What A Time To Be Alive — Forever

It’s summer and you’ve never loved life more. Now consider immortality.

Illustration Hisashi Okawa
What A Time To Be Alive — Forever

Do you want to live forever? Yes? OK. Here’s how.

Call up one of the currently operational centers of cryonics. That’s the industry-preferred term for the practice of freezing one’s body after death in order to one day, once the necessary technology arrives, be thawed out and reanimated. You should go with the one closest to the location where you assume you will eventually die. As much as possible, you want to minimize the time between death and freezing.

There are only four cryonics centers in the whole world, so it shouldn’t be too tough to pick. Your choices: the Cryonics Institute in Clinton Township, Michigan; Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona; Oregon Cryonics in Salem, Oregon; and KrioRus in Moscow, Russia.

The fees aren’t as bad as you might think. If you just want to preserve your brain, which is all you really need, rates can be as low as $25,000. And it can be covered by life insurance, too. Because, let’s not forget: there won’t be any services rendered until after the spirit leaves the body.

So you sign up and do some light paperwork — something similar to the procedures for donating your body to science. Maybe you shake some hands. And you reach an agreement with your chosen cryonics provider: upon your death, emergency technicians will drain your blood and pump you full of antifreeze and move your body into sub-300° Fahrenheit storage facilities. And there, you will wait.

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The argument against cryonics is pretty solid. No one ever, in the history of the world, has managed to be dead, and then not be dead. But wait. The argument for cryonics is pretty good, too. Everyone knows what happens if you don’t freeze yourself after you die. You stay dead.

What the people behind the cryonics movement would like you to consider is: why not just try living forever?

Is a copy of your brain really you? How does an immortal live? And what is the point of life if there is no death?

The theory of cryonics has been around since at least 1964. That’s the year that Robert C.W. Ettinger published the book Prospect of Immortality and roughly shoved the idea from fiction into quasi-science. A World War II veteran who was seriously injured by German mortar fire, Ettinger was a kooky proselytizer for his passion. He first fell in love with the concept through the pulpy sci-fi comics of his youth — wild stories about unfrozen cavmen and deathless aliens — and that fantasticism never left him.

In 2010, a year before his death, The New Yorker’s Jill Lepore profiled Ettinger at his Cryonics Institute in Michigan, and delivered a saucy dismissal. “But if no one ever dies, won’t there be too many people on the planet?” Lepore wondered. Ettinger’s plan: “The people could simply agree to share the available space in shifts, going into suspended animation from time to time to make room for others.”

The public imagination of cryonics is still dominated by Ettinger-like figures: crackpots and charlatans, basically. But recently, with the aid of hifalutin fiction and serious science, cryonics has been nudged ever so slightly out of its stigma toward the other end of the spectrum — fascination.

Just this May, revered author Don DeLillo released his seventeenth novel, Zero K, to his best reviews in a decade. It’s a story about fathers and sons, grief and loss, the eternal struggle to accept death. It’s also a semi-realistic imagining of a secretive, elite cryonics institute known as the Convergence. In the book, DeLillo does not co-sign cryonics, exactly. Rather, he bathes it in a New Age cultish spirituality: the Convergence is run by shadowy amateur philosophers and headquartered in a bizarre underground lair in a vaguely identified speck of the former Eastern Bloc. But by the novel’s end, two of the main characters have passed on into deep freeze. And there is bliss glowing off their choice.

In 2015, The New York Times profiled Kim Suozzi, a neuroscience student from Columbia, Missouri. Suozzi passed away last year at age 23, from brain cancer. But before she did, she used Reddit to crowdfund her cryonics at Alcor. It’s a heartbreaking story that gets at a singular benefit that cryonics can provide: in her last days, it gave Suozzi the relief of some small hope. Buried within the Times’s piece, and its account of a seemingly impossible dream, was a jarring prediction from a scientist named Winfried Denk. According to Denk, a director at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in Germany, we may have “a method to generate a digital replica of a person’s mind” in as little as 40 years.

Here’s how it works: the brain is billions of neurons connected by synapses. The map of all the brain’s connections is called a connectome. Using an electron microscope, one should theoretically be able to scan an entire brain, one thin sheet at a time, and end up with a replica of that connectome.

Many, including the founders of Alcor, still dream of preserving the human’s actual physical form until the day that a complete restructuring can be pulled off; that’s the traditional vision. The new wave, including Oregon Cryonics, imagines uploading a copy of your brain into a virtual reality simulation — through which other future humans could interact with you — or, oh goodness yes, a robot. Once you’ve uploaded, you don’t ever need to die.

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Dr. Jordan Sparks runs Oregon Cryonics. “Lots of other people [would be] in that virtual reality, too,” he explains, of this particular future revival. “Even people who are alive in the sense that we’re used to now. And it could look like anything. It could be any environment that people imagine.”

What A Time To Be Alive — Forever Aliens, 20th Century Fox (1986)  

I ask when he thinks the technology will arrive to reanimate the dead into VR. He laughs. “You know no matter what number I give you it’s going to be completely wrong.” And then he throws out a number anyway: “My best guess is about 100 years.”

