The promise of immortality: an interview with the president of the Cryonics Institute
Since the early twentieth century, death in western society has been kept behind closed doors. When loved ones pass away, families hand over the cathartic responsibility of preparing a corpse for burial to professionals, who do everything in their power to make a deceased person look like they are merely sleeping - regardless of the circumstances in which they died. And it is this societal shift which has disconnected many people from their own mortality.
Trying to imagine not existing anymore is terrifying, regardless of age, let alone the suffering that we all have the potential to endure before we die, and it's for this reason that, even in our secular society, faith remains strong. However, for a small number of people, life after death is something which they hope to achieve not through religion, but science.
In 1965, academic Robert Ettinger began to imagine how future technology could continue to change our lives - and deaths. He went on to write The Prospect of Immortality in which he laid out his belief that humans and animals could, shortly after death, be "frozen" in time - with a view to being cured of whatever ailment led to their demise - and eventually revived in the future.
After the book was approved as scientifically sound, psychologist James Bedford became the first person to be cryogenically preserved in 1967. Since then, hundreds of others have followed suit - including Ettinger in 2011 - paying tens of thousands of dollars for a second chance at life. And even though we are still a long way off making the first attempt at reviving a cryogenically suspended person, the practice's validity has been approved by scientists around the world.
However, it was not until 2012 that cryonics arguably received its greatest amount of attention when 23-year-old Kim Suozzi, who had been a promising neurological science student, received a terminal cancer diagnosis and took to the internet to crowdfund her own cryopreservation, acknowledging that the one to two per cent chance of its success was a risk worth taking.
Unlike the first cryonics patient, Suozzi did not elect to have her entire body preserved, just her head as that is where a person's memories and personality are stored - a process which cost the 23-year-old $80,000 (as opposed to $200,000 for full body preservation), at Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona.
While these prices might seem absurd, the Cryonics Institute in Michigan, founded by Ettinger himself, charges a more modest fee of $28,000 for full body cryopreservation with the assurance that its services as just as good as those at other facilities - and for animals, the cost is subject to size, with most pets costing between $3,000 and $5,000 to cryopreserve.
"If cryonics doesn't work, then we are still advancing science by testing our theory, and we are no worse off than the control group who is buried."
I recently spoke to the Cryonics Institute's president, Dennis Kowalski, about the 1,898-member organization, asking a number of pertinent questions about a process which, for many, should be consigned to the realm of science fiction.
VT: Could you provide a brief description of what your institute does and how it plans to develop with future technology?
"Cryonics is the practice of preserving humans and animals at cryogenic temperatures in the hope that future science can restore them to a healthy living condition as well as rejuvenate them to a youthful and vital age. There is ample evidence that we are already on this path as we learn more about stem cells, molecular nanotechnology, and genetic engineering.
"Cryonics is a nonprofit, self-funded quest to find out what is and is not possible. We are the scientific method in practice asking questions and challenging dogma. If cryonics doesn't work, then we are still advancing science by testing our theory, and we are no worse off than the control group who is buried."
"If cryonics works, then we have saved many lives and proved our theory correct. Cryonics is the asking of the question - can we do tomorrow what is not possible today? Can we save lives tomorrow of people who have no current chance today? There are no guarantees in cryonics other than if you don't try the process then you are guaranteed to stay dead."
VT: The cost of being cryopreserved at the Cryonics Institute is considerably lower than at other facilities. How does a one-off payment afford a person indefinite storage?
"You are correct that the Cryonics Institute is by far the most affordable cryonics service. We are a nonprofit, but more importantly, we are an open-records nonprofit, where you or any potential member can go online and see our financial statements. You can see how we spend money, what we have, and how it is invested for the patients."
"When we take in the $28,000, which is usually financed through standard life insurance, a small portion goes to the procedure and the bulk of the money is invested in passive long-term index funds. We invest the bulk of the money in the world's economy, not individual companies. The compounding interest over many decades is what pays for the perpetual overheads - ie. taxes, utilities, liquid nitrogen, building maintenance, and staff salaries."
"We do not yet have the technology to bring someone back yet. That is the whole point of cryonics. If we did have that technology, we would be in the future and we wouldn't need cryonics as an ambulance ride to get to that potential future."
VT: As the number of people signing up to be cryopreserved increases, do you think that a point will ever come where the Cryonics Institute has to turn away potential patients?
"Since no one in cryonics actually profits from taking in more money from more patients, the pool of money actually grows and makes the whole process stronger with size. More members and more patients mean greater funding and greater monetary reserves to buy more buildings and space.
"Unlike many other businesses that simply grow their appetite and spending as they take in greater revenues, we simply become more efficient as our endowment grows. You could say economies of scale kick in. So the more lives we can save, the better for everyone involved."
VT: The case reports from the institute reveal that while most patients have chosen to be cryonically preserved while alive, not all of them have. What's your ethical stance on the decision their next of kin have made about what to do with their clinically dead bodies?
"All cryonics patients that are preserved are by necessity when legally dead. Any attempt to preserve a live person would get us into trouble with the law very quickly and rightly so. We do not yet have the technology to bring someone back yet. That is the whole point of cryonics. If we did have that technology, we would be in the future and we wouldn't need cryonics as an ambulance ride to get to that potential future. That being said, we attempt to suspend a person as soon after legal death as possible. Just like in a cardiac arrest when someone is clinically dead - every second counts. Brain tissue does not hold up well to cardiac arrest at warm temperatures."
