Conference Review

Report on the 6th Alcor Conference
October, 2006
Stephen Bridge
On October 6-8, 2006, around 200 people attended Alcor’s first cryonics conference in four years. In many ways it was the best cryonics conference I have ever attended (out of maybe 9 or 10 conferences); but not primarily because of the speakers. This is not to say that the speakers were poor; in fact, the average quality of talk was very high. But too many of the talks were on subjects I had heard before, often several times. I’ll get to my suggestions later on.

The real quality was in the combination of intelligent, interesting people who were there, from speakers to long-time cryonicists to people meeting cryonicists for the first time. Over the three days, I had some of the best conversations I have ever had at a conference. I think I met several future cryonics organization leaders that weekend.

The other high point of my visit was seeing the progress that Alcor had made in many areas over the past year. I arrived on Wednesday and was able to spend two days talking with Alcor staff and witnessing the current spirit of excitement. To me, Alcor’s staff seems like it is the strongest overall it has been for years. The staff is competent, polite, and energetic; plus the new people involved in technology, cryotransport, and research seemed poised to elevate Alcor’s technical capability.

The Scottsdale Marriott was a good hotel for this size of conference, with only one main programming track. The main meeting room was well set up, with some useful side rooms for smaller meetings between sessions. Breakfast and lunch and the Friday night mixer were outside on a veranda next to the swimming pool. The temperatures stayed pleasant so it wasn’t too much of a hardship to be out in the Arizona sun. The programming schedule was planned well, with plenty of time for meeting people, making connections, long evening conversations.

The advertised speaker for Friday night was the Arizona Secretary of State; but she cancelled with only a few days’ notice in order to attend some higher-profile campaign appearance. However, I was delighted to discover that Alcor political consultant Barry Aarons had invited Maricopa County Treasurer David Schweikert to attend instead. At the time Alcor moved to Arizona 1994, Schweikert was a State Representative for the Scottsdale area, and he was one of the first local politicians to visit Alcor. He remembered his visit and was still excited by the high tech possibilities of future-looking companies like Alcor. So he was able to welcome the conference attendees to Arizona with what appeared to be sincere enthusiasm. This is a welcome change from years ago. Always be nice to your local officials. You cannot have too many friends.

Saturday morning’s presentations began with Ted Kraver’s cheerful and surprising look at the beginnings of cryonics. Kraver designed and built the first cryonics capsules in 1968, including two that housed James Bedford (the first person frozen under any kind of controlled conditions, and still cryopreserved at Alcor). Kraver and his business partners later started the first United States cryobank for preserved skin to treat burn victims.

The next talk was one of the highlights of the weekend for me. Arizona State Representatives Michelle Reagan and Linda Lopez appeared with Barry Aarons to discuss the political situation in Arizona, relative to cryonics. Reagan, a Republican, and Lopez, a Democrat, were the two of the main supporters of Alcor’s position during the crisis two years ago where some members of the State Legislature wanted to regulate Alcor so inappropriately that Alcor might have been forced to leave the state. Both took time out from their own re-election campaigns to give a very interesting hour of discussion, with several questions from the audience. I hope that a transcript of this discussion might be available sometime. We can all learn a lot from it. For one thing, no matter what your politics, you cannot assume that members of one party will inevitably be your friends while members of another party will be your enemies. Representatives from both major parties were on both sides during the debate on the future of cryonics in Arizona. By the way, both Reagan and Lopez were re-elected this month.

The three nanotechnology-oriented talks by Robert Freitas, Ralph Merkle, and J. Storrs Hall were disappointing. While there were a lot of flashy ideas mentioned, these talks seemed a bit out of place. Ralph Merkle was charming as usual, but had nothing new to say for many of us. Robert Freitas had a very dense talk on medical nanotechnology prepared, with lots of pretty pictures. But he strictly read from his prepared talk, did not look at his audience, and barely left time for himself or his audience to take a breath and absorb what he was saying. J. Storrs Hall worked with the audience more but was obviously nervous and it was difficult to connect his talk to purpose of the conference. What were missing in all three talks were practicality and the applicability to cryonics today. I doubt that the newer members of the audience understood why there were three people talking about this future technology at a cryonics conference. It was even difficult to me to sort out which projected developments were likely to happen soon, which were a century in the future, and which were too theoretical to even hazard as guess as to whether they would ever become real.

