cryonics: the best worst case scenario…
Since the days of Ancient Egypt, humans have been thinking about how to preserve their bodies to come one step closer to immortality. And you could even say that the ancients managed to achieve that to some degree since the first two things most people immediately think of when they hear anything about Egypt is pyramids and mummies, exactly what the inventors of both concepts wanted to accomplish. They thought that as long as the body is preserved, the soul of the deceased would have a home to which to return and continue his or her carefree afterlife in the netherworld. And today, we’re adopting their ideas with a high tech twist, preserving some of our dead in chambers cooled to temperatures comparable to the cryogeysers of Triton in the hope of one day reviving them with technology that remains science fiction today, but may be science fact tomorrow.
It’s an attractive idea and plenty of people are signing up to be frozen moments after clinical death, and stored for an indeterminate amount of time, until a future society decides to thaw those it can. But while suspending someone in a cryogenic chamber was achievable decades ago, actually awakening someone is a feat that’s still out of our reach. Freezing living tissue creates crystals of ice that pierce cells and wreak havoc on internal structures, effectively killing the organism you’re trying to preserve. Some animals use glucose to protect their cells from microscopic icicles, surviving winters while frozen alive. However, the temperatures they face aren’t even remotely approaching the realm of those achieved in cryogenic chambers, and humans didn’t evolve in cold climates where the ability to hibernate would be a major advantage. We can exploit several mammalian adaptations that make hibernation possible, but that’s not going to protect our cells from bone-chilling cold for years on end, much less the decades and centuries being planned by cryogenecists. Outwardly, you could be perfectly preserved, just waiting to wake up. Inside, the story could be very different.
To minimize the damage the cold could do to our bodies, blood is drained out of recently deceased patients’ circulatory systems and replaced with liquid nitrogen, which doesn’t form crystals in the blood vessels. But in terms of protecting internal organs, there’s still a ways to go and we’re not exactly sure how badly degraded a cryogenically preserved body would be in several hundred years. It would take a very advanced society with a very impressive understanding of anatomy down to a cellular level, to repair the damage and revive a patient for treatment and integration into a future culture. Of course, when discussing this, we’re functioning under the assumption that a future civilization will be willing to defrost and integrate people who may have spent as long as a few hundred years in suspended animation, something that would take a lot of time, money and effort to accomplish, and time, money and effort it might not be able to afford for an act of cross-temporal charity. Try to imagine yourself back just two centuries ago. You would’ve been a stranger with no recognizable currency, no valid identification, speaking a very different language and probably grossly unfamiliar with many everyday customs that were never recorded in the history books. A jump to the far future wouldn’t be dissimilar.
Actually, waking up in a hospital sometime in the mid-2200s means that you may be in for a culture shock on an epic scale. There would be very few, if any, familiar landmarks, you would need to be caught up on primary educational requirements of the future, taught the language and the customs of your new home, and through all this, you would have to be treated, housed and fed. You would be the equivalent of a stateless refugee in a very alien land, and the people of the future may not want to bear the cost of year-long reintegration programs since they’re sure to have their problems and their concerns, which are more than likely to take priority. In dire scenarios, angry voters might petition their governments to cut or just cancel cryonics patients’ reintegration in favor of tacking the prevailing issues of the day. Keep that in mind if you want to try and freeze yourself. You’re already gambling that a future society would have the tools to bring you back. Do you also want to gamble on whether the doctors and governments of the future would even want to bring you back in the first place?