A few disclaimers:
1) There are several cryonics organizations out there, but most of the specifics I give here pertain to the Alcor Life Extension Foundation. They're the largest cryonics organization in the world, and the one with whom I'm signed up.
2) I don't work for Alcor, nor am I authorized to represent them in any way. Any views expressed here are mine, though I suspect that my thoughts on this matter don't differ significantly from Alcor's. Likewise I am neither a molecular chemist nor a cryobiologist, though I've spoken at length with people in both fields and studied every piece of literature I could get my hands on that relates to cryonics (pro and con) in the last 13 years or so. Regardless, any errors here are mine as well.
3) From time to time I'm going to be snarky. My motivation in writing this is largely frustration at having to address the same stupid objections that keep coming up over and over. While my objective here is to educate, I do think that sometimes baseless arguments deserve wise ass responses. :-)
4) The intended audience for this is anyone who dismisses cryonics out of hand, as well as any cryonicists who might be interested in what I've got to say on the subject. I know a few people who have looked at cryonics with an open and inquisitive mind, given it serious consideration, and decided against it for themselves. This is explicitly not directed at them! I take no issue with people making informed decisions about their lives. What I'm railing against here is people who refuse to be educated or to consider all of their options.
(Not so) Brief overview of the process
Please note that I'm breezing over a lot of the specifics and technical details, and that circumstances sometimes require modifications to the procedure. Regardless, here's a super-quick overview of the basic process.
First, forget anything you've ever heard, read, or seen in any work of fiction. With the exception of James Halperin's The First Immortal, all of the science fiction that I've read or seen that includes cryonics gets it wrong in some fundamental way or another.
Cryonics boils down to a three-part process- suspension, storage, and resuscitation. The important thing to remember is that while the technology required for the third step is much higher than for steps one and two, this doesn't invalidate the process by any means.
Under ideal circumstances, Alcor is notified (either by you, next of kin, or medical personnel responding to the instructions on the necklace and/or bracelet that Alcor members are provided and encouraged to wear) before you experience legal death. They have "Comprehensive Medical Standby" procedures in place such that if death seems imminent (within a week or so) they arrange to have a response team ready at your location.
The cryosuspension procedure can't legally begin until you've been declared legally dead. Once that happens, the response team restarts respiration and circulation, sets you up on a heart/lung resuscitator, and begins cooling you down using ice and a device called an "octopus". Initial cooling is important because ischemic injury is largely a function of oxygen deprivation to the brain, and the brain's oxygen demand drops very quickly as the temperature goes down.
The team also starts administering an extensive battery of drugs. This includes anesthetics to further reduce oxygen demand, anti-coagulants and vasodilators to maintain circulation, and other drugs to reduce ischemia, maintain pH levels, limit free radicals, etc. Blood chemistry is continually monitored during this process to maintain proper balance.
You're brought down to just above freezing, your blood is replaced with a special organ preservation solution, and you're rushed to Alcor for the rest of the procedure. Once there, surgery is performed to get access to major arteries and another complete wash-out of your circulatory system is done, as the level of cryoprotectant is slowly increased over a couple of hours. Again, temperature, cryoprotectant concentration, and pressure are closely monitored throughout the entire process.
After that your temperature is reduced in a very controlled manner over time until you reach the temperature of liquid nitrogen (-196 C) and are placed in a dewar (usually with other patients) for the long nap (that's the second- and least interesting- part of the process).
The nuts and bolts of step three haven't yet been defined. There are at least a few possible routes that it can take- uploading, cellular repair/cloning, cyborg bodies- and at this point it's too early to tell which will be the most effective, though it's possible that all three will be utilized to some degree or another depending on the condition of the individual patient. The enabling technologies for all three options are progressing rapidly, so which will be available first is anybody's guess. Alcor members are able to express a preference for their mechanism of revival (in particular, some have philosophical issues with uploading), but ultimately the main criteria will probably be "what works best?". One thing that all of the revival paths will almost certainly have in common is the need to repair (or, in the case of uploading, closely analyze and record) cellular structures on a molecular level. As science fiction as that may sound, it's simply an intelligent harnessing of the same types of mechanisms upon which biology already operates, and the rate of progress in developing this technology (nanotechnology) has been growing at an exponential rate since the late 1980's.