Earlier this year, while competing in a competition held by the Brain Preservation Foundation, a company called 21st Century Medicine announced it had successfully cryogenically preserved a rabbit’s brain without damaging it. They flooded the brain’s vascular system with chemicals and cooled it to minus-275 º Fahrenheit. This was an all-new technique, called aldehyde-stabilized cryopreservation. And it was the first time ever that the process had worked with a whole mammalian brain.

“Simply amazing given that I held in my hand this very same brain when it was vitrified glassy solid,” said one of the judges of the competition. “Every neuron and synapse looks beautifully preserved across the entire brain.”




But those are just the technical hurdles. What about the philosophical ones?

Let’s assume body-and-brain-preserving science will, eventually, work. Let’s assume our chosen cryonics provider will have their stuff together enough to keep the lights on for the next few hundred (thousand?) years and keep our physical form on hard ice. Now, the real tough questions: Is a copy of your brain really you? How does an immortal live? And what is the point of life if there is no death?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, real life cryonics folks don’t often indulge this line of thinking. In the cryonics community, there is a pervading focus on the practical.

Robin Hanson, an economics professor at George Mason University and a longtime cryonics cheerleader, is signed up for the afterlife with Alcor. In imagining the future, he points out that very few people — it can safely be said to be less than 1,500 worldwide — are scheduled to be frozen. Which means, if he is one day revived by the advanced future of our species, “it’ll be because someone thought the novelty of bringing me back was worth it.” It won’t be some harbinger of sweeping societal change — it’ll just be a weird, cute little thing.

“I would be a novelty celebrity,” Hanson explains, dryly. “An unusual person from the past. I would want to work, but I don’t expect to be competitive in that world at that level. So I expect to live a life of retirement, somewhat, as a mild celebrity from the past. I’d go on talk shows. I’d talk to schoolchildren about what life was like.”

“I expect to live a life of retirement, somewhat, as a mild celebrity from the past. I’d go on talk shows. I’d talk to schoolchildren about what life was like.” —Robin Hanson, professor at George Mason University

Dennis Kowalski, a paramedic, first heard about cryonics in the mid-’80s, on an episode of The Phil Donahue Show. He’s now the president of Michigan’s Cryonics Institute, which means he’s a direct line from Robert C.W. Ettinger, the godfather of cryonics himself. But Kowalski projects something that Ettinger, and the old guard, never quite did: a healthy doubt about the whole endeavor. “What we’re doing with cryonics,” he tells me, “is building an ambulance ride to a future hospital that may or may not exist.”

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That said, he’s at least optimistic enough about the whole thing to stress the importance of convincing your loved ones to come with you, so you’re not all alone in the future. Currently, it’s half-off to sign up your spouse at C.I., and kids under 18 are free. Also, Kowalski points out, people freeze pets to come along too: “Dogs. Cats. I think there might be a couple birds and iguanas in there.” As for Kowalski himself, his wife and kids are signed up, but his parents aren’t. That bugs him, even though he gets it. “They’re kind of old school,” he says.

But here’s the heartening thing. According to the 100-year projection suggested by Dr. Sparks at the Oregon facility, even if your current family doesn’t come along, upon waking up, you wouldn’t necessarily be alone in a cold world that’s long since evolved beyond you. “My grandchildren haven’t been born yet,” Sparks says. “Let’s say they’ll be born in 30 years. They’d only be 70 years old! I’d still know them!”

“I wouldn’t be woken up by total strangers,” he says. “My family would still be there.”

In the conversations I had with the cryonicists, they were engaged, warm, and not at all made cagey by the historically staunch resistance to their theory. They had something I find very brave: the confidence to deeply and loudly believe something that might make you sound dumb. When they argued, “Why not try? Why not just try cheating death?” I couldn’t help but nod.

Once, when pressed in an interview to explain this whole seemingly nutty thing, KrioRus co-founder Viktor Grebenshchikov had a very sweet answer. “I love life, I think it’s fun!” he said. “I like women. I like to drink wine and play the guitar. If I die in a car crash tomorrow and there is even one chance in a million that I can — by this means — live again, then I’d be happy.”

So I want them to succeed. Of course I do. But I do wonder what it’ll mean if (when?) they ever do. But even then, in the kind of future world that Grebenshchikov, Hanson, and Sparks foresee, who’s to say whether or not inhabitants will care about the happiness of people who came centuries, maybe even millennia, before them?

At one point in Zero K, DeLillo has two creepy twin brothers theorize how people will respond once immortality is achieved. “Bands of death rebels will set out to kill people at random,” they guess. “Men and women slouching through the countryside, using crude weapons to kill those they encounter. Voracious bloodbaths with ceremonial aspects … In one form or another, people return to their death haunted roots in order to reaffirm the pattern of extinction.”

In an outlandish book, in this particular fit of drama and prognostication, I found some hard good truths. Surely there will be other lives on this planet, with other rules. But right now, we have our lives, with our rules. And it’s true — we define ourselves against our eventual personal extinction.

There is one more thing the twins profess: “Death is a tough habit to break.”




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What A Time To Be Alive — Forever