Frozen Dead People *
I was on my West-to-East trip across the USA and found myself in sunny Phoenix. It very quickly took the record as the hottest city I had ever been to—but quite surprisingly, it is also where I found the coldest people on earth.
Alcor is the world’s number one cryonics facility, and I had previously heard of it via the excellent book ‘Emergency’1. It is actually a little outside of Phoenix, in the satellite town of Scottsdale, and at the time of my visit housed one hundred and eleven people chilled down just beyond the cusp of life, waiting for the day when science can revive them. They do a free tour which I signed up for online.
On the day, I arrived in time for the 10am start and ducked out of the already baking desert sun into their inconspicuous building:
Inside I found a surprisingly standard office set up, with friendly receptionists and stylish leather sofas. The only strange thing was the large number of death jokes posted in the coffee area. I was promptly loaded with promotional leaflets, magazines, and other information, as if I were there to buy health insurance (which I guess is what they sell). After a few minutes to process these alone, I was guided around the facility by Aaron Drake, the Medical Response Director.
Here I must confess—my title for this article is an attention-grabbing lie. The Alcor facility does not contain any ‘frozen dead people’, as they draw distinctions on all three terms:
- ‘Frozen’ — the process is not freezing, but vitrification. All water in the body is replaced with a glycerol-based concoction, so it’s more like being really cold and made of glass.
- ‘Dead’ — whilst they take people after ‘legal death’, they believe that the boundary is much more fuzzy, and medicine is continually pushing beyond. Today a person can have their heart stop for hours and survive, even though that was impossible a hundred years ago. (e.g. recently football player Fabrice Muamba managed 2 hours )
- ‘People’—whilst whole-body preservation is their forte, but they offer a discounted head-and-neck option (‘neuropreservation’), and will also take your pets (to date mostly cats, dogs, and a chimp).
Aaron gave me these factlets, and a whole lot more, during a well-rehearsed introductory spiel. We sat alone (not many people take cryonics tours) at the end of a long table by a shuttered window, which I wrongly assumed to lead outside.
After the discussion, he fluidly stood up and watched my face for reactions as he pressed an unlabelled red button on the wall. The blinds rolled up slowly, dramatically revealing this:
And that was the weirdest scene I ever saw.
It wasn't the gut wrench of seeing a dead body, nor the queasy fascination of studying a preserved organ in a jar. It was a weird chill of the potential that in these tubs were dead* people—but they had passed on with a hope of re-awakening on a day I would never see.
On a practical note, there are 4 bodies or up to 45 heads per container, all suspended in liquid nitrogen that needs topping up weekly. The panel bottom right is dedicated to Doctor Bedford, the first man to be ‘cryopreserved’ in 1967.
How do they do it?
I was walked around and shown all the details—every machine, operating table, and widget used in the vitrification process. It is based on some science, but admittedly with a huge side-serving of ignorance, as they don't have a clue how the reverse will work. They're more hoping they don't screw you up that much.
Here's the 8-step plan:
As pointed out earlier, this is ‘legal death’, and Alcor sidestep the d-word altogether.
Your body is injected with a cocktail of 15 drugs.
Designed to suppress consciousness, prevent coagulation, etc.
Your blood is kept flowing with an automatic chest-pumping machine.
Meanwhile you’re kept at a balmy 5°C.
You’re moved to the Alcor facility.
Hopefully you knew your end was nigh and you situated yourself at the local hospice.
Your heart is exposed and pumps run through to replace the water in your body with a glycerol-based solution.
This will turn you ‘glassy’ rather than allowing ice crystals to damage your cells.
You’re chilled down to −100°C quite rapidly.
In your own private cooling bath!
You’re chilled down to −196°C over 5 days.
NB: Founder Fred Chamberlain III was cyropreserved 5 days before my visit, so he was probably still chilling down out back3.
You move in to your new home.
With three roommates! (or up to 44 if you're just a head.)
And the reverse...
Whilst these are of course highly speculative, here are some of the possibilities the cryopreserved few may face in the future:
Bodies can be revived and cured by future medicine.
You wake up and continue your life, with huge profit if your spare cash went into a compounding interest account!
