Would You Die For a Chance at Eternal Life?
A new tech startup will kill you so you can live forever.
Posted Mar 31, 2018
Today I learned two unbelievable things.
First, Walt Disney was not cryogenically frozen after all. He was, in fact, cremated shortly after his death in 1966. At the time, cryonic research was a sort of hot topic in the scientific community -- which may explain how the rumors initially got started. Later, some of his posthumous biographies pedaled tales which described Disney’s macabre interest in cryonics, stories that have since been discredited. It turns out Dr. James Bedford, a psychology professor at U.C.L.A., was the first person to enter the frozen afterlife in 1967.
The Guardian estimates more than 350 corpses (about 300 in the U.S.; 50 in Russia) have been freezing in peace since, with thousands of others eagerly waiting their turn. The goal for these dead folks (and future dead folks) is simple: preserve the body until there is a cure for whatever caused the death -- “at which point the corpse is thawed and reanimated.” And voila! You’re as good as new, or that’s the plan anyway.
As you might imagine, cheating death comes at a cost. Alcor, an Arizona-based cryonic facility offers both a premium full-body preservation service for $200,000, as well as a “neuro” option, which opts to save only the head (through surgical decapitation) for a budget-friendlier $80,000. And, If you’d like to travel abroad in the afterlife, Russia’s KriosRus company offers cold storage facilities starting at just $12,000.
The notion that one can return from the grave is utterly ridiculous -- yet the fact that intelligent people, such as tech luminaries Peter Thiel and Google Chief Engineer Ray Kurzweil -- are apparently on Alcor’s waiting list -- makes me wonder if I'm the crazy one.
This leads us to the second unbelievable learning:
One death-defying tech startup has actually proven life after death is possible… (OK, so it’s with a rabbit, but still…)
Nectome is a Y-Combinator-backed tech company whose mission is “to preserve your brain well enough to keep all its memories intact: from that great chapter of your favorite book to the feeling of cold winter air, baking an apple pie, or having dinner with your friends and family.” According to co-founder and MIT computer scientist, Robert McIntyre, the process is akin to backing up your mind and storing it in a cloud. It’s a win-win, except for one alarming twist -- you have to die in order for it to work.
You see, the brain must be fresh in order to be preserved. So, through a process called Aldehyde-Stabilized Cryopreservation, scientific embalming chemicals are injected into the arteries to freeze the brain in this ideal state. The downside, of course, is that it will kill you instantly.
McInytre and his team at MIT won accolades from the Brain Preservation Foundation in 2016 when they successfully preserved every neuron in a rabbit’s brain using this method. This year, they won another award for preserving a pig brain.
Though the ability to preserve and human minds is still some years away, more than two dozen people, including Y-Combinator investor Sam Altman, have already paid the $10,000 deposit to secure a spot on the waiting list. Nectome ultimately hopes to become a euthanasia alternative to terminally ill patients.
But is it real?
When LiveScience reached out to several neuroscientists about the possibility of uploading a brain into a cloud, the response was a resounding, “no.” This is likely due to the fact that there really are no definitive facts or consensus yet in the scientific community on exactly how memories are constructed, stored and retrieved. But at least one expert has faith in the future of everlasting life. MIT neuroscientist Edward Boyden, who developed breakthrough technology to enlarge brain tissue, is the newest member of the Nectome R&D team.
Though, I’ve never looked forward to my demise, I think the idea of living forever (even if it’s only in my head) is far more terrifying. Filmmakers have always imagined the fascinating possibilities of brain preservation, from Vanilla Sky to Marjorie Prime. In these fictional portrayals, one thing always remains the same: these new, uploaded individuals, while they may look and sound the same, are still not their true selves. They always seem to be trapped in an unnatural state, unable to play anything more than a doppelgänger version of themselves -- and if that is what life after death is truly like, why would you want that?
Would you die now for a chance to live forever?