How do you know they'll be able to revive you?
Technically I don't. This is very much experimental. However, if you look at it the odds seem very much in favor of it. You're betting on three things:
1) That the cryosuspension has successfully preserved the pertinent details of your brain structure that make you you. Electron micrographs and piles of other experimental evidence support this very strongly.
2) That the technology and will to recover you will exist eventually- not within a single lifetime or within a century or two, but eventually. IMHO to say that we will never develop such technology is laughable, and I'm willing to bet my life on it.
3) That the facility and the meager resources required to maintain it will persist until that time. As I'll detail below, from a financial, geological, and climatological standpoint little short of the collapse of civilization is likely to pose a risk to the people in cryosuspension.
Why would you bother if there's no guarantee?
Short answer: because there *is* a guarantee of what'll happen if I'm buried or cremated, and I'm not fond of that outcome.
Longer answer: I researched cryonics and related technologies and followed Alcor's activities skeptically for over a decade before actually signing up. There aren't any absolute guarantees of success, but in my estimation the evidence that these guys aren't wasting their time and effort is pretty compelling, and I've never yet heard an argument against it that I'd consider a show-stopper.
It obviously won't work because [insert any basic technical objection here]
Here I go with the snarkiness. While I love when people ask technical questions in an effort to gain a better understanding (and I'll address some technical specifics below), the idea that someone would think that off the top of their head they'd be able to find a "deal breaker" flaw that somehow nobody else has addressed in the over 35 years that cryonics technology has been developed galls me.
C'mon. No matter how smart you may be, if the sum total of what you know about cryonics is what you've seen in movies/TV or read in my LJ, you are not going to find a major technical problem that people for whom this is their academic and technical specialty, and who have made this their life's work, have somehow failed to notice all this time.
However, if you do have a specific technical concern that isn't addressed here, please check here. If it's not addressed there either, post it in the comments and if I don't have a response I'll research it and find out.
Didn't Penn & Teller say that cryonics is bullshit?
Yup, they sure did. I'm a huge fan of P&T, and was really excited to hear what they had to say on the subject. Unfortunately, they really only breezed over it. They gave a quick briefing of what it is and declared it bullshit without providing any real supporting arguments. Instead they showcased a guy who runs a very small cryonics operation (TransTime), was obviously nervous on camera, and gave a poor interview. Their segment makes no mention that there even are any other cryonics organizations (there are at least 4 others), despite the fact that they use footage of Alcor's facility, and despite the fact that Alcor has suspended more patients than every other cryonics organization in the world put together.
They did interview one medical professional whose only argument against cryonics is that ice crystal formation damages proteins.
Won't ice formation cause irreparable damage to cells? Won't your brain turn to mush when it's thawed?
Not if there's no ice. The whole point of perfusing the cells with cryoprotectant prior to suspension is to eliminate the water inside and between the cells and replace it with a medium that won't cause as much damage when it crystalizes. Even that process has now been upgraded to a better one.
A few years ago, Alcor made a significant change to their neurosuspension (head) process when they switched from "freezing" to a process known as vitrification. The important difference is that with vitrification ideally there'll be no crystal formation at all. The vitrifying solution never actually "freezes". Instead it goes through what's called "glass transition". The result is an unparalleled suspension.
Within the last year, Alcor developed the ability to do vitrification for whole body patients as well, though the technology still has room for improvement.
As a side note, Michael Shermer, a gentleman for whom I personally have tremendous respect, based his critique of cryonics almost entirely on damage from ice crystal formation.
What makes you think that vitrification is better, or will work at all?
Because vitrification has been reversed for individual organs, and those organs have been perfectly viable. This is with current technology. Granted, the process has only been reversed for certain organs and not for entire organisms, but it shows that this is a workable process, and that cryonics' goals are really only an evolutionary step beyond what's currently capable. There's nothing magical required here, and no violations of the laws of physics.
Once you're dead you're dead! How can you come back?
How do you define death? Please be specific.
The definition of legal death is not a concrete demarcation, but rather changes as medical technology advances. By that definition, people have been "brought back from the dead" numerous times.