Brains can be revived and transplanted into cloned bodies.
You obtain a fit new 21-year-old body, made from your own genes. Of course, this begs the question, what to do with the clone's brain? Aren't they a person too?
Brains be scanned and simulated in a computer.
Like Second Life, but more literal, you will live on as a cyber-being. Or maybe as the control centre for a robot. You can read more about the science of whole-brain slicing and imaging in Sebastian Seung's book Connectome4.
Revival technology is never invented.
Alcor estimates they can keep you frozen fresh until about 350 years into the future—and that if revival doesn’t happen in that time period it probably never will.
Will it work?
Pieces of evidence for revivability exist, but there are still huge gaps of ignorance. I see three main sources of problems.
Firstly, the vitrification process is not known to produce usable results. The glycerol solution can easily replace the water, but the reverse is not known. Proteins, the ingredients of life, are designed to work at body temperature—they lose their function, or denature, at extreme temperatures. So even though Alcor have evidence of low structural damage2, this is no guarantee that anything useful beyond the body's form is being maintained.
Secondly, budgetary. Alcor has a $10m pool collected from members to fund future research, but that’s kinda peanuts in the world of medical technology. Even at the lowest end of the spectrum of estimates, it costs $55m to develop and get a drug to market in the USA5, and I would estimate the total revival of these people must be at a minimum equivalent to developing something like a hundred drugs (“Did you remember to take your ‘recently thawed’ pill today dear?”). They would surely need many thousands more signups and cash in the bank before funding even the most basic of research.
Thirdly, things must stay exactly the way they are at the facility for your hibernation period. Although any estimate is a pure shot-in-the-dark, let's say it would take 100 years to get to revivability. What happened in the last 100 years? Two World Wars, the invention of the computer,... even the invention of cryonics. The future is inherently unknowable, and even a simple crisis might break the plan, for example, by cutting off their liquid nitrogen supply.
The founders had a strict belief that it would 100% work out due to scientific progress accelerating and reaching far beyond our dreams—probably a necessary belief to maintain as a founder as there were no other frozen* dead* people to back you up and make you look less crazy. Nowadays the message from Alcor is a little more tame—that there’s a chance, though perhaps not a huge one, of revival. But, as Aaron put it:
We think there may only be a small chance, but that’s better than nothing.
At least it sounds less like a religion (“You can live again, if you give us $200k”).
Sign up now?
After my tour I sat down and had a sign up discussion, with CEO Max More joining in to see if I was interested. They handed me the sign up booklet and materials, and pointed out how easy the staff make it to transfer one's health insurance in this direction.
Did I sign up? Am I now set to wake up in the year 3000 and meet your great-great-great-granddaughter? (I heard she’s pretty fine.)
No, not at all. I am incredibly sceptical that what they are doing will be in any way reversible, and moreover, if I don't convince friends and family to sign on the future might be kind of boring (won't everyone speak Chinese?).
At least a few of the people connected with Alcor seem to spend a large amount of their lives worrying about dying rather than actually living. For example, the recently cryopreserved founder Fred invested a lot of time in a website profile of his memories 6 that would hopefully help future scientists reconstruct his personality in a partial-revival situation.
In the end Alcor members face a future that, probabilistically, may as well be treated as death: a slim chance of revival is still a fat chance of death.
An awesome book about one man's four-year quest to find out how to survive, no matter what. This introduced me to Alcor.
The official Alcor website. If you're ever in Phoenix the sign-up form for a tour is on here.
The blog post describing the death cryopreservation of Fred Chamberlain 5 days before my visit
A great introduction to the science of brain scans and how we might study brains via vitrification. Reading this will give you a sense of the ignorance we have about the brain, and how far off any revival might be.
Lets you store your ‘beingness’ in a digital diary. Quite fun to sign up and tick ‘I … ACCEPT THAT IF THIS REPLICATION IS SUCCESSFUL PRIOR TO ME BEING DECLARED LEGALLY DEAD THAT THERE WILL BE A CYBERNETIC COPY OF ME OVER WHICH I MAY HAVE NO CONTROL’—but ultimately, Facebook have more data about your ‘beingness’.