My suggestion for subsequent conferences is that presentations on future technology be focused on 1) what kinds of technologies (with nanotechnology being only one of them) are required and plausible for future cryonics patient repair and resuscitation, and 2) what practical developments are taking place in these fields today. Many of us see the updates in nanotechnology, protein synthesis, drug delivery systems, and genetic research every week in the science magazines and even the daily newspapers. There are amazing things happening right now, and a lot could be said about that progress and how it connects with the needs of cryonics.

One attempt that was made to be practical on Saturday was a “panel” of Tanya Jones of Alcor, Ben Best of Cryonics Institute, and Melody Maxim of Suspended Animation, Inc. talking about their organizations. This was stiffly done, with no real interaction and with some obvious tension as the three individuals tried to give their points of view without offending the other leaders. Melody Maxim is new at cryonics and at Suspended Animation, and I’m sure she didn’t quite know how to handle the tension. There must be a better way to handle this, to allow the leaders to be more open while remaining civil. By the way, I really admire Ben Best for the amount of work he is putting into improving and organizing CI in ways which make its long term survival seem much more likely, even after the retirement of founder Robert Ettinger two years ago.

Professor David Friedman talked about the economics of the future. Professor Friedman was very entertaining, but it was hard for me to see much practical value in his presentation.

The Aging Prevention talk by Aubrey de Grey was better than I had expected. I have heard a lot of anti-aging talks before; but de Grey had some unique viewpoints on what kinds of experiments might be tried to delay or prevent aging. He has recently been promoting a scientific competition called the Methuselah Mouse Prize to increase the attention given to scientific research in life extension. I had not met de Grey before, and in a conversation with him Saturday evening I found him to be bright and enthusiastic. He also made a real effort to present his talk in practical terms and to connect life extension with cryonics. One charming bit was his presentation of an award to 10-year-old Avianna Vyff, daughter of author Shannon Vyff. When she was eight years old, Avianna raised over $3,000 for aging research and donated it to the Methuselah Foundation, which sponsors de Grey’s research project. I foresee a bright and extended future for this young lady. (You can read more about her at Mprize/Vyff)

The presentations Sunday morning were more concerned with practical research considerations for cryonicists. Brian Wowk and Gregory Fahy presented a lot of technical explanation on what causes freezing damage, how vitrification techniques manage to avoid most of it, and what progress their laboratory is making on preventing freezing damage in rabbit kidneys (steady progress every year; but with many technical details still to be worked out). Brian Wowk noted that recent micrographs of tissue suggest it is possible that more brain structure is preserved by straight freezing than originally thought, although whether the preservation is at a level that could result in resuscitation is completely unknown.

One of the high points (for me) of Greg Fahy’s talk was his detailed summary of the original research on freezing damage and preservation done by Audrey Smith decades ago and the incredible persistence it took for her to achieve results. I now have a much deeper appreciation for the accomplishments of Smith — and of Fahy himself, who has shown similar persistence in his 20 years or more of research in this field. Wowk and Fahy both do very well at presenting their points in an understandable manner, with humor and with an audience connection.

Alcor Executive Director Steve Van Sickle followed with an explanation of some of the progress Alcor has made in the past year in developing more manageable transport team equipment, improvements in rapid cool-down procedures, construction of a new operating room, and the beginnings of new research initiatives to determine how brain damage might be different under different conditions of ischemia, and how we will need to vary the cryopreservation protocol for each situation that might arise. I won’t go into detail on any of these projects, because better explanations than I could write have already been released on the Alcor News blog here.

Tanya Jones ended up the Sunday discussions with a talk about a new attempt to develop an Alcor “Wealth Preservation Trust.” Unfortunately, Jones was giving the talk because the original presenter, Michael Riskin, was under the weather and unable to attend the Conference. Jones spoke very well on short notice; but Riskin would have been more familiar with the details of the proposal, especially on answering audience questions. Alcor is still some way from a completed document, but the essentials are that Alcor is trying to develop standardized language for a Trust that would allow a person to be placed into a state of cryopreservation, eventually be revived, and then recover ownership of the investments the person had placed into the Trust. The plan is to create a Master Trust, with the possibility of an unlimited number of subtrusts that people could create under its administration. There would be standard language provided, and individuals could fill in the details. It would be comparatively simple to execute since the basic legal work was already done and fairly efficient, since the Trustees for the Master Trust would be able to administer all of the Trusts.
This form of Master Trust and subtrusts is used in many public benefit trusts, such as one here in Indianapolis, which provides extra funding for libraries, schools, and other community-oriented activities. A large Trust company would be the Trustee, with a committee of Alcor members to be a watchdog group.