Unless you are obliterated by some violent action, life and death are not binary states. Death is a cascade failure of biological systems, usually starting with cardiac and/or respiratory arrest and ending with ischemia, apoptosis, and decay. In between is a gray area. I think that a good analogy is a line of dominos falling. The objective of cryonics is to halt or suspend that cascade until such time as the damage that has already occurred can be repaired.
Cryonicists generally define death either as "the irreversible cessation of life processes" or as "the point at which the relevant neural structures that define an individual have decayed to the point that they can no longer be extrapolated". By either definition, if you can be revived then you were never actually dead in the first place.
If you come back do you have to pay back the insurance money?
No. Once the insurance has paid out to Alcor then your contract with the insurance provider is completed.
It's a scam!
Can you be more specific? More to the point, can you provide any evidence whatsoever? Can you explain how they've managed to continue to operate for over 30 years if they're a scam? This objection straight up pisses me off, because it displays willful ignorance of Alcor's leadership and operations.
It's true that in the late 1960's and early 1970's there were some charlatans who tried to turn cryonics into a way to make a quick buck. This was in the "wild and wooly early days" of cryonics when everything was new and there was no oversight and no established protocols. No doubt about it, there were some horror stories, and none of the guilty parties either got away with it or have had anything do do with cryonics since about 1973.
To say that things are different now is an understatement. Cryonics has been around for over 35 years now, and nobody in any cryonics organization has gotten rich from it yet, so if it is a scam then it's a really bad one. Alcor processes, accounting, expenditures, and activities are all well documented. There was one Alcor employee who attempted to embezzle money last year. His activities were discovered by Alcor, they reported him to the police, and he went to jail. Alcor also immediately sent notification to all of its members letting them know what was happening, kept us posted, and instituted 3rd party oversight of all of their accounting activities. It would require far more effort and expense for them to try to be fraudulent than to simply do what they say they're doing. :-)
Additionally, most of the employees are also members. If it was a scam they wouldn't waste their money on it. I've met the President and COO personally, as well as Dr. Ralph Merkle (who is on the scientific advisory board), and they're clearly dedicated to what they're doing. Their advisory boards are a who's who of cutting edge science.
Check it out for yourself here.
Want more? Dr. Merkle, examining the plausibility of cryonics in his essay 'The Molecular Repair of the Brain' observes, "Interestingly (and somewhat to the author's surprise) there are no published technical articles on cryonics that claim it won't work...A literature search on cryonics along with personal inquiries has not produced a single technical paper on the subject that claims that cryonics is not feasible. On the other hand, technical papers and analyses of cryonics that speak favorably of its eventual success have been published. It is unreasonable, given the extant literature, to conclude that cryonics is unlikely to work."
Still want more? Check out The Scientists' Open Letter on Cryonics
I'm not going to sign up until they revive someone!
The desire to see someone revived before signing up for cryonics is very common, and on the surface seems to make sense, but the irony is that once the ability to revive cryonauts is developed there'll be little need to suspend people, since the entire point of cryonics is to put you "on pause" until that technology arrives.
How do you know that people in the future will bother to try to revive you?
There are several reasons why- desire to prove that it can be done, to revive family or friends that are in suspension, to advance science, or general altruism. If you're looking for a completely economic/rational reason, as technology continues to improve and spread eventually the cost of reviving patients will be less than the cost of maintaining their stasis.
Can I have your head after it's frozen?
No. (Yes, I've been asked this.)
What happens to your soul?
I really can't answer that question for you, but I can let you know that cryonics doesn't violate the tenets of any major religion (except maybe Scientology, if you consider that a major religion). It's a medical procedure, like an organ transplant or open heart surgery. It's not "raising the dead".
Why would you want to extend your life or live in the future?
Frankly, if you can't grasp the answer to this then you probably shouldn't sign up for cryopreservation.
All your friends and family will be dead! Won't you be lonely?
They won't be dead if I can help it! I'll hardly be alone. My wife is an Alcor member, as are three of our close friends, and I expect that number to grow.
Additionally, the cryonics community is small and fairly close-knit. I've had the pleasure of meeting quite a few Alcor members and staff, and without exception they're all pleasant, interesting people that I'd be happy to have over for game night or spend a few decades next to, insensate in an steel dewar. I like these people, and we'll all be going through this adventure together, so if nothing else we'll have each other to lean on.
Even setting all that aside, people make new friends in new environments all the time.
