You may have read in the news recently that a 13 year old girl has won a case to allow her body to be cryogenically preserved.Cryogenics is something that feels like the property of science fiction yet here we are, grappling with a possible pathway to the far future. I do not intend to outline the specifics of the above case – that can be done at the readers leisure but instead consider what cryogenics is, why I will be partaking and the most significant risks attached to the process (in my personal opinion). I plan for cryogenics for the very reason people put a little of their salary each month into a pension plan – this is my pension plan.
How it “works”
The short answer is of course cooling the body after death in order to preserve it. There are a few elements to this process that make it a little more complex that just putting a body in a cold box. The most important part of the procedure is timing – damage occurs to the body immediately after the heart stops beating so the quicker the better. As a result, cryogenic teams are on standby when the person is near to death – if you die in a traffic accident this procedure will not be for you; so if you are serious about this you may wish to live a little on the cautious side.
For this explanation, let us assume I have just died a peaceful death, in a location near my cryogenic practitioner. Firstly a medical practitioner will pronounce me legally dead – it is illegal to perform these procedures on a person who is medically alive since it would count as a form of suicide. The fact that gives mystery to this process however is my medical death and the death of my brain do not occur at the same time – so presumably at this point I have already instructed my surviving relatives to shout faster over and over again at my cryogenic practitioner. Into an ice-bath I go, and my lungs and heart are restored via an artificial resuscitator – although we are not using this to resuscitate. Basically, it’s thumping my chest and keeping things moving. The next bit is the weird bit – which is totally banned for any medical setting, fortunately however working on a dead patient does not count as a medical setting so I am good. Into my vein system goes a cocktail of useful liquids including free radical inhibitors, anesthetics, pH buffers and various other protective substances to prevent crystallization.
At this point, if hospitals have not yet warmed up to the idea of cooling a body down I will be transported to a dedicated facility. I am hooked up to a fake external heart and lung machine which has the ability to strip the heat out of my body – won’t be needing that for a while, might as well give it back to the world until I need it. As I lay there, cold and lifeless, a preservation fluid is now pumped through my body – this washes out my body of blood and increases the concentration of what is essentially antifreeze in my body. When my tissues are concentrated with protective fluid something magic happens when subjected to cold temperatures – some of the water in my cells does not freeze, so the process that occurs is no longer freezing but vitrification. Take a look at this image from the Alcor foundation of the difference between a frozen and a vitrified kidney – I think you can see the reason why vitrification is so important.
Now I am ready to enter the chamber – a chamber in which I am very quickly cooled down to -124 degrees Celsius (to prevent any crystals) and then slowly cooled to -196 degrees Celsius. Aside from the relatively cheap process of changing my liquid nitrogen cooling every few weeks, nothing further happens. I am now a vitrified body in waiting. If you are interested, or have a taste for the morbid there are real case reports here.
Why am I doing this?
I suppose an examination of why someone may wish to do this to themselves is bipartite – firstly why would someone wish to be alive in the future and secondly why would you put considerable finance into a totally unproved scientific endeavor. The first part is hopefully easy – everyone has a natural curiosity about the future, it’s why the genre of sci-fi exists in the first place. The future is currently the only direction we are allowed to travel, with our human instincts willing us to travel as far as possible. I am very forthcoming in the fact that I don’t wish to die – I don’t subscribe to the cliché that it is death which gives life its value, I reserve that for those that have not yet discovered the true value of being alive. Life gains its value through making progress – something which does not require a restrictively short time-frame to exist. An as a side note, what a glittering career I would have as a public speaker in the future – imagine, the man who lived in the 1990s speaking at a 2400’s dinner party – assuming they still eat dinner.
The harder question to answer is why it is worthwhile to place what is a rather large sum of money into the hands of a cryogenic company than to spend it in this lifetime and accept your mortality. Financially, you will need to place somewhere to the tune of $200,000 somewhere safe in order to achieve this goal – which is a lot of money, not to mention transportation and potential relocation near death. That sort of money could be a second holiday home, a huge kick-start in life for your children, a trip round the entire world or a 6:1 scale replica of Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry with a moving Hogwarts Express. They are pretty big sacrifices in your life, so is it really worth it?
