X-Message-Number: 0025.3
Subject: Nanotechnology and Cryonics

Nanotechnology and Cryonics
by Charles Platt

  (The following text is from a book about cryonics that is
   still in preparation. Copyright 1993 by Charles Platt.)

     In December, 1959, a celebrated physicist named Richard
P. Feynman gave a talk at the California Institute of
Technology titled "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom."
Feynman was a playful fellow who loved to challenge other
scientists. This time around, he challenged their
     He asked them to imagine miniaturization far beyond
anything that had been thought of before. Theoretically, he
said, there was nothing to stop anyone from rearranging
individual atoms, if there was only a way to control them
precisely enough. One day, according to Dr. Feynman, you
could build complicated devices that were so tiny, a million
of them would be no bigger than a speck of dust.
     Why would anyone want to do this? Because the benefits
would be fantastic. Scientists would be able to custom-design
almost any chemical they wanted, by telling the micro-
manipulator gadgets to move individual atoms around.
Industrial processes would be carried out by molecular
robots, like bacteria. And biologists would be able to
manipulate cells directly instead of working on them remotely
via drugs and therapies.
     Feynman's vision sparked some interest, but no one took
it much further until twenty-five years later. Eric Drexler,
a research affiliate at the MIT Artificial Intelligence
Laboratory, saw the real possibilities. He coined the term
"nanotechnology," which he publicized in his crucial book,
Engines of Creation.
     This was theory, not practice. No one, yet, could build
a molecular machine. But using proven facts in chemistry and
biology, it was possible to look ahead and see what was
feasible. Thus, the book was like a blueprint, a set of
designs for machines that might not be built until decades
     Among other things, Eric showed that a molecular
computer could be small enough to be injected into the human
blood stream. Amazingly, he offered proof that it could be as
powerful as a typical modern microcomputer, and it could
manipulate its environment via thread-like appendages. It
could be sent to clean clogged arteries, or to eradicate
viruses and bacteria. It could literally repair cells one by
     Here, then, was a means for doing the kind of cell
repair that cryonicists had dreamed of. In fact, Eric himself
even mentioned cryonics in his book, and sent a copy of the
manuscript to the Alcor foundation.
     The prospect of nanotechnology suddenly made cryonics
seem a lot more sensible. Until this point, cryonicists had
asked people simply to believe that something, somehow,
sometime might be able to repair ice damage and other
problems caused by the freezing process. No one had been able
to say how such a miracle could actually be accomplished.
     But now there was a book by a reputable scientist,
actually mapping it out. This was a great breakthrough. Of
course, biologists and cryobiologists were still skeptical,
because nanotechnology didn't actually exist, yet, and it
relied on facts of chemistry and computer science which
experts in biology were in no position to evaluate. From
their perspective, it all sounded speculative and
     But Eric was deadly serious about the field he had
created, and gradually, research started gaining momentum. An
important step was taken in 1990, when scientists at IBM
moved individual xenon atoms to spell out the letters I, B,
and M using a scanning-tunneling electron microscope. This
was impressive. It was more than some people had believed
possible. It was still a long, long way from building
functioning nano-machines, but a spokesman from IBM
confidently predicted that nanotechnology would be even more
important in the next century than microchips were in this
     Today, some people in Silicon Valley are even more
optimistic. They prophesy a snowball effect, so that
"molecular nanotech" will be up and running within twenty-
five years.
     Cryonicists feel that it doesn't really matter whether
it's twenty-five years, fifty years, or a century. Their
patients in cryonic suspension aren't in any hurry; they can
wait almost indefinitely. The important thing is that a
theoretical model now exists, showing how damage can be
     But won't it be expensive?
     Yes, hideously expensive--at first. To develop tiny
"assemblers" on a molecular scale will require a huge
investment in research and development.
     But once the assemblers have been built, everything
should be easy. The assemblers will make copies of
themselves, and the copies will make more copies. After that,
when you have enough assemblers, all you need to do is change
their programming so they will build (or fix) something else
     If this is doable (and it sounds as if it should be), we
will quickly have huge economies of scale. It should be a
story similar to that of the microchip. The Motorola 6502
chip, for instance, cost about $500 when it was first
introduced. But within ten years, after the R&D costs had
been paid off, the chip was being sold for around a dollar.
     Eric Drexler has prophesied that the cost curve will
drop even more steeply for nanotechnology, once it is
actually developed. After all, the cost of materials in a
microscopic machine is virtually zero. Once you can train the
thing to build copies of itself, the big problem will be to
stop it from getting out of hand.
     If Eric Drexler is right, one day, literally millions of
micro-maintenance robots will go tunneling through the frozen
veins of cryonics patients, examining and renovating every
cell. The robots will painstakingly create the exact chemical
balance that will enable each person's symphony of life to
play again, and once that has been accomplished, the
intervening years will mean nothing at all.

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