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Cryptographer swaps algorithms for the freezing crypt

Speaker's Corner Ralph Merkle

THE STRANGER a new idea is, Ralph Merkle says, the more people resist it – and the more he thinks it's worth researching. Merkle's first strange idea was for a mechanism by which strangers could agree on a cryptographic key to encrypt data in real time. His 1974 paper outlining this was rejected for five years.

"That told me it was not a well understood or accepted idea," he says. "His favourite: the publisher who said the paper didn't fit in with "mainstream thinking". Eventually, Merkle found Martin Hellman, with whom he shares patents and who, in 1979, published with Whitfield Diffie the paper that launched public key cryptography, now in everyday use.

That Merkle's first crazy idea is now mainstream makes it harder to dismiss his current crazy ideas.

After finishing his PhD at Stanford in 1979, Merkle went on to work in the San Francisco Bay Area: a Canadian telco, a startup, Xerox's famed PARC labs. He got married, and bought a house. "And I began to look ahead." Barring obstacles the decades ahead looked OK.

But extend far enough and, "People die. I decided this wasn't an optimal state of affairs, and given the astonishing advances of modern science and technology, is there some way of dealing with this problem?"

He began researching life extension: vitamins, exercise, early diagnosis. And then he came across cryonics. "I didn't think much of it at first, but when I began to analyse it I realised that indeed it should work."

Freezing in itself is not the problem: "At the temperature of liquid nitrogen you can preserve tissue for centuries, or even millennia." The problem – and the locus of controversy – is advancing medical technology sufficiently to revive people and cure them of whatever killed them. It's that problem that led Merkle to nanotechnology and, more precisely, molecular manufacturing. The idea of being able to build tiny robots at the molecular level goes back to a 1959 lecture by the the ultra-respectable Richard P. Feynmann, but it's been controversial ever since Eric Drexler published his 1986 book Engines of Creation.

"I read it shortly after it came out," says Merkle, "and I concluded that it was obviously true. If you read Feynmann's talk, it's clear that the intuition of a physicist with an excellent reputation for good intuition was that molecular manufacturing was feasible and would develop. There have been no real arguments against it – although at the same time one sees a number of people rather incoherently resisting it."

Merkle's efforts are concentrated on describing the tools that will be needed at the molecular level; a recent paper he wrote with Rob Freitas considers diamond mechanosynthesis. "We should be able to bring to the molecular level the same kinds of techniques used at the scale of us: hands pick up and assemble parts." The paper therefore describes a set of nine molecular tools and basic structures and how they might be built out of diamond, fullerenes, graphite, and germanium (needed to help chemical reactions). "It's laying out the road map. Describing what we're going to build, the steps of how to get there, how the tools react with the surface, how you build structures. As we make it clearer we will have a widening community of people who say they get it."

The technical problems aren't the key point. "The key issues deal with humans and human understanding of what is going on."

Which comes back to the question of getting people to think seriously about new ideas. Public key cryptography was easier: there was just a single barrier idea (that keys have to be secret) to get past. With nanotechnology, there are many many small barriers that add up to a very large one. The more complicated the idea the more emotions kick in.

The problem extends to scientific publishing and funding, which are done by committee. "Committees are very good when dealing with an accepted body of ideas and they're looking at incremental research." µ


Same as SSP

Cryosis, public key encryption, nanotechnology...
Here's another idea that has met with resistance yet is clearly the way of the future: SSP.
(It stands for Space Solar Power, check the wackjobs:
Realistically, the only barrier (besides technology) is that crucial initial investment. Sigh!
posted by : Grunchy, 11 October 2007

See Also...

The full text of Eric Drexler's Engines of Creation is available for free on his website:

There's an updated version "Engines of Creation 2.0" available as a free ebook if you look around.

Ralph Merkle's page on nanotechnology is at:

And I rarely discuss nanotech without mentioning the Foresight Institute:

posted by : Craig Green, 11 October 2007

Freezing Crypts

But wouldn't the logical extension of developing nanomachines to repair cellular damage from thawing be to have the nanomachines construct a container ("body") right from raw materials? You wouldn't necessarily have to use the same biological processes, but could design and build a more efficient non-organic body and brain, then you would avoid entirely the problems with thawing and just transfer your "consciousness" into a non-organic, but self-repairing body. But then who would want to live forever when the people you can't stand now would have the same option?
posted by : Rich Wargo, 11 October 2007

The fatal flaw in the plan

The literally fatal flaw in long term cryogenic storage of bodies is accumulated radiation poisoning.

Normally we are continuously exposed to low level radiation causing small amounts of cellular damage. Our bodies have mechanisms to repair or destroy cells that are damaged in this way so we don't have any real problem.

When you freeze a corpse the damage continues at the same rate but the repair and elimination mechanisms aren't operating. When you finally do get revived all your dead and damaged cells are in the same state as if you had received a massive blast of radiation - e.g. from a nearby nuclear explosion.

For short periods cryogenic storage is 'survivable' for longer periods you'll be about as healthy as deep fried chicken.
posted by : Jeremy, 12 October 2007


Welp...cryogenics are a really nice idea...I am not a scientist or an expert...but when I was in 2nd grade I learnt about the wonderful properties of water. Water apparently expands in heat (like other liquids) but also in cold. Which as far as I know is a feature unique only to water.

Now the human body contains some degree of water. When that water freezes it expands.
I'll give you a home lab exercise, freeze some vegetable & defrost a day later.
Is it still fresh? it basically turns mushy...

Thats because all the water expands and destroys the cell structure. The damage is irrecoverable.

There are perhaps better ways to preserve the human body, but so far rapid cooling seems to have serious flaws. Flaws that might be impossible to address in our lifetime. Or perhaps even in several life times.

Before we see people jumping at the idea of throwing themselves in giant freezers (whith a cheaper option of freezing only their heads!!) wouldn't it be nice to see creatures closer to humans being safely defrosted back to life?
After all, humans are not roaches. Insects may provide proof of concept, but not proof of process.
I know there have been some interesting developments in keeping animals in suspended animation of sorts using intravenous fluids. But that is not the same freezing process that is referred to here.

So lets first see cryogenics performed on a mouse. Ifthey can bring back a mouse, its definitely possible they can do it with a person at some point. (well almost definitely. We are not mice either.)

Currently I see more chances to transfer our mental contents (AKA consciousness) into computers. We could potentially (and are very close to achieving) build an interface that acts as an adapter between the human brain and a microchip. (this is already happening in different areas, but not as a unified interface)

Wanna dowloand your homework? would be easier to remember... ;-)


Nanomachines are definitely the way forward. But they were not the catalyst in mind when all those famous people decided to freeze themselves.
posted by : Someone Special, 12 October 2007

What about resurrection?

Well, to heal of damages caused by freezing, and the above mentioned radiation, using some nanotech, is one thing. But there is a bigger problem here: those frozen are died already. So we need to invent resurrection, as well, first. If it's possible. So the whole idea is extreme materialistic.
posted by : bird, 15 October 2007
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