Emerging Tech


A Conversation About Cryonics

Last weekend, 150 people attended the Alcor life extension conference in Scottsdale, Ariz. The main subject was cryonics, the use of technology to cool and preserve the human body with the aim of future revival. The technology, still speculative, raises many present-world issues.

In 2003, a daughter of Ted Williams attempted to stop the cryonic suspension of the Hall of Fame baseball player. Williams had signed a “family pact” asking to be preserved, but delays and a media circus ensued. He is not the only one that Alcor, the nation’s leading cryonics organization, has had to fight to preserve.

Even with clear legal documentation, hospitals around the country are wary of giving up bodies for cryopreservation. In at least one state, Arizona, legislators have considered making it nearly impossible for individuals to choose to be cryonically suspended. This brings up the universal question of individual self-determination as well as the proper role of government.

Definition of ‘Dead’

Fortunately, the Arizona legislation did not pass and individuals everywhere in the United States can choose to be stored in an Alcor tank instead of a hole in the ground after they are declared legally dead. Government should have no role in deciding one’s fate after death so long as the individual’s choice isn’t harming anyone.

Alcor currently has 77 “patients” stored at their facility whose cells are technically still alive, albeit frozen, as well as 827 people signed up to get the treatment when current medical techniques cannot keep them alive any longer. This raises an interesting question. When, exactly, is someone really dead? To the average person on the street, this is an odd question, but within the scientific community there is controversy.

According to the law, you are dead when your heart stops beating. However, we all know of cases where someone’s heart stopped beating and they were later revived. Consider also the multitudes of cases where children have fallen through ice and have been miraculously brought back to life even after an hour submerged in cold water. These examples demonstrate that it’s possible for an individual to be alive even when the law states otherwise, and if one’s body is cooled significantly, as Alcor aims to do, one’s cells can be preserved. The hard part, which of course hasn’t happened yet, is bringing someone back to life after cryonic suspension.

Hope in Nanotech

Respected scientists like nanotechnologist and public key cryptography coinventor Dr. Ralph Merkle think that molecular nanotechnology will make cryonics possible in the future. The theory is that as computing power grows and nanomedicine advances, tiny robotic arms smaller than mitochondrion will be able to enter a cryopreserved body and repair cell damage. While reviving a person from cryonic suspension won’t happen any time soon, new methods for transporting and storing organs for donation may be closer to reality, thanks to some of Alcor’s members.

Brian Wowk, a physicist and cryobiologist who performs research on low temperature preservation of tissue for medical applications, gave a fascinating talk explaining a process called “vitrification” that has been used successfully on animal organs. Vitrification is a way to freeze tissues and cells without damaging their structure the way ice does. If the process can be refined so that it doesn’t poison the organ, it could be used to store human organs that otherwise might be wasted because the donor is in a different location than the recipient.

Opening Possibilities

That would be a huge win for society and a giant leap forward for the cryonics community, still at risk of being written off as wildly optimistic. Wild optimists, of course, are often the ones driving scientific discovery.

Few people thought it would ever be possible to launch airborne a large piece of machinery or to send a person to the moon. Despite this, the Wright brothers and the U.S. Apollo 11 mission succeeded. Perhaps one day a nanotechnologist and cryobiologist will join that list.

Until then, the cryonics community is doing interesting work that stimulates the mind and could produce important benefits for society. Meddlesome government types should leave them alone, and technology enthusiasts may want to attend their next conference.

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is senior fellow in technology studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

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