Considering Cryonics

Gregory Benford is a man of many hats: prolific science fiction writer, professor of astrophysics, and chairman of the board at Genescient, for example. Lightspeed Magazine recently published a short article by Benford on the topic of cryonics, an item that should be on the mind of everyone past a certain age.

As cryonics' determined subculture - clustered around a few companies such as Alcor - labors to make the theoretical into a reality, how close are we to actually making cryonics a real path to immortality? Well, in large measure, cryonics is real right here and now. Today, about a hundred people - including baseball legend Ted Williams who was frozen in 2003 - lie in liquid nitrogen baths awaiting resurrection and the cure for what ailed them.


Exciting, yes. The bad news? It will take approximately fifty years, if not a century, to develop nanotech to the point that it is able to repair the damage freezing and thawing does to human cells. Good thing about being frozen, though: you aren’t going anywhere. What's another hundred years or so?

Benford doesn't mention the replacement of freezing with vitrification in the cryonics industry, but a commenter does. Vitrification doesn't cause the same damage the freezing does, and preserves the fine structure of cells very well. It's a great improvement in terms of reducing the technology barrier to restoring the cryopreserved to active life once more.

An ugly truth we have to face is that the technologies of rejuvenation, ways to repair the biochemical damage of aging in living bodies, will not arrive in time for everyone alive today. A billion, or two billion, or more people will die and decay to nothing simply because they were born too soon, or were on the cusp and didn't take good enough care of their health. For everyone who might paint a plausible picture of their lives on the wrong side of the line, cryonics is the best way forward - the only shot at a far longer and better life in a future age.

As Michael Anissimov notes, we're all left wondering why so few people step up to grasp this brass ring. Arranging your own cryopreservation requires time and effort - a lot of things can go wrong if you assume you don't need preparation and organization. But that isn't enough to explain why people don't go through with it. From the article:

Ray Bradbury once told me he was interested in any chance of seeing the future, but when he thought over cryonics, he realized that he would be torn away from everything he loved. What would the future be worth, he asked, without his wife, his children, his friends? No, he told me, wouldn’t take the option at any price.

This is an example of the "neighborhood" argument, which says that mature people are so entwined with their surroundings, people and habits of mind, that to yank them out is a trauma worse than death. One is fond of one's own era, certainly. But it seems to me that ordinary immigrants from every era have faced similar challenges and managed to adjust and make freer, better lives in their new homes. Just ask your grandparents.

People's appetite for risk and change diminishes with age, it seems. The acceptance of personal oblivion seems to increase: it's the younger folk who are truly fiery on the topic of defeating death. One might argue on how much of that is physiological versus cultural - if you had the body and neurology of a 20 year old at 80, would you still have the same level of psychological inertia? It seems unlikely that we'll know the answer to that before there are 80 year olds with youthful physiques taking on the world.

And people are still dying. Another two thousand in the time it took me to write this post - lost and gone forever, cut short within sight of the ageless societies that will emerge from advances in biotechnology. Matters could be different, but they are not, as we don't live in a particularly sane world.


My guess is about 100 years, with reanimation being based on some kind of synthetic biology combined with particular care for repair of the brain. Full-body regeneration is likely within 50 years. However, repair of existing neurons and dentrites of the brain is a level of technology completely beyond mere body regeneration. This is going to be very difficult to accomplish. Given the application specific nature of this brain repair technology, we will have to develop this technology ourselves. no one else is going to do it for us.

If I was going into the dewer, early to mid 22nd century is when I would expect to come out. That is, if it works.

Posted by: kurt9 at October 22nd, 2010 9:04 AM
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