 I seriously studied life extension and less seriously got involved in cryonics (became a Director of the Cryonics Society of Canada). My emphasis was more on life extension, because I did not give cryonics a very good chance of working. Since that time I have become much more optimistic about the chances of cryonics working. And hopefully I am improving the chances of cryonics working.
Do you think humans can achieve immortality?
Sadly, no. Forever is forever, and something will eventually kill every human. I have written about this subject in detail on my website:
What do you consider the most important reasons why not many people sign up for cryonics?
They don’t enjoy life enough or they discount the reality/proximity of death or they believe that cryonics is in opposition to religion. The third reason is probably the most important for the most people, but I believe that it is important to mention the first two reasons as an explanation for the attitudes of people who do not use religion as an argument against cryonics.
Do you agree that cryonics should be presented as a form of long term critical care medicine?
This is a far more reasonable approach than opposing cryonics to religion, especially because cryonics can only hope to extend life, not guarantee immortality. I more often describe cryonics as “experimental medicine” to emphasize that it is unproven and not guaranteed to work.
Have you talked to children about cryonics?
Not much. I did have a recent experience in which I spoke to about a hundred middle school students about cryonics in five classes (groups of 20) for about an hour per class. The students were mostly silent, asking very few relevant questions, so I can’t say much about what it is like to discuss cryonics with children. I was later told that the next day the children came to class with many relevant questions.
What are your other interests besides cryonics and life extension?
My website shows a range of my interests:
which include travel, history, philosophy, economics, computing, business, and science in general. I have interests, like massage and humanistic psychology, which I have not discussed on my website. I have some good friendships, and I am interested in my friends. I am actually interested in almost everything to some extent and my love of learning, thinking and understanding has much to do with my love of life.
I have made a hobby of learning about every element in the periodic table. I have cards with information about each element, and I study these cards while I work-out on my stairmaster, which is my main form of exercise. (I have tried running, but injured myself too often. Stairmaster allows study while getting low-impact aerobic exercise.) A large portion of my Wikipedia edits (aside from cryonics and life extension) are clarifications of information about elements and compounds — questions that occurred to me while studying on my stairmaster.
I have also recently become more interested in planetary science and space travel. Formerly, a desire to see the world of the future did not play much of a role in my craving for extended youth, but increasingly I add a disappointment for not being able to see and participate in all of the exciting things that will happen.
The only sport that interests me very much is women’s tennis. Some of my best friends are women. I am fascinated by women and hope that I will someday have a lasting and fulfilling relationship with one. However, I am too much of a workaholic devoted to cryonics and life extension to spend much effort on that project.
What kind of jobs did you work before being elected President of CI?
I had many odd jobs before working as a taxi-driver and teamster (including semi-trailer driver). I also worked as a computer operator, tutor/teaching assistant and as a pharmacist. Then I became a computer programmer for a bank and taught computer programming languages (APL and Java) at night school in Toronto.
What made you decide to run for president of CI?
I decided that the time had come for me to devote my life to cryonics. I felt that I could make a unique and profound contribution to the workability of cryonics. Although work as a computer programmer paid well, the product of my labor was not personally meaningful to me (which is not the same as satisfaction with doing a good job). It is extremely satisfying to me to be able to do the work I do as CI President. I cannot think of any other work I would rather be doing. And I have no desire to not be working as long as I can do this work.
How did you meet Saul Kent, and to what extent does Mr. Kent currently influence your actions and behaviors?
I met Saul Kent at the October 1989 Cryonics Conference held near Detroit Michigan:
Although Saul has been very influential in other cryonics organizations, this was not the case with the Cryonics Institute. I am not often in communication with Saul, but I respect what he has done for cryonics and on a few occasions I have deferred to his wishes on matters that were not of great significance. I am not conscious that he influences my actions and behaviors aside from my appreciation of his financing of cryonics-related research. Saul is certainly influential in terms of his authority at Suspended Animation, Inc., with whom many CI Members (including me) have contracts for standby/stabilization. But for the most part I have not dealt with him directly.
What do you consider your biggest failures and achievements at CI?
I failed to get the IRS to grant 501(c)13 status to the Cryonics Institute. I failed to get a patent for CI-VM-1. I failed to change CI policy to allow acceptance of neuro patients. I have failed to restore the ability of CI to perfuse in the CI facility.
I succeeded in going through all of the CI Member files and creating a computer database that provides a means of quantifying and quickly accessing Member information (and in the process eliminating bad records of lost and deceased members). I have greatly improved the content (not the appearance) of the Cryonics Institute website. I have made significant revisions to the paperwork and I created contracts for Standby/Transport services for CI Members with Suspended Animation. I have created computer control for patient cooling. I have placed all of the financial bookkeeping on CI’s computer, relieving the CI Treasurer of most of the chores of gathering data for financial statements and payment of taxes. I have written case reports for all new CI patients. I have caused prepayments to be treated as liabilities rather than income. I have changed the fiscal year to be the calendar year. I continue to make improvements in CI perfusion equipment and procedures. Among other things…
CI encourages member involvement through elections and mailing-lists. Do you think CI benefits from this?
I co-created the CI Members’ forum with John de Rivaz and I am pleased with the channel of communication that it has promoted. The forum has put CI Members in touch with CI Members, Directors, Officers and Staff. I am usually a very active participant in the CI Members’ forum.
I have actively encouraged CI Members to be candidates in the Board of Director elections. I think that voting and running for office increases Member participation in the Cryonics Institute — which I believe is a good thing.
What kind of improvements would you like to implement at CI in the coming years?