You won't have any usable skills in the future!
We all start out life with no marketable skills. I learned everything I need to function in society once, and I'm perfectly willing to do it again. Besides, even a job as the future equivalent of a fast food worker or sewer repairman would be infinitely more appealing to me than the alternative.
The culture shock in the future will be terrible!
Yes, it probably will be! I expect it to be disorienting, frustrating, and at times scary and possibly even depressing. This *isn't* for everyone, and I don't mean to portray it otherwise. However, the situation will probably not be unlike that of an immigrant from a third world nation coming to the US and making their way. It's not easy, but people do it every day. Furthermore, cryonicists are a self-selected group, and I doubt that any of us have signed up without giving it a lot of consideration first. The people who sign up for cryonics (in my experience) are fascinated by the future, in love with life, and are the most likely to view this as a worthwhile adventure, even in light of the potential downsides. In other words, it's a group that self-selects people who are likely to be psychologically predisposed toward being able to deal with the inevitable stresses.
Doesn't it cost a fortune?
Fortunately not. I'm not wealthy by any means, and I know cryonicists who are on much shakier financial ground than I am. The cryosuspension itself is typically paid for using a life insurance policy. If you're in good health and are reasonably young then a policy is very affordable. (I can recommend an insurance agent who is familiar with setting up such policies.) The insurance policy builds interest, and after a while (20-25 years or so) the interest will likely be sufficient to actually make the payments for me.
In addition to the insurance policy there are quarterly dues to Alcor itself. The total dues are currently $130 per quarter, with substantial discounts for students, additional family members, and children under 18. For this you're getting the basic membership, tags, subscription to Cryonics magazine, and (this is important) access to Comprehensive Member Standby, which basically means that in the event that you are at high risk of legal death in the short term they'll send a team to be ready and make preparations beforehand.
Won't you be broke in the future?
Possibly, but not necessarily. The United States doesn't permit legally dead people to own property, but there are a couple of clever ways around that.
If you're wealthy you can set up a trust. I'm not wealthy so I honestly don't have a lot of information on this option, but I know it's done.
If you're not wealthy then there are still options. Liechtenstein has no perpetuity laws, and there is an investment fund set up there specifically for cryonauts (yes, that's what we're called- I didn't make up the word). You can overfund your insurance and have the extra go into that fund.
In any event, to me even abject poverty is infinitely more desirable than death.
What happens if you "die" someplace where they can't recover your body?
I'd be pretty much out of luck. The outlook is also grim if suspension is delayed significantly, or if my brains get blown out or eaten by a zombie. There was one Alcor member who were irretrievably lost when the WTC collapsed on 9/11. It sucks, but them's the breaks. There is a clause in the contract where you can specify how much effort should go into recovering you, and at what point you feel that there's no point trying to preserve you. (i.e. if all they have left is a thumb, do you consider a clone to be worth the bother?)
Additionally, certain degenerative neurological diseases (such as Alzheimer's or "Mad Cow") can reduce both the quality of the neurosuspension and the integrity of the neural pattern being preserved. It's an unfortunate fact that the law prohibits suspension before these diseases have run their course, but to challenge that would put Alcor in an extremely precarious legal position (to put it mildly).
What happens to the insurance money then?
Typically it still goes to Alcor, who uses it for research and to shore up their financial stability. If you so desire you can name a secondary beneficiary who will receive the pay-out instead if suspension is impossible, but this strongly recommended against as it creates a situation where your next of kin stand to benefit financially by you not being suspended. There have been some very ugly situations that have arisen because of this.
So how do you know that they won't just dump your body somewhere and keep the money?
You mean aside from the fact that it would be illegal, immoral, almost impossible to get away with, and result in jail time? Well, when a suspension is performed it's very well documented. Photos, charts, a detailed write up, etc. This information is available to the public, and much of it is included in the subsequent issue of Cryonics magazine, which is provided to all members. Additionally, the facility is open to the public, so while the dewars don't actually have windows to allow you to directly view the patients you can see the dewars themselves, the patient care bay, and all of the equipment. Given that Alcor operates under a microscope and is the subject of much suspicion (as evidenced by this question), it would actually be easier for them to just operate honestly than to try to covertly dispose of bodies while under so much scrutiny.