"However, there are many many instances of people being brought back to life today under current technology, especially when they are exposed to colder temperatures. Cold temperatures halt metabolic demand, and this is why many in traditional emergency medicine are using therapeutic hypothermia as a means to expand the window between clinical death and what we would call absolute death. Even today, the lines between life and death are being blurred by the progress of newer medical technology. Cryonics takes this logic to its ultimate conclusion. At a cold enough temperature, all metabolic processes stop. Time essentially stands still and waits for technology to catch up."
"Any society advanced enough to bring someone back would also be far more advanced in how to deal with any psychological trauma from being thrust into a new place"
"You are correct that many people sign up themselves while they are alive. This is the preferred method of signing up since it allows time for proper planning and preparation so that you are likely to get an optimal suspension. Family members who sign their loved ones up after death are usually doing so out of love and compassion.
"We are careful to screen out people who have been dead for what we believe is too long. We are careful to explain that in some circumstances, the likelihood of success is diminished because of time delays. We also ask that the body of a post-mortem signup be placed in dry ice storage for two weeks to make sure that the family is completely sure that this is what they want to do. I believe that if there is hope and a chance, that we should provide that chance. If too much time has passed, then we do not wish to give anyone false hope and we will turn the family down as a matter of principle."
VT: Your oldest patient has been in suspended animation since 1977, do you check on the condition of the people in your facility regularly or are they not viewed at all while in storage?
"Any disturbance or removal of a patient at liquid nitrogen temperatures exposes the body to potentially serious damaging risks. If and when technology becomes available to closely examine the patients without doing thermal damage, then we will likely employ that technology to monitor the progress of our patients."
VT: Has the institute considered the psychological implications of cryopreservation's success, especially if it just concerns a person's brain, or is this a question that can only be answered in time?
"We have evidence that extremely isolated and primitive third world people tend to thrive in industrialized nations. Some might even say they do better from not being spoiled by the technology and opportunity that we tend to take for granted. I suspect that any society advanced enough to bring someone back would also be far more advanced in how to deal with any psychological trauma from being thrust into a new place."
VT: And on that note, how would you like to be reintroduced to life in the future?
"Many cryonicists actually are very optimistic about the future. Think more Star Trek less dystopian! I look at it like this. If I lost my family in a plane accident and I survived… I would be rightly sad but grateful to be alive. I would not commit suicide but instead would get on with life and make new friends and family. Better yet, I would and do try to get my family, friends, and fellow human beings to come along for the chance to see the future so we can all share in a second chance in an exciting future that is likely a better option than to become worm food."
VT: What challenges do you think cryonicists will face if the first revival attempt is unsuccessful? Presumably, the patients who have had the smoothest preservations will be worked on first because they have a higher likelihood of being revived?
"Logically, the last people suspended would be suspended under the best technology, so probably the last in would be the first out. Also, logically, pets or animals would be revived before humans and even more likely computer simulation and AI will have reached a point where potential problems can be fixed before we actually revive real people."
"You have nothing to lose and a future to gain"
VT: If future technology enables cryonics to work, theoretically, we will have cheated death, which would place a huge burden on the Earth's resources. Is this something which cryonicists have considered or do you think that by that point we will have expanded beyond this planet?
"I certainly think space colonization will be easier than reviving people, so in that regard, the universe is a very big place, and we will need everyone we can get to colonize even the smallest section of our solar system.
"I also believe that, mathematically speaking, not dying is linear. Or a 1:1 ratio. Whereas dying and having five children who have five children is an exponential. So because of medicine and technology and improved food and water, we now have cheated death past the historical average of 30 years of age. Actually, we have nearly tripled that number just recently… that has almost nothing to do with the size of the world's population. Rather out-of-check birth rates has led to the numbers you see and we haven't even cured death yet."
"I believe the same technology that will be able to revive people will also make resources incredibly abundant. If I am wrong and the world was dystopian, then why would anyone bother to revive anyone? So if we are revived it is likely to be a very advanced and benevolent world."
VT: What advice would you give to people who are considering cryopreservation and what would you like to say to the naysayers who simply believe that technology will never be that advanced?
"I would say, do your research and sign up when you are young and when life insurance is cheap. For those of you who think cryonics is impossible, I say look at all the things that were impossible only a few decades ago. Today, we have magic crystal balls in our pockets that allow us to connect with anyone in the world in real time and access the combined knowledge of mankind. We don't call these crystal balls anymore. Today they are smartphones with Google.
"Heart transplants and even CPR might have been considered weird and impossible yet today these technologies save many lives. I am certain that we are not at the zenith of what there is to know in this world. Arthur C. Clarke said it best with his three laws of prediction. If you believe in the future and are not a pessimist, check out the Cryonics Institute at Cryonics.org. You have nothing to lose and a future to gain."
Regardless of which side of the fence you sit on when it comes to cryonics, the technology which it is developing could, among other advances, improve our existing methods of organ preservation. Even in the US where medicine is highly advanced, 20 people die every day while waiting for a transplant according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. With current technology, the timeframe for most transplants is limited to 48 hours and, as a result, 60 per cent of donated organs aren't used, CNN reports. Cryonics, however, could buy people more - if not indefinite - time.
While I won't be signing up to be put into cryogenic suspension, I believe that everyone has a right to make an informed decision about what happens to their remains - or trust their next of kin to make the best decision for them. Having a death plan, or simply telling people what you want to happen to your body, will ultimately allow you to live a more comfortable, death-positive life, instead of denying an inevitable reality - even if that means trying to cheat death with cryonics.
In a world where so few people even encounter corpses anymore, the questions cryonics forces people to ask themselves about death and what's possible can only be a good thing. After all, even the failure of cryonics could be a massive success, and no one with an ounce of humanity would deny intelligent terminally ill people like Kim Suozzi a second chance at life.