net.wars: Beyond biology

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 11 January 2008

"Will we have enough food?"
Last Saturday (for an article in progress for the Guardian), I attended the monthly board meeting at Alcor, probably the largest of the several cryonics organisations.

Wendy M Grossman

Cryonics: preserving a newly deceased person's body in the hope that medical technology will improve to the point where that person can be warmed up, revived, and cured.

I was the last to arrive at what I understand was an unusually crowded meeting: fifteen, including board members, staffers, and visitors. Hence the chair's anxious question.

The conference room has a window at one end that looks into a mostly empty concrete space at a line of giant cylinders, some gleaming steel, some dull aluminum. These "dewars" are essentially giant Thermos bottles, and they are the vessels in which cryopreserved patients are held. Each dewar can hold up to nine patients – four whole bodies, head down, and five neuro patients in a column down the middle.

There is a good reason to call these cryopreserved Alcor members "patients". If the cryonics dream ever comes to fruition, they will not have been dead now. And in any case, calling them patients has the same function as naming your sourdough starter: it reminds you that here is something that cannot survive without your responsible care.

To Alcor's board and staff, these are often personal friends. A number have their framed pictures on the board room wall, with the dates of their birth and cryopreservation. It was therefore a little eerie to realize that those visible dewars were, mostly, occupied.

I think the first time I ever heard of anything like cryonics was Woody Allen's movie Sleeper. Reading about it as a serious proposition came nearly 20 years later, in Ed Regis's 1992 book . Regis's book, which I reviewed for New Scientist, was a vivid ramble through the outer fringes of science, which he dubbed "fin-de-siècle hubris".

My view hasn't changed: since cremation and burial both carry a chance of revival of zero, cryonics has to do hardly anything to offer better odds, no matter how slight.

But it remains a contentious idea. Isaac Asimov, for example, was against it, at least for himself. The science fiction I read as a teenager was filled with overpopulated earths covered in giant blocks of one-room apartments and people who lived on synthetic food because there was no longer the space or ability to grow enough of the real stuff. And we're going to add long-dead people as well?

That kind of issue comes up when you mention cryonics. Isn't it selfish? Or expensive? Or an imposition on future generations? What would the revived person would live on, given their outdated skills. Supposing you wake up a slave?

Many of these issues have been considered, if not by cryonicists themselves for purely practical reasons then by sf writers. Robert A. Heinlein's 1957 book had its protagonist involuntarily frozen and deposited into the future with no assets and no employment prospects, given that his engineering background was 30 years out of date. Larry Niven's 1991 short story "Rammer" had its hero revived into the mind-blanked body of a criminal and sent out as a starship pilot by a society that would have calmly vaped his personality in its turn, and replaced it with the next one if he were found unsuitable (Niven was also, by the way, the writer who coined the descriptor "corpsicle" for the cryopreserved). Even Woody Allen's Miles Monroe woke up in danger.

The thing is, those aren't reasons for cryonicists not to try to make their dream a reality.

They are arguments for careful thought on the part of the cryonics organisations who are offering cryopreservation and possible revival as services. And they do think about it, in part because the people running those organisations expect to be cryopreserved themselves The scientist and Alcor board member Ralph Merkle, in an interview last year, pointed out that the current board chooses its successors with great care, "Because our lives will depend on selecting a good group to continue the core values."

Many of them are also bad arguments.

  • Most people, given their health, want their lives to continue; if they didn't, we'd be awash in suicides.
  • If overpopulation is the problem, having children is just as selfish a way of securing immortality as wanting longer life for oneself.
  • If burdening future generations is the problem, doing so by being there is hardly worse than using up all the planet's resources in our lifetime, leaving our descendants to suffer the consequences unaided. Nor is
  • being uncertain of the consequences a reason: human history is filled with technologies we've developed on the basis that we'd deal with the consequences as they arose.
  • Some consequences were good, some bad; most technologies have a mix of the two.

    After the board meeting ended, several of those present and I went on talking about just these issues over lunch.

    "We won't be harder to deal with than a baby," one of them said. Possibly true; but there is a much bigger biological urge to reproduce than there is to revive someone who was pronounced dead a century or two ago.

    "We are kind of going around biology," he admitted.

    Only up to a point: there was enough food.

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