One other factor to consider is that almost everyone who works for Alcor (either as a paid employee or as a volunteer) is also a member. If it was being operated unscrupulously then they'd be throwing away their own chances for a minimal payoff.
What happens if the power goes out?
Not much. Contrary to popular belief, the dewars that patients are stored in don't use electricity at all. Instead they're kept cold using liquid nitrogen. The only outside intervention they need is to have the nitrogen topped off from time to time (it naturally boils off slowly). Liquid nitrogen is cheap, safe, and easily obtained from multiple sources (it's actually a waste byproduct of some industrial processes).
As for redundancy, there are multiple sources for liquid nitrogen, so even if the supplier they contract with vanished overnight there would be no emergency. For that matter, even if every supplier vanished they could likely go a few months before the situation became critical. The nitrogen boils off from top to bottom (obviously), and full-body patients are stored inverted so that if every source was somehow simultaneously cut off for an extended period of time (which would indicate some serious problems with the world as a whole) the head- the most critical component- would be the last to thaw.
What happens if there's an earthquake or tornado?
The chances are virtually nonexistent. The location of the facility (in Scottsdale, AZ) was chosen because it's geologically stable and experiences no extreme weather.
What happens if a comet crushes the facility?
Then anyone inside is screwed, along with probably a good portion of the rest of the planet. I don't see this as a real flaw in the system.
What happens if Alcor goes out of business?
Great question! This was one of my last big sticking points before deciding to sign up. As of 1997, Alcor is now 2 separate legal entities, the Alcor Life Extension Foundation (ALEF) and the Alcor Patient Care Trust. Both are non-profit.
ALEF is the "front-end" for Alcor. They organize the membership, perform suspensions, do PR, etc. They are the less financially stable side of Alcor. While it's feasible that ALEF could go out of business it's unlikely, as the members have proven willing to contribute to ensure its continued operation.
The Patient Care Trust is concerned only with the long-term care and eventual resuscitation of the patients who are already suspended, and financially they're very stable. The Trust owns the actual facility and their expenses are meager. ALEF pays rent to the Trust, which alone more than covers the Trust's operating expenses. In addition to that, ALEF places $25,000 into the Trust for each neuropatient and $65,000 for each whole body patient. This comes from the insurance pay-out for the suspension, and is invested in stocks and bonds by Morgan Stanley. If ALEF were to fold tomorrow then the dividends that the Trust earns would still be sufficient to cover their operating costs in perpetuity. It's reasonable to expect that continued growth of the Trust will be able to pay for not just resuscitation, but also research to help lead to resuscitation technology. Little short of a societal collapse is going to put the Trust out of business.
Incidentally, in order to be on the board of the Trust you must be an Alcor member and have a family member currently in suspension. This is to help prevent any conflict of interest.
What would you do as a disembodied head?
You should really stop taking Futurama as an authentic explanation of how cryonics works! :-) A head by itself is not self-sufficient. For neurosuspension patients, part of the resuscitation process will have to include either re-growing a body, "uploading" the neural pattern into another system (a computer), or constructing a synthetic body. Alcor members can express a preference for their method of revival, but ultimately it'll mostly depend upon how the technology develops.
Would you still be human if you were uploaded or had a synthetic body?
"Will we still be human? In my view, this is exactly what being human is all about: expanding beyond our limitations." -Ray Kurzweil
Who would win in a fight between ninjas and dinosaurs?
Ninjas, of course. Why do you think that the dinosaurs are extinct? (Okay I admit, nobody has ever asked me this. I thought I'd break things up a bit.) :-)
I heard they broke Ted Williams' head and drilled holes in it!
That's not quite right. They do drill a hole in the head as part of the suspension process. It's used to monitor temperature, cryoprotectant perfusion levels, etc. This feedback is absolutely critical to perform a thorough, viable suspension (as opposed to just pumping stuff in and hoping for the best). The alternative is akin to operating on a patient without any monitoring equipment.
As for "breaking" Williams' head, that's incorrect. The media mis-reported what are known as "cracking events" that happen within the skull during the decent to liquid nitrogen temperature. They're normal and expected with the current cryopreservation process, and while they do pose some additional challenges for resuscitation, indications are that little or no actual "data loss" is occurring. Research is currently underway to tweak the vitrification process to eliminate cracking events entirely, and seem to be showing a lot of progress.