I want to improve the efficiency of patient cooling and add the capability to cool two patients simultaneously. I want to be able to create financial statements more quickly and easily. I want to improve perfusion methods and equipment, with a particular eye toward reducing edema. I want to improve the safety associated with operations in the patient care area. I want to restore the ability of CI to perfuse at the CI facility. I want better documentation for what is done at CI. I need to address the challenges of growth, including adding physical capacity and additional staff. For CI (and in the cryonics community in general), I would like to see more fruitful attention and effort devoted to wireless vital signs alarm systems. Too many cryonicists living alone have suffered massive ischemia, autolysis and decomposition due to the absence of such systems. Cryonicists who have a cardiac arrest while sleeping next to a spouse would also benefit.
What is a typical day like at CI?
Most days involve a reasonable amount of answering the phone and e-mail. Readings are taken of liquid nitrogen levels in the cryostats daily, which I only do when Andy is away. Filling of some cryostats is done twice weekly by Andy — only once weekly are all of the cryostats re-filled. Andy does the member paperwork and building maintenance. I do the bookkeeping/tax payments and website updates. A large part of the time I am researching and writing. When we get a patient, the patient becomes the center of attention.
You have investigated the issue of molecular mobility at low temperatures. Has this made you more or less skeptical about intermediate temperature storage for cryonics patients?
I am more skeptical about the value of intermediate temperature storage, but I am skeptical of my skepticism because my results are so inconclusive.
At the recent CI training, Alcor’s Readiness Coordinator Regina Pancake attended and led a successful case simulation. Do you think it would be a positive development if there was more mutual assistance and cross-training between staff and members of cryonics organizations?
The co-operation between CI and Alcor in the last few years has been reasonably good. A CryoSummit was held between Alcor, ACS and Alcor in August 2002. After some wrangling I was permitted to attend an Alcor training in October 2003. In the summer of 2007 Tanya and I co-led a training in Alberta. Dr. Pichugin gave some training to your wife Chana when she was an Alcor employee in December 2007. In May 2008 Alcor sent Regina to attend the CI Cryonics Rescue Training. I would like to witness/participate in an Alcor case, but the opportunities for doing this seem limited.
The thorniest issue related to co-operation between CI and Alcor has to do with local response in areas where there is a mix of Alcor and CI Members, such as in Toronto and the UK. The UK has set a good example (with Alcor approval) of allowing both CI Members and Alcor Members to participate in the trainings. But where proprietary information is involved such as the Critical Care Research meds, even signing a non-disclosure agreement would not be an option for CI Members insofar as they are the people the non-disclosure agreements are designed to “protect” against. Worse, if a CI Member becomes terminal and the local group decides to do volunteer standby and stabilization, how much Alcor equipment can be used? Alcor invests a great deal of money in that equipment, and proprietary sentiments are completely appropriate. In practice, this has not been a problem thus far, but if both cryonics organizations continue to grow, situations of this nature are bound to arise and I hope that reasonable solutions can be found.
How do you feel about competition in cryonics?
I believe that arrogance and complacency are poison for cryonics organizations, and competition is of value in shaking complacency (sometimes). I definitely think that it would be a bad idea for cryonics to have all the eggs in one organizational basket. I opposed the idea of a merger between Alcor and CI when the issue was raised at the CryoSummit in 2002. There is already too much vulnerability to lawsuits and legal/political threats. More organizations in more locations (including more countries) would reduce this vulnerability.
Some people say that CI should offer its own standby and stabilization services. Do you agree with this?
CI does not have the resources to provide standby and stabilization in the Detroit area, much less anywhere else. There is very little demand for these services by CI Members — and very little willingness to pay more than the minimum. CI Members interested in contracting for standby and stabilization do so with Suspended Animation.
I have attempted to provide both local and remote CI Members with support in volunteer standby and stabilization. The May 2008 training was given as part of this support, although only six CI Members attended. I have obtained and discussed equipment that local groups could use, but very few CI Members showed any interest. I will continue to support volunteer effort by CI Members, but my expectations are not high.
What are the prospects of CI Members coming to the CI area to retire, create mutual support communities and start cryonics hospices?
A few CI Members have shown an interest in creating a mutual support community near CI, but for the most part CI Members would rather remain near home and family when they become terminal. In a couple of cases, CI Members with serious health problems have recently moved to be near CI. This creates the potential for faster response, but in both cases the Members are living alone and may not benefit without alarm systems.
Dr. Yuri Pichugin resigned his post at CI several months ago. Are there any plans to hire a new researcher or to continue research at CI in some way?
There are no plans for a new researcher. Concerning R & D, I think the most immediate need is for greater Development, rather than Research — except to the extent that my own studying & experimentation with equipment & procedures is considered research.
In the recent past you have stated that there should be the equivalent of a “Manhattan Project” for cryoprotectant toxicity. Can you elaborate on this? How do you think cryonics can realize this goal?
I have elaborated on this in the March/April 2008 issue of LONG LIFE magazine. Eliminating or greatly reducing cryoprotectant toxicity would be the greatest possible step toward suspended animation through cryopreservation with vitrification. If suspended animation through cryopreservation became a reality there would be immediate acceptance and adoption by conventional medicine. Patient stabilization would be perfected by researchers all over the world and adopted in hospitals and other medical facilities.
I think that too much research effort in cryonics is devoted to whole body vitrification, which is a side issue. Cryoprotectant toxicity needs to be the focus of attention, and studied with experiments directed toward understanding the molecular mechanisms on a theoretical level — not simply trial and error. Whole body vitrification could very well be achieved more quickly if cryoprotectant toxicity was the focus of study.
CI is regulated as a cemetery, you are not allowed to cryoprotect patients in your own facility, and neuropreservation seems to be controversial in Michigan. Is it not time to relocate CI to another state?
It would be far too costly and risky to attempt to move to another state.