Remember Ted’s Frozen Head?

Remember Ted’s Frozen Head?

by Guest Blogger,
Tyler Kokjohn

Could people in the next century see a Tweet and news story like this?

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Re-animated 20th century baseball legend Ted Williams discovered destitute and wandering Boston as his batteries run down JayVayCentury22. #NowhereToGo

JayVay Century 22                                                                                                 July 4, 2116
The Official Online Repository of All Things Jeremy Vaeni

Ted W CardThe legendary Ted Williams has experienced a series of mishaps and legal difficulties after his cryopreserved (frozen) head was revivified and fused with a battery-powered robotic device.  Unable to make a living after the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that autographs produced by the mechanical contrivance now performing his bodily functions were counterfeit, a second ruling that all persons officially declared dead remain ineligible to receive social security pensions in perpetuity has left him financially destitute.  The Major League Baseball Players Association has deferred reinstatement of his pension until attorneys determine whether the secret process used to reactivate Mr. Williams violates an organizational ban on the use of performance-enhancing substances. 

An anonymous group of investors alleged to include transhumanist promoter-entrepreneurs conceived and funded the effort to reanimate Ted Williams’s cryopreserved head to exhibit the latest advancements in organo-robotic amalgamation technology. The newly resurrected Mr. Williams was informed he would headline a nationwide tour of major league ballparks providing clinics on the art of hitting.  Unfortunately, it soon became obvious that the currently operational Mr. Williams could not hit baseballs like the natural-born original version.  Mr. Williams ultimately refused to make public appearances, objecting to being put on display as a freak.  Infuriated over mounting expenses involved in maintaining a total ingrate who would not perform as desired and unable to sue for breach of contract, one investor attempted to physically disconnect Ted’s main battery unit.  This confrontation revealed that although his home run days are over, the Marine could still swing a mean left.  Charges of attempted murder against the outraged attacker were later dropped due to the insurmountable legal complexities posed by Mr. Williams having been declared legally dead over a century earlier.

Ted’s fate is uncertain and if you would like to contribute…

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Ted FrozenIf scientists and technologists in the 22nd century still adhere to the norms and procedures guiding researchers today, the scenario above will probably never come to pass.  In the event the future custodians of the frozen remains of Mr. Williams did not reject a revivification scheme outright, they would (or should) seek formal approval to proceed from a committee of persons not involved in the project.  The committee provides an independent assessment of the merits and risks of the proposed work and most important, takes the authority to proceed out of the hands of those most likely to have a conflict of interest.

As amazing advances become routine, perhaps scientists of the future will be subject to fewer regulations.  In Regenesis (1), George Church and Ed Regis contend that objections to new technologies peak at the stage of first adoption, before they are perfected (page 85).  Citing in vitro fertilization procedures as an example, they go on to declare that once the problematic technical issues with a new approach are eliminated, ‘the moral high ground can invert’ to a point where withholding its use at times may actually become unacceptable.

Clearly, public acceptance of new technologies can change substantially over time.  Reactions to gene editing work conducted in human embryos suggests the scientific community also adapts quickly to emerging developments.  What turned out to be well-founded rumors of human embryo gene editing prompted ethical soul-searching and a swift call from a group of leading scientists to impose important constraints on some studies (2, 3, 4).  However, one year later as research teams were gearing up to conduct their own experiments, the second published journal report of human embryo editing produced little reaction (5).  If concerns over technical proficiency are the dominant basis for objections among the general public to new biomedical advances, maybe the code of ethics currently constraining research and development will be revamped to reflect this attitude.

Current norms for safe and ethical research practices represent an evolving consensus crafted from years of hard experience.  New technologies and situations may require the creation of entirely new rules or the modification of longstanding policies.  The relentless pace of research means this alteration process is actually continuous and often contentious.  For example, a proposal to expand informed consent requirements to include stored bio-specimen samples has caused researchers to object their work will be hampered for little gain (6).  How the scientists of the future will go about their work hinges on the outcomes of research projects today.  Will the Personal Genome Project (7) revolutionize medicine or might participants come to regret surrendering their private data?  Will the gene drive research community voluntarily conduct research openly or remain behind closed doors (8)?  Is one practice more likely to lead to mistakes?  The only certainty ahead is that the rules will change.

The talented scientists of today will lead humankind into the future.  Along the way, societies must demand these ambitious researchers envision the full implications and aftermath of their efforts.  The discoveries to come will no doubt be awe-inspiring.  However, enthusiasm runs cold whenever we remember the frozen head of Ted Williams.

  1. G. Church and E. Regis.  2012.  Regenesis. How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves.  Basic Books, New York.
  2. E. Lanphier et al.  2015.  Don’t Edit the Human Germline. Nature, 26 March 2015 (519:410-411). http://www.nature.com/news/don-t-edit-the-human-germ-line-1.17111
  3. D. Baltimore et al.  2015.  A Prudent Path Forward for Genomic Engineering and Germline Genetic Modification.  Science, 19 March 2015 [348(6230):36-38]. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4394183/
  4. D. Cyranoski and S. Reardon.  2015.  Embryo Editing Sparks Epic Debate.  Nature, 29 April 2015 (520:593-595). http://www.nature.com/news/embryo-editing-sparks-epic-debate-1.17421
  5. E. Callaway.  2016.  Gene-editing Research in Human Embryos Gains Momentum.  Nature, 19 April 2016 (523:289-290). http://www.nature.com/news/gene-editing-research-in-human-embryos-gains-momentum-1.19767
  6. S. Reardon.  2016.  Science Academies Blast U.S. Government’s Planned Research-ethics Reforms.  Nature, 29 June 2016 (535:18). http://www.nature.com/news/science-academies-blast-us-government-s-planned-research-ethics-reforms-1.20191
  7. The Personal Genome Project http://www.personalgenomes.org/
  8. A. Regalado.  2016.  Meet the Moralist Policing Gene Drives, A Technology that Messes with Evolution.  Technology Review, 7 June 2016.  https://www.technologyreview.com/s/601634/meet-the-moralist-policing-gene-drives-a-technology-that-messes-with-evolution/

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