Pugwash: Cryonics technology cannot yet unfreeze frozen people

Until recently, the topic of cryonics — freezing one’s body to be thawed years into the future, presumably when medicine is more advanced — was a mythical discussion. However, today, it is becoming a reality. According to the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, the largest cryonics services provider in the world, approximately 270 people have undergone cryopreservation procedures since the idea was first introduced in 1962. Although still incredibly controversial, cryonics is no longer theoretical; it is a science with potential consequences that could weigh heavily in the upcoming years.

The process of freezing human flesh causes a variety of problems. Michio Kaku, the Henry Semat professor of theoretical physics at the City College of New York, argued in a Big Think video that freezing the water inside cells will cause the cells to expand, eventually causing them to burst. Therefore, reviving a person from the frozen state is not only ethically questionable; it may be altogether impossible, Kaku said. He also argued that cryonics is merely a deception for the wealthy. If only those who can afford to be frozen have a chance at survival in the future, how will that affect future society?

Max More, CEO of Alcor Life Extension Foundation, directly responded to Kaku’s claims in a publicized Alcor video. First, he explained that people can make cryonics scientifically possible if they freeze water on the outside of the cells, rather than on the inside. He then went on to say that people can pay for the process with a policy similar to life insurance, which would not be significantly more expensive than a typical life insurance plan. More even invited Kaku to visit the cryonics labs and see for himself.

One of the main debates surrounding cryonics is timing. Currently, it is legal only to freeze a body after the person has been declared dead by medics. Because freezing a person who is still alive will cause his or her imminent death, freezing live people is considered assisted suicide and is not permitted under United States law. However, it is imperative that the person be frozen as quickly as possible; once the deceased is pronounced brain dead, there is no further use in freezing the body, as that person would not be able to be revived again in the future.

On the other hand, it may be senseless to wait until someone is pronounced legally dead. By that time, it could be too late. If cures for illnesses, such as cancer are discovered, it is unlikely they will work quickly enough to help a person who was already near death. However, if frozen at an earlier time, that person may stand a chance.

The other part of the debate assumes that cryonics will be successful and focuses on the future of men and women who will be thawed. An important question to ask is the one of guarantee: Who will guarantee that the people who have undergone cryonics will then be defrosted at some point in the future? Supposing even that they are able to be saved, what kind of world will they experience? Many years into the future, they will not have family they know and it is likely that any money they once had will be completely devalued. Will the government be responsible for taking care of them?

Cryonics does not promise immortality now, but it may be possible to extend life permanently in the future. In that situation, will overpopulation become a more relevant question? Will people be able to sustain this larger population? Cryonics is a topic that will likely remain controversial for the coming decades.