Since the dawn of science fiction, cryopreservation has been a staple of the genre. It often served as a plot device to carry characters out into the future so that they could experience the imagined wonders of the author. It is sometimes confused with the field of cryogenics, which is the study of the field in which reactions occur at extremely low temperatures. Cryonics is instead the study and practice of freezing one’s body at the time of death in the hope of being resurrected when the technology to do so is discovered.
The history and the practice of cryopreservation is inevitably tied up with how we view and conceptualise death itself. In order to study the field and make advances, death needs to be demystified. It must not remain feared or unapproachable, but rather mankind must approach the subject with a determination to explore it and even normalise it. Only then can new paradigms exist.
One example is the paradigm of “information theoretic death.” This is the belief that if our memories, knowledge and consciousness remain intact, then we cannot really die. These are, after all, what constitute our existence. If this information can be reconstituted then the originator of this data can continue living, albeit perhaps in a different form.
This particular paradigm serves as the founding principle upon which the work of Nectome is founded. They believe that if they can preserve the brain and the brain stem and ensure that its structures are decoded, then eventually the person can be revived through a digitalisation of their being.
Others go even further, wishing to preserve entire bodies to ensure that people are revived in full when technology and medical advances allow for it. Companies like Alcor and the Cryonics Institute have invested in vitrification technology. They both already have a number of people in storage, the latter having confirmed that at least 400 people have undergone the process.
The benefits of cryonics
When we think of cryopreservation, we tend to think of the science fiction scenario of simply going to sleep and waking up in the future to witness all the marvels that it holds. However, cryopreservation presents us with other opportunities.
There has been at least one case of cryonic preservation being utilised to preserve a terminally ill patient who wished to have a chance to be revived when medical science was able to cure an otherwise chronic and fatal disease.
Another benefit of cryonics research is the ability to freeze sperm, eggs or embryos. Men and women undergoing the risk of infertility through things such as chemotherapy or hazardous professional environments can preserve their sperm or eggs to maintain their fertility and enable them to have a family in the future.
One potential application for cryonic preservation is to preserve organs and living tissue. This ensures that we can expand access to organs suitable for donating, for an unlimited period of time. The aim is to limit the dangers of donor shortages.
Some countries are already considering laws that require citizens to opt out of donor schemes, meaning the default setting is that doctors can harvest their organs as required. In theory, medical professionals could create a frozen library of donor organs ready to give life to those who would otherwise be at the mercy of fluctuating supplies and overflowing transplant lists.
The ethical concerns of cryonics
Though there have been articles written on the subject and studies on the ethics of cryonics, as a field of science it continues to raise more questions than it answers. Some of the questionable statements made by companies involved in this field of research, in fact, have even led to backers pulling their support from research altogether.
Companies which concern themselves with the use and development of cryonic processes accept human patients despite successful revivals never having been completed, on humans or even on animals. Companies provide a faint promise but charge a premium price.
The promise is that the person will be revived as soon as the technology catches up. What will happen to those subjects should there be a failure in the storage technology. What if the company runs out of funding to run its cryonic storage programs and is forced to shut down?
Even if the development of the revival technology does come to pass, we have no guarantees that the thawing and revival process will leave the brain without any significant changes to its constitution. And if it does, what guarantees do we have that once revived we could adapt to a strange future where all that we have come to know and cherish may have been changed? What systems will be put in place to help subjects cope with loneliness, confusion, disorientation and maybe even outright rejection by a future which is not theirs?
Humanity has to ask itself just what will be the legal status of those who we cryonically suspend. Those who have submitted themselves to the procedure are considered clinically and legally dead. Does this mean that a voluntary procedure can be considered, just like with any other form of euthanasia? Or does the intention of reviving the legally dead serve to separate the two practices?
Mankind has to answer the question of whether or not those revived are to be considered entirely new individuals with identities of their own, or if their status as dead has to be revoked or altered. How will we conceptualise death itself if when the boundaries become blurred? Will we need to have laws which defend consciousness and redefine identity?
An unsettling precedent
The efforts to study and provide opportunities for cryopreservation have been provided by for-profit companies and research centres. If the promise of cryonics is finally fulfilled and revival does becomes possible, is this the type of technology which one could or even should stand to profit from? Should money dictate who has the right to life? Should it govern how long we live? And who will control a technology which offers to make only some of us immortal?
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