Cryonics is Still the Only Viable Backup Plan

Front and center, the primary plan for longevity for people in middle age and younger today is to help push through enough of the right medical research. Your body is aging, accumulating damage, but methods of repairing that damage are slowly edging their way towards clinical application. Once in the clinic they will slowly become better. At some point the improvement in repair methodologies will add healthy life expectancy for older people faster than a year with every passing chronological year. Everyone with access to the latest stable medical technology at that point will have beaten the curve: they will no longer suffer and die due to aging. The question is where that point occurs in your life span, indeed whether it occurs in your life span, and that is where activism and funding comes in. You can't make yourself younger (yet), but you can help to speed up the development process: it is certainly moving at far below optimal speed at the present time.

That is the primary plan, and for every primary plan there must be a backup plan. Never bet on just one horse. The backup plan for evading the end that comes with death by aging is cryonics: low-temperature preservation of the fine structure of the brain on clinical death. Cryopreservation organizations will maintain the data of your mind in its physical form for the decades it will take for restoration to active life to become a viable possibility. That will, at minimum, require near complete control over cellular biochemistry and regeneration, as well as a mature molecular nanotechnology industry capable of repairing broken cell structures, removing cryoprotectant from tissues, and similar tasks. None of these goals are impossible or unforeseen, it is just that the necessary technologies don't exist today. Preserved individuals have all the time in the world to wait, of course.

A backup plan is never as good as the primary plan. That is why it is the backup plan. In order to be cryopreserved you have to undergo a very unpleasant set of experiences; you have to age and you have to die, and do so naturally with little help, since our backwards legal systems don't allow for assisted euthanasia in a constructive way that can mesh with cryonics protocols and organizational procedures. Further, in comparison to remaining alive and healthy thanks to the development of working rejuvenation treatments, cryonics will for a long time to come be a leap into the dark with an unknown chance at ultimate success. It is still infinitely better than any of the other possible choices open to the billions who will die too soon to benefit from near future rejuvenation therapies.

Strangely, after four decades of organized operation cryonics remains a tiny, niche, non-profit industry. This is the case for reasons that remain unclear and much debated. Cryopreservation is certainly a far better option than the many strange things people choose to have happen to their bodies following clinical death, usually for no better reason than everyone else does it. Is it little more than the fact that you have to prepare some time in advance to make it cost-effective via life insurance? The reluctance to embrace cryopreservation over the grave and oblivion may have some of the same roots as the reluctance to support research into the treatment of aging as a medical condition and extension of healthy life spans. At root all it would really require for cryonics to grow to become a dynamic and competitive industry is for more people to sign up and express interest.

In recent years the popular press have transitioned from ridicule to balanced respect on the topic of cryonics, and the level of attention has increased. I think at least some of this has to do with growing interest in treating aging as a medical condition, though the relationship may be indirect: people who influence opinions tend to support both life extension and cryonics research and development. In the past decade we've seen a growing acceptance of the transhumanist ideals for longevity and the defeat of death that were first discussed realistically and robustly over the course of the 1960s to the 1980s. Many more people are now on the inside of what was once a small intellectual circle, and visionary thinking from that time is now taken as a foregone conclusion for technological development. That said, journalists are ever journalists and still largely miss the very important difference between freezing, which is something that cryopreservation seeks to avoid, and vitrification, which is the goal of modern procedures. Freezing produces ice crystals which are highly damaging to tissues, whereas vitrification minimizes that outcome.

Dying is the last thing anyone wants to do - so keep cool and carry on

Call the headquarters of Alcor in Scottsdale, Arizona, and you are greeted by a recorded message. "If you would like to report the death or near-death of an Alcor member," says a chirpy midwestern voice, "please press two." The Alcor Life Extension Foundation - to give it its full title - has an unexceptional grey concrete exterior that resembles a regional bank branch. Inside, however, are the bodies or brains of 138 dead people, stored in vats of liquid nitrogen in the hope that, at some point in the future, advances made in science will be capable of bringing them back to life.

This is cryonics - the preservation of animals and humans at extremely low temperatures. And in America, business is booming. Last month, Alcor took receipt of its 138th patient: Du Hong, a Chinese science-fiction writer who died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 61 and whose family contacted Alcor shortly before her death to have her brain preserved. Brain-freezing starts at $100,000 and is cheaper than the full-body option, which costs more than twice that amount. Alcor, which describes itself as a not-for-profit organisation, insists that all fees go directly back into running costs.

Brain Freeze: Those looking to cheat death turn to cryonics - being frozen in liquid nitrogen - to one day live again

"I believe that my identity is stored inside my physical brain," says Carrie Wong, president of the Lifespan Society of British Columbia, an advocacy group that works to promote and protect access to cryonic preservation. "So if I can somehow preserve that, maybe at a future time technology and medical science will advance to such a point that it may be possible to repair the damage of freezing me in the first place and also what killed me back then," says the 27-year-old, who concedes such a feat could be hundreds of years in the future. "It's not possible now, but nobody can really argue it's not possible in the future because that's arguing about what future technology is capable of."

The Cryonics Institute, a non-profit organization founded in 1976 by Robert Ettinger, operates a preservation facility near Detroit, where about 100 pets and 135 humans are suspended in tanks called cryostats. "The actual cryostats are just giant thermos bottles with liquid nitrogen, there's no electricity to fail," says president Dennis Kowalski, a 47-year-old Milwaukee firefighter and paramedic who became interested in cryonics in his 20s.

