Posted on 20 September 2022
Cryonics is the process of preserving a dead body or brain at low temperatures with the intent to revive it later. Once ridiculed as scientifically implausible, cryonics has become more accepted as a legitimate field, though staunch sceptics still exist. It could be said that cryonics research is in much the same place today as longevity and rejuvenation research was a few decades ago. It’s a niche field that is taken seriously only by a dedicated few, relying heavily on philanthropic donations. Despite this, the science and philosophy behind the cryonics initiative are solid, so why hasn’t it caught on?
It’s easy to get caught up in the science of cryonics and forget to consider the simple practicalities. In this article, we’ll take a look at what getting yourself cryopreserved actually entails, as well as some of the scientific, logistical, legal and other conundrums that could get between a would-be cryonics patient and eternal life. What’s stopping cryonics from entering the scientific mainstream?
Before we get into the challenges of cryonics, let’s go over what arranging your own cryopreservation actually entails. First, you need to sign up with a cryonics company. There are currently only a handful of well established and reputable cryonics companies around the globe. Each has its own area of operation, narrowing down one’s choices considerably. We’ll be discussing the major cryonics companies in a future article.
As you might expect, cryonics isn’t cheap. There’s usually an annual membership fee and a storage/revival fee. Some companies also have transportation teams on 24/7 standby, should your body need to be taken rapidly from the hospital to the cryonics facility after you are pronounced dead. This is a necessity if you don’t live close to a facility, and incurs an additional fee. To give you an example of pricing, the Cryonic Institute’s annual membership fee is $120, storage/revival costs $35,000, and optional transportation can cost anything up to $95,000 depending on distance from the facility. This fee is often paid by making the cryonics company the beneficiary of a life insurance policy.
Once you are declared legally dead, the process of cryopreserving your body can begin immediately. Ideally, your death is predictable so that the cryonics company can be informed and a team can be sent to the hospital where you are dying. First, your blood will be replaced with cryoprotectants so that your body can be vitrified. We covered vitrification in this article, but in brief, vitrification is a process in which water solidifies ‘like glass’, without forming ice crystals that usually damage biological tissue during freezing. Your body is then slowly cooled down to around -200 degrees Celsius, and is submerged in liquid nitrogen. There it will remain until, with any luck, technology becomes sufficiently advanced to restore you to life.
Detailed above is the ideal scenario, but it’s important to be aware that a lot of things could go wrong, both before, during and after the cryopreservation process. We discussed the scientific and technological challenges of cryopreservation in our article on the history of cryonics. Cryonicists are banking on the idea that humanity will see significant technological progress in the coming centuries, such that revival of cryopreserved people will become possible. However, as a cryonics patient, your chances of revival can easily be scuppered long before this happens, or even before you get a chance to be cryopreserved in the first place.
You could die:
But wait, isn’t that the point? Well, there’s something you should understand about death: it’s not as well defined as you might think. For a long time, legal death in the US used to be when a person’s heartbeat and breathing stopped. When new technologies allowed such patients to be resuscitated, the legal definition of death had to change to include ”irreversible cessation of all functions of the brain.” In other words, today’s corpse could be tomorrow’s patient. Rather than describing someone as dead, it might be more accurate to say that they are ”doomed”. The brain has not been damaged beyond its conceivable repair by future technology, it is simply beyond help by the medical technology that is immediately available.
To a cryonicist, death isn’t one event, but rather a gradual process during which the information that makes you ‘you’ degrades. When the brain is so damaged that there is no hope of restoring it, no matter how advanced future technology becomes, only then can we say that a person is truly and irrevocably dead. Some refer to this as ‘information death’. This could occur if you die unexpectedly and your body isn’t found for a long time. You could die in another country outside the cryonics company’s area of operation, resulting in a lengthy repatriation process. You may suffer a violent death that causes irreversible loss of information, such as a vehicular accident. In such events, there would be nothing that present or future technology could do to restore you to your pre-death state.
The cryonics company could go bankrupt:
We don’t know if those who have been cryopreserved will need to wait 100 years or 1000 to be revived. Either way, a lot can happen during that time. Many of the early cryonics companies went bankrupt, resulting in their patients being thawed. Some present companies have money in trusts as a backup fund to ensure patients won’t be affected by financial issues.
Cryonics could become illegal:
In 2004, Arizona legislators tried to pass a bill that would have put Alcor, the world’s largest cryonics company, under the regulation of the State Funeral Board. This would probably have shut the company down if it had succeeded. Today, Alcor must accept bodies in the guise of “anatomical donations for research purposes,” in order to conduct business legally. Who can say who will be making the laws in 100 years’ time?
Nuclear Armageddon (other apocalypses are available):
This one is fairly self-explanatory. Anything that destroys the cryonics facility, be it war, natural disaster or a terrorist attack will obviously lead to your demise.
