Cryonics is the low-temperature preservation of the recently deceased, with the aim of preserving the fine structure of the brain, and thus the data of the mind, for a future in which advanced technology will allow for a return to active life. The odds of success are unknown, but certainly infinitely greater than the zero odds offered by all of the present alternatives. Billions will die from old age before the earliest possible date on which the first complete set of robust rejuvenation therapies will become widespread. Are we really to write them off? I would like to think that we can do better than that - and hence the one viable chance offered by cryonics.
The non-profit cryonics industry, as opposed to the hobbyist endeavors that immediately preceded it, has existed for more than 40 years. Yet it has struggled to grow; over that time, only a few hundred people at most have been preserved. Only in recent years has the subject been treated with greater respect by the media and public, and bridges built with the cryobiology research community, who have long treated cryonics as an assault upon the integrity of their field. Now that reversible vitrification of organs is clearly plausible, and numerous groups are working towards that goal to improve the logistics of organ donation, transplantation, and tissue engineering, it is no longer possible to abitrarily declare that preserving the brain through the same methods is somehow fringe and outlandish.
Still, there are very few cryonics providers in the world, and only one outside the US, although this tiny, still largely non-profit industry also includes a surrounding halo of service and research companies such as Suspended Animation and 21st Century Medicine. These are as much involved in working towards the use of cryonics technologies in other areas of medicine as they are in improving the methodologies used to preserve patients at the end of life. The actual cryonics providers are simply listed: the long-standing US duopoly of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation and Cryonics Institute, and comparatively recent addition of KrioRus in Russia.
Given this, it is encouraging to see that a new group is launching another small US cryonics provider capable of long-term cryopreservation: Oregon Cryonics based in Salem. Their intent is clearly to compete on price with the established US non-profits, as their materials focus on preservation of the brain alone at a comparatively low price point. Assuming they have the technical resources to back up their efforts, and it is always important to carry out due diligence when paying for these sorts of services, then this strikes me as a positive evolution in the industry. More well-founded efforts, and a greater diversity of focus in those efforts, is very welcome. It is a little early for any meaningful public discussion in the cryonics community on the recent press for Oregon Cryonics, and the evolving contents of their web site, but it should be interesting to see what is thought of this approach.
As is usually the case, note that the local press coverage is terrible on the science and specific details. In particular, it is important to note that people are not frozen when cryopreserved, they are vitrified. There is a very big difference between these two things. After 40 years of practice, the operations and methodologies involved in carrying out a cryopreservation have become quite refined. It is also interesting to note that the Oregon Cryonics founder is another individual in the industry who favors the end goal of scanning and emulation of the mind in software rather than restoration of the original tissue, which will always seem to me to be a matter of engineering self-defeat at the final hurdle. A copy is not the self, and survival means survival of the specific package of matter that expresses the self, which means the brain must be restored.
A Salem non-profit, Oregon Cryonics, is one of only four facilities around the world. The Salem location is run by Dr. Jordan Sparks. Cryonics is considered controversial, but Sparks says the hope is there. He envisions a future human or digital self in the next hundred years. "We can see a clear pathway from here to how somebody might be revived. If we don't do preservation, there's zero chance for survival," says Sparks. "We have electron micro-graphs showing good structured preservation and scientists around the world are currently mapping out neuroconnectors." He knows people are skeptical. "For some it's radical but so were the Wright brothers hanging out in the garage trying to invent flight. So until it happens, until people see it demonstrated, then it probably will remain controversial."
Until recently, there were only two cryonics facilities in the country freezing people or their brains, the Cryonics Institute in Detroit and Alcor Life Extension in Scottsdale, Ariz. Oregon Cryonics has signed up 10 clients to have either their bodies or their brains preserved and frozen after they die. Its operating model also has promised no small bit of controversy. The industry appears to be gradually gaining adherents, especially among young men who embrace technology. Sparks is a successful dentist and entrepreneur who says his startup is filling an industry niche -- lower-cost cryo for people willing to have just their brains preserved. He's banking on technology -- the idea that brain scanning will someday become sophisticated enough to map an entire brain and all its neural circuits. Then the brains that have been cryopreserved can be thawed, mapped and digitally downloaded. The people who once lived with those brains might live again, as software.
Phaedra and Aschwin de Wolf have opened a Northeast Portland lab called Advanced Neural Biosciences. There, among other things, they research the best methods for delivering cryoprotectant chemicals prior to freezing. Before moving to Portland, de Wolf worked for a Florida firm called Suspended Animation that provides services to cryonics companies. De Wolf also has signed up for full-body cryopreservation. He guesses that in 75 years technology will have reached a point where he can be brought back, with techniques to repair molecular damage that took place while he was frozen.
Fledgling Oregon Cryonics in Salem would seem to be a natural choice for the eventual preservation of Phaedra and de Wolf, since every minute counts in preserving the body after death if cellular decay is to be minimized. But both say they currently are committed to being preserved at Alcor in Arizona, and leaving open the possibility of switching over to Oregon Cryonics at some point. Both say they are concerned with the less than state-of-the-art preservation methods Oregon Cryonics has been willing to employ. In addition, de Wolf points out that in the past, cryo labs have shut down their operations and abandoned clients who were in cryo storage. The lesson there, de Wolf says, is that cryonics labs need to be well-established and accept only clients who can fully fund their treatment and preservation up front. "Some people say something is better than nothing, but I think that's not a good principle for cryonics," de Wolf says.
De Wolf's is not an uncommon position to take. Young companies are inherently risky, and in the case of cryonics the risk isn't just that you have to switch to use another product, but that you may indeed wind up in the grave and oblivion if the company goes out of business and can't negotiate a rescue with the rest of the industry. This is a challenge, but it is a challenge that every new entry in the field of medical services has to deal with. The way forward is to offer robust, reliable products and services, and to make use of independent certification agencies who can verify the claims made by the company and so offer customers peace of mind and assurance.