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1 Feb

Reanimating Abe Lincoln (With Just a Few Improvements)

Inscider-lincoln-350  The box office success and critical acclaim garnered by Lincoln present filmmaker Steven Spielberg with an odd dilemma. Unlike other huge hits of recent years — say, Sherlock Holmes or The Avengers — Spielberg can't pick up another big payday by churning out Lincoln 2, because (Spoiler Alert!) his main character dies at the end of the movie. It's a tough problem for a screenwriter to work around.

That is, unless he shifts from historical drama into the realm of science fiction — a genre that Spielberg has worked in a few times, I seem to remember. Here's a plot premise: Lincoln does die, but doctors save and preserve a frozen sample of his body for posterity. Then, 150 years later, scientists figure out how to extract his DNA and use it to clone him. Then they collect every bit of information that they can amass about Lincoln from both his own speeches and historical accounts, digitize it, and transfer all of it to the brain of our Lincoln clone. Voila! The 16th President is reanimated. Plus, maybe he's even better than the original, thanks to the powered exoskeleton, jet pack and augmented-reality contact lenses that they equip him with. 

Here's a more detailed walk through of how cryogenics are used to essentially freeze and preserve living tissue for long periods of time in case you're interested (for perfectly normal and law-abiding reasons, of course...).


Of course, that may sound as hopelessly far-fetched to you as the recent low-budget straight-to-DVD exploitation flick Abraham Lincoln Vs. Zombies. But hear me out. In a recent New York Times Magazine interview, superstar inventor and artificial intelligence visionary Ray Kurzweil talked about using a similar approach--albeit without the exoskeleton and Jetpack--to reanimate his late father, a musical conductor. He explained: 

By 2029, computers will have emotional intelligence and be convincing as people. This implies that these are people with volition just like you and I, not just games that you turn on or off. Is it my father? You could argue that it’s a simulation. But it’s not something you can play with. You don’t want to bring someone back who might be very depressed because the world is very different than they expect and the people they know aren’t around.

If Kurzweil can dream of bringing back his kin, why not Lincoln? The idea of creating an artificial Honest Abe, after all, is hardly new. Back in the early 1960s, Walt Disney decided to have a robotic Lincoln built, initially for an exhibit at the 1964 World's Fair, and the machine and its successors have become a popular attraction at Disneyland. (From the AARP website, here's a blog post I recently wrote about animatronics trailblazer Roger Broggie, Jr., who solved some of the technical challenges, in part by stretching out the figure's wig to accommodate the machinery needed to make Lincoln move like an actual human.) Uncle Walt might be revered today as a kindly entertainment mogul. But as this 1963 UPI article details, his effort to build a moving, talking Lincoln replica--"Lifelike as I am standing before you, perhaps more so," he explained in a presentation--was attacked by some, who thought it was ghoulish and grotesque.

And in the idea of duplicating Lincoln's DNA is actually something that's been contemplated by serious scientists, as this 1996 article by Glen W. Davidson in Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association details. Back in the late 1980s, geneticist Darwin J. Prockop of Thomas Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia requested access to the tissue samples--blood, hair and bone-- kept from Lincoln's autopsy at the National Museum of Health and Medicine near Washington, DC. Prockop hoped to identify Lincoln's DNA from the samples and make copies of it for testing. That might enable researchers to solve the historical question of whether Lincoln suffered from Marfan syndrome, which would have explained his tall, gaunt appearance. (Here also is a 1991 New York Times article entitled, "A Search for Lincoln's DNA." 

As the video here explains, we're already cloning whole organs in case someone needs a transplant. Could it really be that much harder to clone a whole person?



Initially, a government-convened panel of scientists seemed gung-ho about the idea, but a second panel decided to postpone such research until more advanced genetic analysis methods were available. In the meantime, however, the panel recommended that Lincoln's tissue samples be "maintained in a manner that would preserve any DNA in its present state," and that the medical museum should try to obtain any other existing remains of Lincoln that might yield DNA samples.

If scientists do eventually obtain Lincoln's genetic blueprint, using it to duplicate the Great Emancipator wouldn't be quite as easy as the supermarket tabloid Weekly World News made it seem to readers in 2004, when it breathlessly reported that the Republican Party planned to create a Lincoln clone to run against Hillary Clinton in a future Presidential election. True, since Dolly the sheep was cloned in 1997, researchers have made copies of a wide range of other animals, but so far no one ever has cloned a human. (In 2004, South Korean researchers claimed to have duplicated human cells, but their work was subsequently debunked, as this 2010 New York Times report details.)

But recent breakthroughs eventually might make it easier to accomplish.  For example, as this 2010 Nature article describes, researchers have figured how to use an artificial genome to "reboot" a bacterial cell whose own genetic material had been stripped out. Meanwhile, other scientists are trying to figure out how to grow animal muscle for meat  in labs. Mash up those two notions, and it's not impossible to imagine a future in which genetic factories churn out entire complex living organisms.

But creating a genetic double that looks like Lincoln doesn't mean that he would necessarily think and behave like the dead President. To get that effect, we'd have to somehow equip him with Lincoln's memories, beliefs and intellectual processes, and duplicate his emotions as well. As this 2012 article lays out, a Russian entrepreneur is pitching the idea of someday digitally copying a person's mind and transferring it to an artificial body, a concept called whole brain emulation. But in Lincoln's case, he wouldn't be alive for us to digitize his neural content. So we'd have to find some way to reconstruct and/or mimic it from other sources--a sort of artificial intelligence parlor trick, essentially. A few years back, researchers actually tried an entry-level version of this, creating an android duplicate of science fiction author Philip K. Dick, loaded with a database of Dick's ideas. (I actually saw the android at a technology exhibition in Chicago in 2005, and it was way creepy--but surprisingly evocative of a real person.)

So what do you think? Should we try to reanimate Abraham Lincoln someday? Or should we just leave him sitting in the Lincoln Memorial? Express your views below.

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