[ExI] Who wants to live forever? Maybe you can...

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Fri Oct 18 15:48:44 UTC 2013


Who wants to live forever? Maybe you can...

Simon Cowell wants to be frozen in ice when he dies and for the right price
you can be too

A cryonics laboratory (© Rex Features)

Rex Features

Cryonics has been a staple of science fiction ever since its invention in the
1960s. The idea that human bodies can be frozen at death, and then magically
thawed in the future by humans with advanced technology has obvious public

It’s easy to see cryonics as science fiction for gullible rich fools, but it
has always had a serious side. Over the years a constant stream of
innovations in cryonic storage, advances in brain-scanning technology and the
ever-forward push to create a computer as powerful as the human mind have
conspired to keep cryonics a respectable science: even if it’s fully rooted
in belief, rather than any scientific fact. It’s got some rich friends too:
the TV mogul Simon Cowell is reportedly interested in the innovations in
cryonics. In 2009 he was said to have told dinner guests that he had "decided
to freeze myself when I die".

The idea of cryonics sprang up in the 1960s: it was first introduced in 1965
by Karl Werner and several societies in support of it sprang up in the US,
including the Cryonics Society of Michigan (CSM), the Cryonics Society of
California (CSC) and the Bay Area Cryonics Society (BACS).

It soon became a mainstay of science fiction, including one episode of Star
Trek: TNG in which the crew of the USS Enterprise intercepted a cryonics
satellite and brought several humans from the year 1994 back to life. Today
there are still many avid enthusiasts of cryonics, including the Cryonics
Institute and Cryonics UK, and several professional companies such as KrioRus
and Alcor ready to put people in frozen storage for perpetuity (that is

And the cost of cryonics is falling thanks to newcomers in Russia. This has
made it possible for everyday people to consider being frozen at death, and
not just multimillionaire TV executives.

The Kriorus deep freeze (© Kriorus)


Is cryonics a rip-off?

There is a website called Rational Wiki, in which academics analyse and
refute pseudoscience. It says that “Cryonicists are almost all sincere,
exceedingly smart, and capable people. However, they are also by and large
absolute fanatics, and really believe that freezing your freshly-dead body is
the best current hope of evading permanent death and that the $50–120,000
this costs is an obviously sensible investment in the distant future. There
is little, if any, deliberate fraud going on.” Although it does point out
that “at present cryonics practices are speculation at best, and quackery and
pseudoscience at worst.”

The cost of cryonics varies greatly depending on the agency at work. Alcor,
the leading US-based organisation, charges more than $250,000 for full-body
cryopreservation. But new organisations such as the Russian-based KrioRus
charge around $10,000 for just the head; or up to $80,000 for the full body.
It’s worth noting that there are other costs on top of this. You have to pay
somebody to arrive at the scene of your death and quickly freeze your body,
then arrange for it to be transported to the cryonics facility.

However, it is possible to sign up for cryonics as part of a life insurance
policy. This spreads the cost of both transportation and cryonics. Cryonics
UK (a UK charity) runs its own ambulance service manned by volunteers; these
people are trained to freeze a body at the time of death and arrange for it
to be transferred to the cryonics facility.

It’s not fraud: but cryonics is generally considered a waste of money. How
much money you want to spend is up to you. The adage “you can’t take it with
you” springs to mind (although you can always donate it to the charity of
your choice instead).

A freezing body (© Cryonics UK)

Cryonics UK

How does cryonics work?

Even in the future it is unlikely (although not impossible) that the process
of freezing a human being could be reversed. And that you could be brought
back  to life. But as our understanding of the human mind progresses, and our
computer processing capability expands, the idea of retrieving the
information from a human brain, and storing it in a computerised machine is
starting to look increasingly possible. This ‘mind mapping’ is what generally
interests cryonicists today.

Given the rate of Moore’s law of computer expansion it is estimated that the
human race is 25 years away from building a computer with the same level of
processing power as the human mind. What then becomes possible with mind
scanning and mind mapping will become very interesting.

A brain scan (© Diagnóstico por Imagem, Lda - Portugal)

Diagnóstico por Imagem, Lda - Portugal Cryonics enthusiasts believe that
revival may be possible thanks to advanced bioengineering, molecular
nanotechnology or mind uploading. It’s certainly true that brain scanners are
becoming increasingly powerful, and ever more capable. And they’re already
routinely used on dead people. Scanners are often used to observe Egyptian
bodies preserved through mummification. It’s not inconceivable that more
advanced models will be used to scan cryogenically preserved bodies in the

A mummy being scanned (© Siemens)


There is an open letter signed by 61 prominent scientists, which states that
“cryonics is a legitimate science-based endeavor that seeks to preserve human
beings, especially the human brain, by the best technology available. Future
technologies for resuscitation can be envisioned that involve molecular
repair by nanomedicine, highly advanced computation, detailed control of cell
growth, and tissue regeneration.”

Working with liquid nitrogen (© Rex Features)

Rex Features

Can you trust the cryonics agencies?

Cryonics is a long way away from being offered on the NHS, and is a fairly
niche activity (it is estimated that only around 250 people have been
actually cryonically preserved to date).

There is the fear that the agency you choose to frozen you will not be as
legitimate as you would like, although the Cryonics community is generally
considered small and serious.

But there are always questions about how your chosen facility will be run in
the future. Cryonics suffered its first major setback in 1979 when it was
discovered that nine bodies stored by CSC Chatsworth had thawed due to lack
of funding. Wikipedia notes that “All modern cryonics organizations require
full payment for all future costs associated with storage 'in perpetuity'
before patient cryostorage will be accepted.”

Working in the lab (© Rex Features)

Rex Features

Is cheating death natural?

The idea of death as an intrinsic part of life is so essential to humans that
we overlook many organisms don't. A jellyfish known as Turritopsis nutricula
regresses back to a juvenile form once it mates, through a process called
transdifferentiation, and so it can theoretically live forever. There is also
some doubt as to whether lobsters die from natural causes (being boiled and
eaten doesn’t really count). And there are plenty of microscopic animals and
bacteria that don’t die in any sense that we think of as death. Aside from
this there are many organisms that live well in excess of 2,000 years and
aspen trees up to 80,000 years old are still alive. Given all this, our
paltry lifespan of 100 years starts to seem ever so limited.

So nature is clearly capable of creating organisms that live far longer than
us, or rejuvenate instead of dying. The question is could we, and should we,
do the same?

The idea does have an air of the unnatural about it, but then our lives are
already artificially extended. For much of human history the average life
expectancy was 38 years (although this figure is weighed significantly by
infant mortality); the current world average is 68 years, with Japan leading
the way at 82 years. Cryonics UK states: “Science is constantly pushing the
boundaries of what is considered ‘dead’; cryonics simply pushes that boundary
a little further.”

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