What if you're revived as food/slaves?
Not gonna happen. If you have the technology to resuscitate cryonics patients then you almost certainly have the technology to build food from the ground up, and would have no need for slaves. Also, if a society has the will to resuscitate cryonauts then it's fair to assume that they hold a certain value to life, else why bother?
Doesn't the brain liquify itself after you die?
Eventually, but not immediately. A doctor that's not familiar with cryonics will likely tell you that ischemia will cause irreversible brain damage after a couple of minutes at most, but they're judging "irreversible" based on current technology and outdated information. The level of ischemia that will prevent immediate resuscitation is much lower than the level of ischemia that destroys the actual pattern of your neural connections and cell structures. Electron microscopy of vitrified brains has verified that, at least in ideal circumstances, the salient structures are preserved. As long as the pattern is preserved (or even just in a state where it can be inferred) then the suspension is considered viable. The part that makes you you is still present and recoverable.
Of course it doesn't always work out that way. If misfortune strikes under circumstances which prevent the suspension process from being initiated relatively quickly then the outlook can be pretty grim. It happens.
What makes you think that a hospital would bother to call Alcor or take instruction from them?
History. They don't always cooperate, but in the majority of cases they do. The level of cooperation of standard medical personnel is a huge variable in the quality of a cryonic suspension, and can literally make or break it. Typically if the patient succumbs to a chronic condition then there's sufficient advance warning to make all of the necessary arrangements to move them to a facility that's knowledgeable about and sympathetic to cryonics, but in the case of accidents or other such sudden events sometimes things don't work out so well. Once Alcor is aware of a member being near death or very recently deceased they react immediately and will generally go to heroic measures if necessary to fight for the patient's wishes, but there have been several cases where uncooperative medical staff or family members have thwarted a cryosuspension.
Shouldn't you make room/free up resources for future generations? Why should you get to live forever?
This is probably the single most offensive objection I've heard. Think about it. It presumes that my existence is a drain upon the world, and that the human race would be better off without me than with. I don't think it's arrogant at all to say that that's a crock. I more than carry my weight in this world, as do most people. If we didn't then we as a species simply wouldn't survive.
On top of all that, as much as I personally may want to live forever, cryonics is not about immortality- it's simply about living more. If future technologies make true immortality an option then great, but let's not confuse the issue by adding extraneous claims to cryonics.
Won't you be contributing to overpopulation in the future?
Not appreciably. As with the last point, this assumes that one is a drain upon society rather than a contributor. It also assumes that there are enough cryonicists to actually make a difference. The reality is that cryonics has been around for over 35 years, and there are a total of approximately 1000 cryonicists worldwide. This includes both people in suspension and those signed up for it. Even if that number were to swell by a factor of 10 and they were all revived on the same day the effect on world population (currently around 6 billion) would be utterly trivial.
Won't you just come back old and feeble, and die again shortly thereafter?
Er, no. Aging is largely a function of degenerative cellular damage. It's likely that reviving a patient in cryosuspension will require the ability to repair damage on a cellular level. In other words, aging will likely be conquered before most people are brought out of suspension. It's silly to assume that you'll come back old or sick.
Wasn't Walt Disney frozen? (This isn't an objection, but I've been asked this several times so I figured I'd include it.)
No. And yes, I'm sure of this fact. Walt Disney died on Dec. 15, 1966. The first real cryonic suspension was Dr. James Bedford on Jan. 12, 1967. He is currently located at Alcor's facility in Scottsdale, AZ. (There's an interesting story there, but it's beyond the scope of this posting.) Walt Disney is in a grave.
Are you looking forward to being frozen?
Hell no! It's dangerous, disorienting, and probably quite unpleasant. It's desirable only when compared to the alternative. As a cryonicist once said, "cryonic suspension is the second worst thing that can ever happen to you!"
I consider this a work in progress. If you have a question or concern that I haven't addressed here, please check out Alcor's General FAQ, Science FAQ, and Procedural Overview. If it's not covered there then let me know! Put it in the comments here and I'll address it and possibly add it to the FAQ.
EDIT: Due to automated spam, comments are now screened by default. However, any comment that is on topic will be unscreened immediately.