The answer comes down to personal preference – if you plan for your preservation through a life insurance policy and you start when you are young and healthy the cost per month comes out to be somewhere in the region of a low-mid range restaurant meal (in the UK). When I break it down like that, the idea of forgoing a restaurant meal each month to achieve this seems like a very modest cost for the possible upside offered. In economics you have the concept of utility – you need to balance the utility you gain from having that extra perk a month against the utility you derive from laying on your death bed knowing you will be vitrified rather than buried or burned. The balance will of course depend on the individual; what you believe about cryogenics, how much value you gain from an extra perk a month and a whole host of other views – religion being one that springs to mind. For me, the decision is swift – plan early, minimize the financial costs and vacate my consciousness in peace, in the knowledge there is a chance I may read this again in the far future.
What are the risks?
The cold facts of cryogenics are that no one has ever been revived from cryogenic freezing and many biologists believe the damage to be irreparable. I totally accept that – and neither myself, nor any of the leading cryogenic firms are out to tell you anything different. There are however some facts about human life however that I do put faith in. Firstly, life is about an arrangement of matter. Vastly complex, with large amounts that we are yet to understand – but none the less a specific arrangement of matter. The process of life can be stopped and started providing that this structure is either intact or reparable. This has been shown in many smaller scales already. Have a look at the very first brain cells that were frozen with Alcor.
Now compare that to the results we have now – in just 3-4 decades the techniques have led us to incredible progress in the preservation of the arrangement of matter. I would hope it will be a further 6-7 decades until I finally chill.
We would be naive to assume the recovery of the information essential to life is possible – of course it is an incredibly daunting task. Allow me to provide an example; if you were to go back a few hundred years and ask someone to send an image of what they were looking at in seconds from Australia to London people would say it can not be achieved. The idea of somehow preserving the view before the eye in a medium that can be transported at unthinkable speeds then received and assembled. Yet today, we suffer dearly as a result of our mastery of pictorial information sharing through an endless barrage of Snapchat stories and Instagram posts of last night’s dinner. The idea of reassembling anything with the complexity of the human brain from the damage of freezing may seem far-fetched – but arguably less far-fetched than the example given would have seemed to our ancestors. Nanotechnology is a potential way that this could actually work – along with, I am sure other candidates.
So if this is not the risk then what is? As with most of what I seem to write these days it’s twofold. The first is mankind – in order for you to be revived there needs to be a civilization to be revived into. I don’t wish to speculate over which potential event it could be – but there are nuclear weapons, asteroids, climate change, tyrannous leaders and increasing wealth divides which all threaten the advancement of the human lifespan. This is simply a peacetime mission whose fate is intimately entwined with the fate of the human race. The variables that may impact the human race in the future are vast – with the only control we have to try and shape and influence the direction while we are alive.
More pressing however is the need to become a priority when it comes to the waking sequence. I theorize that the optimal number of participants in such an endeavor is a medium amount – in the range of around 100 per annum for any scheme. This gives the facility sufficient funding to attract top scientists to research life extension, along with ensuring the facility is well financed to stay solvent and keep the bodies frozen in the best condition possible. Less people and the scientific progress could be halted, meaning the required medical advances are in jeopardy; however more people and the cost of awakening increases, with potentially insufficient resources. The population of the world is only increasing with resources fairly finite at the moment, which is likely to present mankind with some very difficult circumstances in the future. It is going to be a hard sell to get the world to accept large amounts of people who are likely to require huge amounts of medical attention from a few hundred years ago, in a civilization which may well have vastly different ethics and laws. The way I see it, if you want to be woken it is not enough to save the cash – you have to use your first life to make yourself someone the people of the future will want to wake. This is a much more challenging task – and sounds strangely like one of those motivational quotes posted on social media, so a good time to stop.
There we have it – the how and why of cryogenic preservation in my own opinion. To close with one of my favorites;
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”