About 1,250 people, including a number of Canadians, are signed up for CI's service. Membership costs US$28,000, which is typically paid for through life-insurance policies. While acknowledging that he and others who intend to be frozen are often "looked at as a bunch of kooks," Kowalski views cryonics as being like a clinical experiment - and one that beats the alternative. "I'll be the first to admit it may not work. And everyone who's signed up should understand cryonics may not work and there are no guarantees."


Not sure if it's been discussed or not, because it hasn't really been an issue yet, as no one has been revived...but do you think it's going to be legal to revive the dead people if it becomes possible? You all see the legal, "moral" and "ethical" concerns about curing aging as it is, so I can't imagine this won't face even more opposition and scrutiny.

I've seen the surveys where a majority of people say that cryonics is selfish, and what not, and the arguments of "well, why would people in the future want to revive you?" but I'm not really talking about that. Is this a gray area? Or would it be considered temporary death, almost kind of like when someone dies on the operating table, and they're able to revive them within a few minutes or so?

Posted by: Ham at October 13th, 2015 12:09 PM

@Ham:- Personally I think there is little chance of something like that happening. Any society capable of reviving cryonics patients would necessarily have knowledge of advanced molecular nanotechnology. By that means it would be easy to enable each person with terabytes of working memory. When you compare terabytes of working memory against human memory for which 30 digits is some effort, it becomes clear by that enhancement alone they would belong to an entirely different class of being. Small-minded and poorly thought-out concerns of the twenty-teens era would not have any relevance at all.

The future described above is by no means inevitable — it is just extrapolation from the development of molecular nanotechnology. Maybe there will be nuclear war. Maybe there will be a dark age of global oppression. Maybe rigid molecular machines are impossible. Maybe cryo-preservation procedures are not good enough. Maybe they are good enough, but only under ideal circumstances. Those seem like more salient concerns.

Posted by: José at October 14th, 2015 1:24 AM

Oh I know, theres a bunch of crazy stuff that can happen between now and then. My point was more... if they were able to revive someone tomorrow, you could bet there would be protests and tons of people would be up in arms. I've never seen anything solid about it when it came to legality though. But you do make a good point about the state of society that has the ability to use advanced molecular nanotech.

Posted by: Ham at October 14th, 2015 4:22 AM

Well, if there is an antireviving law, cryonics organizations need only to wait some more decades, until law changes. Or they can transport cryopatients to other country and revive them there. It seems a non-issue to me.

Posted by: Antonio at October 14th, 2015 7:39 AM

I think there's a question here around where it's better to direct research, time, and investment. (For those of us personally who would like to continue to exist...) Should we focus on the "backup plan" or the "primary plan"?

The backup plan seems like it should be a much easier problem to tackle. Say we have ~30-40yrs of life left... is it more reasonable to think we'll hit escape velocity on age reversal? Or develop a better method of cryopreservation - perhaps one that's even reversable?

It seems like it would be easier, but I suppose there's a reason we haven't developed the tech yet (despite the fact that it would hit goals for a number of different interest groups).

Posted by: Ess at October 14th, 2015 10:55 AM

With current methods I'd prefer the primary plan. There's too much potential for mishandling or things to not be done fast enough with cryonics at the moment. I'd like to believe we'll have made some headway in the next 30-50 years on aging. It would certainly be disappointing if we haven't. If we haven't I'll be rolling the dice on whatever is experimental at the time for sure. I'm pretty optimistic, but I waver from time to time, mostly because of the potential social objections that could hold back research and development for years or decades.

Posted by: Ham at October 14th, 2015 2:08 PM

Ess: Yeah, it's a question that I ask to myself a lot. Currently I donate mostly to rejuvenation research, but probably in the near future will donate 50% to cryonics research.

BTW, DRACO started its crowdfunding campaign yesterday. Yet another donation to decide upon :D

Posted by: Antonio at October 14th, 2015 2:27 PM

I don't understand the comment "there is no electricity involved" with liquid nitrogen cryostats. Even with thermos bottles, there must be a need for some refrigeration?

Posted by: Diana at October 15th, 2015 1:59 AM

@Diana: There is no electricity involved. Thermos are refilled periodically by hand with liquid nitrogen (one time a week or so).

Posted by: Antonio at October 15th, 2015 2:05 AM

Cryonics may indeed be the best alternative to death right now.
What I always wonder about though, is who will bear the huge cost of reviving someone when time comes?
I assume the cost you pay for cryopreservation is to get you through the initial procedure and for long term storage/maintenance.
The cost you pay now for preservation is probably minimal compared to what it will cost in the future to get you revived again in a new body. Unless maybe if you do a full body preservation and they reboot your old body and fix the reason you died from in-situ.
Many people choose for a brain only preservation though, so have no old body left to reboot.
I don't foresee some health insurance deciding to cover most of the cost for someone who was declared dead long time ago and hasn't paid any premiums since.

I always wonder where the incentive will come from in the future for someone to decide to revive a patient when technology is capable to do so.
How will they get reimbursed for the cost and labor and make some money to keep the business profitable and successful?
If you have close relatives still around by then, then they may be willing to help foot the bill until you can take over payments again (if they love you dearly and are able to bear the initial cost). But why else would anyone revive you? And those potential relatives will be long gone too if it takes many decades for the technology to come along.

Posted by: Jo Creyf at November 9th, 2015 6:34 PM
Comment Submission

Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. New comments can be edited for a few minutes following submission. Comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.

Note that there is a comment feed for those who like to keep up with conversations.