The final text is farther away than hinted at in advance by Alcor; but I know the people working on this are very motivated to get it done. One big advantage for many of us is that there would be no minimum required to create the trust (well, maybe $100 or something very small). And you could even fund it through monthly contributions, since this is NOT intended to be the suspension funding. I look forward to finding out more.

At several points on Saturday and Sunday, individual attendees held small group presentations in side rooms. After The Trust discussion, one room was used to show a fascinating television documentary, “See You in the Future” by Camilla Roos. This film featured conversations with three Alcor members dealing with very personal issues in their lives (one man who is paralyzed, one woman whose husband is a cryopreserved patient at Alcor, and another woman signing up her grandson for Alcor membership), contrasted by interviews with a man with terminal cancer. The man is deciding whether or not to sign up for cryonic preservation. As far as we can tell, this is the first time this film was openly shown in the United States, although it has been shown in Europe and England several times.

Sunday afternoon was devoted to tours of Alcor and for a barbeque lunch in Alcor’s front parking lot. Again, this gave plenty of opportunity to connect with the attendees. Alcor’s new Patient Care Area received a lot of attention. Alcor has given this room a large viewing window so visitors no longer need to go into the patient area to get that experience. Alcor’s staff remained helpful and cordial through it all.

Further suggestions for next year:
1. I think we need pull back from so many talks on the future and instead focus on what Alcor and other organizations are doing today. If a cryonics organization is hosting a conference, my personal view is that we are best served by focusing it on cryonics. At our own conference, cryonics should not be seen as one of several “cool futurist subjects.” As you will see in the summary of the conference surveys in another article, many people want more of the futurist talks. But if I go to a nanotechnology or anti-aging or Transhumanist conference, I would not expect the subject of cryonics to have more than 1 or 2 places on the program. Yes, narrowing the focus to cryonics may limit our audience, but who else is going to provide this information?

We need more practical talks on what Alcor actually does on a transport and cool-down and why. How do we recruit new Transport Team members? What kind of training is being presented to them? How do we do the patient cool-down these days? At this conference, new people would not have heard much about the practical details at all; and old members would not have appreciated what is the same and what has changed from the way we were doing cryonics 20 years ago. With the emphasis on vitrification, a LOT has changed. We haven’t done a good job communicating that. And even more will change in the next year.

2. A talk on what cryonicists can do better in the future to interact with the “outside” world, from emergency and hospital personnel to government officials. How can we improve the legal security of cryonics patients and the public perception of cryonics?

3. More discussion on what kinds of technical improvements in cryonics are needed in the future. We need to let newer people understand how far we have come in some ways from the days in California, and we need to make it clear to our members and to prospective members that cryonics in general and Alcor in specific still have a LONG way to go before we claim success. We need them to understand that cryonics is still speculative, with a lot more questions than answers. We need to point potential researchers in the right direction, and we need to let the conference attendees know what they can do to help.

4. This might include talks on possible future financial improvements: how do we contain future costs so that cryonics remains affordable; how do we approach fund-raising for research; how is the Patient Care Trust managed to provide future funding for patient care, resuscitation research, and the resuscitation and rehabilitation of patients?

5. Larger conventions typically have more than one programming track, to fit different interests. Even for this conference, it might be wise for at least part of one day to offer one program track that is aimed at newer cryonicists. I don’t need to hear Ralph Merkle’s molecular nanotechnology talk again, and Merkle doesn’t need to hear a talk on most of the subjects I would talk about. But for probably a third of the audience at this conference, such talks are essential to their understanding of what this field is all about.

There was a great mix of people at this conference. If Alcor can get a similar group to assemble again, we cryonicists need to take better advantage of that and work harder to get them to understand what we face today. Speculating on the next century is meaningless if we don’t focus more on doing better in all areas today.