The small, four decades old cryonics industry provides long-term low temperature storage for the body and brain immediately following death. Vitrification rather than straight freezing preserves tissues. Provided that the fine structure of the brain is preserved, and evidence to date strongly suggests it is, then the self and memory is preserved along with it. At some point the necessary molecular nanotechnologies will exist to revive a cryopreserved individual, repair their tissue damage, and restore them to a new life. The odds of success are unknown in this endeavor, but infinitely better than all of the other options open to those who will age to death prior to the advent of working rejuvenation therapies. It should be a great mark of shame upon our culture today that cryonics remains a small industry, and that most people reject it out of hand. Billions vanish into the grave and oblivion over the decades, where in a better world they could have been saved.
Max More has heard all of the criticisms. More is the president and CEO of Alcor, the largest of the world's cryonics organizations, which counts 1,033 members - those who have committed, legally and financially, to freezing themselves - and 134 "patients" frozen in aluminum casks at its Scottsdale headquarters. As a 5-year-old, More sat awestruck in front of the TV watching the first moon landing, dreaming of different worlds. While pursuing his doctorate in philosophy at Oxford in the 1980s, he fell in with a group of futurists who believed that humanity's best days lie ahead, courtesy of technology. They introduced him to cryonics, and the idea appealed to him immediately. "It's not about the fear of death," he says, "but the enjoyment of life - and wanting more of it."
More comes across as a reasonable man who is acutely aware that most people think his ideas are insane, or repugnant, or both. Like most of the cryonicists I spoke to, he frames his points as appeals to logic, not emotion. His confidence is infectious. Eventually, he says, the emerging field of nanotechnology will allow us to fix pretty much everything that ails us. He adds that the freezing process itself has evolved from the early haphazard model into rigorous protocols aimed at doing as little damage to the patient as possible. "It really will come to seem crazy to do anything else," he says cheerily. "People will look back on these days and say, 'What was wrong with us? We used to stick people into the ground or shove them into ovens!'"
Then and now, cryonics tended to attract a certain type of seeker: numerically minded males, sci-fi fans, and those with a distinctly non-abstract view of the afterlife. Ralph Merkle, a Xerox PARC alumnus, inventor of computer encryption algorithms, and nanotechnology theorist, is representative of the tribe. Merkle, also a Berkeley alum, says there is no bright line between life and death; science has cured dozens of illnesses that meant certain death a century ago. He reasons that it's just a matter of time before death can be delayed indefinitely. "What we refer to as 'death' is just a set of symptoms that have proven resistant to treatment."
Most cryonicists are impatient with talk of the soul. They believe that the traits that make us unique reside in the brain, so the key is to preserve that organ with as much fidelity as possible. (This approach has led to "neuro" cryopreservations, in which just the brain is frozen in expectation of one day placing it on a cloned body. Half of Alcor members choose neuro, which costs $80,000 versus $200,000 for a whole-body suspension.) "You are nothing more than the signals flitting through your brain," says Robin Hanson, an economics professor at George Mason University who was a UC Berkeley health policy fellow and researcher at NASA's Ames facility in Silicon Valley. "And if we can preserve that, we can save you."