The future might not want you:
Humanity of the future may not have the desire or the capacity to revive a cryopreserved human. The Earth could be massively overpopulated, or the governments of the day may have no desire to support another person who presumably awakens with no possessions or money. This assumes that humans of the day don’t see any value in a human beyond whether or not they contribute to society, which is hopefully not the case. Most people today think that we should look after the elderly, the sick and the poor.
The future might be dystopian:
You could wake up in an unpleasant future in which the world is ruled by evil AI, evil aliens or, worse yet, evil humans.
Imagine you’re on a sinking ship in the middle of the ocean. You have two choices before you: you can board a lifeboat, or you can stay on the ship. If you board a lifeboat, you could float on the ocean for weeks and eventually die of thirst or starvation. You might also be rescued. Alternatively, you can stay on the ship, in which case you will definitely drown.
I expect that most people would choose the first option, or at very least understand why someone would choose a chance at life over certain death. Yet the choice to be cryopreserved is rarely perceived this way. Cryonicists are often viewed with bemusement at best and disdain at worst by scientists and by the public. This hostility has undoubtedly helped to keep the public perception of cryonics firmly in the realm of science-fiction. There seem to be a few common concerns that often get brought up during discussions about cryonics.
”The scientific challenge of reviving a cryopreserved patient is vast.”
This is true: there are many reasons why restoring a cryopreserved person is far beyond the realm of possibility with today’s technology. However, there is no law of physics to say that damage incurred prior to and during vitrification can’t be reversed (assuming there is no permanent loss of information as already discussed). Ultimately, we don’t know what future technology will look like, and cannot predict whether it will be capable of reversing the vitrification process.
”Cryonics is for the super-wealthy who can’t accept death.”
Cryonics may not be cheap, but it’s also not really expensive enough to justify this statement. Also, chemotherapy and heart surgery are for people who can’t accept death. Is not wanting to die only a bad thing in the context of cryonics?
”The future will probably be worse than the present.”
This is a common misconception: a majority of people believe that things generally get worse over time, whereas the overall trend suggests that life in general has been improving for centuries. People tend to focus on newer, present day problems while selectively forgetting old problems that have been solved. If humanity becomes technologically advanced enough to reverse the vitrification process, we can safely assume they will have solved a lot of problems and are probably living in a better world than we live in today. Probably.
It won’t really be ”you”.
This is more of a philosophical question that we’ll never really be able to answer. Let’s say it were possible to dismantle a person into their constituent atoms, then reassemble them exactly how they were before. They would presumably be the same person, retain all of their memories, and would not notice that they had stopped existing for a period of time. However, I doubt many people would be eager to undergo such a process. If we need to repair the brain at the molecular level in order to successfully revive someone who has been cryopreserved, is it really ‘them’ or is it just a ‘replica’? Does it even matter?
”Death is natural and good, and we shouldn’t try to avoid it.”
Have you heard of suicide? Besides, let’s be honest: everyone’s going to die eventually, cryonics or not. Whether you get run over by a hover car the moment you step outside the cryonics facility, or die in the heat death of the universe after uploading your mind to the galactic web, you may as well enjoy life for as long as possible.
”Cryopreservation is a scam.”
The major cryonics companies are all non-profit organisations. Employees are paid modestly and the board members running the company aren’t paid at all. There are entire industries built around selling detox footbaths, electromagnetic talismans, and various beauty products with zero scientific evidence to back them up, while collecting significantly more money than cryonics. If cryonicists are scammers, they don’t seem to be particularly good ones.
We began this article by comparing current day cryonics to longevity and rejuvenation research a few decades ago. Though this research is still arguably under-recognised and under-funded, it is taken much more seriously than it used to be, and has branched into many new lines of research. An important contributor to the growth of this field was the increasing amount of animal research showing that ageing really could be slowed down through a range of different interventions. Another important factor was the realisation that longevity research isn’t about making people immortal one day. Understanding the ageing process can greatly improve people’s lives now by extending youthfulness and delaying the onset of age-related diseases.
In light of this, I think that there are a few things that can significantly boost the credibility and acceptance of the cryonics industry. Firstly, there need to be scientific breakthroughs allowing for the reversible vitrification of human organs. Such a breakthrough would have immediate applications, allowing organs to be preserved for much longer periods than is currently possible and improving the availability of organ transplants. It would also make the idea of freezing entire humans a lot more credible. Scientists have already succeeded in vitrifying a rabbit kidney and showing that it still functioned after transplantation, so progress is being made towards this goal.
Secondly, people need to be convinced that cryonics is something that can benefit them, rather than a pipe dream that only the rich and the desperate care about. This will probably require the price of cryonics to decrease. Sadly, the hardest challenge may be convincing people to change their attitudes to death. For thousands of years, humans have been taught from childhood that death is inevitable and that we must accept it. This idea is ingrained in our cultures and our religions, and is not easily dislodged.