Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Life in the Fridge

By Michael Cook

Cryonics technologies have captured the imagination of some of the brightest minds in Silicon Valley, but what about the rest of us?

What would the 17th century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal think of cryonics — the business of freezing people until scientists can revive them? Given his scepticism and his religious fervour, not much. However, a few years ago Scottish bioethicist David Shaw thawed out Pascal’s famous wager to defend it.

Some readers might recall that Pascal’s Wager works like this. If you are a betting man, he argued, it is preferable to put your chips on the existence of God because the benefits of the afterlife are so great that they dwarf the fleeting pleasures of atheism. As theology, Shaw says, this argument has been discredited. But it does succeed for cryonics:

At worst, cryonics offers a slim chance of living for a few more years. At best, it offers a slim chance of living forever. Ultimately, the Cryonic Wager is overwhelmingly attractive for the rational humanist, even without the prospect of eternal life.

Cryogenics makes sense, Shaw argued, because “for atheists who don’t believe in an afterlife, cryonics represents the only chance of life after ‘death’”.

Alcor, an American company that freezes whole bodies and neuropatients (i.e. heads), is the best-known practitioner of cryonics. It currently has over 1000 members enrolled and about 140 patients in its freezers. As soon as a member is pronounced clinically dead, its doctors jump into action, place the patient in a ventilator and begin the freezing process.

While this may sound quite weird, cryonics and other life-extension technologies have captured the imagination of some of the brightest minds in Silicon Valley. If embryos can be frozen and revived, theoretically, why can’t adults?

Part of Google’s recent reorganisation involved the creation of a spin-off company, Calico, which does research into longevity. Peter Theil, the billionaire venture capitalist and co-founder of PayPal, has made substantial investments into a foundation called Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence. Theil has also signed up with Alcor.

The New York Times recently highlighted the case of one of Alcor’s “patients”, 23-year-old Kim Suozzi, who died of a brain tumour in 2012. She crowd-financed the preservation of her head (a process euphemistically called “cephalic isolation”) on Reddit.

A head might not seem very useful without a body, but the theoreticians of cryonics believe that someday it will be possible to make a digital copy of the brain’s wiring, called a “connectome”. This would be uploaded to a computer and hooked up to sensory devices. Someday it may be possible to power a robot with Suozzi’s connectome. Someday she may live again.

That “someday” may be a long time in coming. The connectome for a human brain could be as large as 1.3 billion terabytes, which is not something you can carry around on a memory stick. In fact, the collective capacity of the world’s hard drives is an estimated 2.6 billion terabytes.

A number of interesting ethical questions are provoked by cryonics. Is the self the connectome? Is the body a part of the self? Is Alcor cheating its patients (i.e. customers)? Is it better to spend the freezing fees on charity? Is it moral to extend the lives of the rich who can afford cryopreservation?

But the central issue is whether death is a good thing. Cryonics faces a significant consumer resistance because of the “Yuck” factor – after more than 40 years and steady publicity, Alcor still has only a few score patients. When Suozzi disclosed her plan to her father he said: “I can’t help you with this. We don’t live forever, Kim.”

Most people, religious or not, would agree with him. What accounts for that instinctive feeling?

Death is never welcome, but perhaps we fear immortality too. The human mind, let alone the body, is not fashioned for unending cycles of experience. After a few hundred years even Methuselah must been itching with boredom.

Perhaps it is better to see life as a limited-overs competition to do the best job we possibly can before we are bowled out.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge, a bioethics newsletter.