Interview with Aschwin de Wolf
[This interview was originally published in Cryonics magazine September 2013]
By Stephen Cave
This magazine generously reviewed my book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization in the November/December 2012 edition. But the reviewer argued that I didn’t properly understand cryonics — so I decided to speak to a leading expert. This interview, with Cryonics Magazine’s editor Aschwin de Wolf, is the result. Parts of the interview appeared originally in Aeon Magazine (http://www.aeonmagazine.com)
What is cryonics?
(Stephen Cave) Cryonics is sometimes described as “medical time travel” – is that how you see it?
(Aschwin de Wolf) Yes, that is a good characterization. What sets cryonics apart from other medical procedures is not uncertainty (which is an element of many experimental medical treatments) but the temporal separation of stabilization and treatment. Cryonics reflects the recognition that a disease considered terminal today might be treatable in the future.
Does/will cryonics work?
What is the largest (or most complex) organism (or tissue) that has been successfully cryopreserved and revived (or reversibly vitrified)?
A rabbit kidney has been vitrified and successfully transplanted with long-term survival. Another major achievement that supports the practice of cryonics is the successful vitrification and functional recovery of rat hippocampal brain slices.
In terms of whole organisms, tardigrades and certain insect larvae have been successfully recovered after cryopreservation at low sub-zero temperatures.
What breakthroughs in cryopreservation are still required? When do you think they might come?
Recovery of organized electrical activity in the whole brain (EEG) after vitrification and rewarming would provide further support for the practice of cryonics. This may be achieved in about 5 to 10 years. Long term, the aim should be true suspended animation of a mammal.
It is important to recognize, however, that the damage associated with today’s cryonics procedures only excludes meaningful future resuscitation if the original state of the brain cannot be inferred. Damage-free cryopreservation would be sufficient but it is not necessary to justify practicing cryonics today.
Cryonics depends upon faith in technological progress and social stability (such that well-disposed scientists and physicians in the future will be both able and inclined to revive cryonics patients). Why do you believe the future will be so utopian?
In my opinion, it is more reasonable to ask why anyone would make decisions on the premise that medical progress would come to a screeching halt. Cryonics patients have time, and successful resuscitation does not necessarily require fast or accelerated progress. Cryonics does not rest on an utopian, but on a very conservative, premise.
Resuscitation of cryonics patients is the foremost responsibility of a cryonics organization. That is why organizations like Alcor set aside substantial amounts of money in a separate trust to allow for the maintenance and eventual resuscitation of the patient.
Why do you think cryonics is not more popular?
It would be tempting to say that cryonics is not more popular because most people do not think it will work. The problem with this explanation is that hundreds of millions of people believe in all kinds of things for which there is no strong empirical evidence at all, such as astrology. In addition, when faced with a terminal prognosis people have a really low threshold for believing in the most implausible treatments. If the popularity of cryonics would be a function of its scientific and technical feasibility, we should have seen major increases in support when new technologies, such as vitrification, were introduced.
The most likely explanation, in my opinion, is that people fear social alienation and solitary resuscitation in an unknown future. In fact, writers such as Arthur C. Clark, who strongly believed that cryonics will work, personally admitted as much. This is a real challenge for cryonics organizations but there is a growing interest in topics such as reintegration of cryonics patients.
Do you think there might be a tipping point in its popularity? What might bring such a tipping point about?
Scientific and technological breakthroughs in cryobiology (suspended animation) and cell repair will certainly help, but if fear of the future holds most people back there may not be such a tipping point. It is possible, however, that in certain demographical groups making cryonics arrangements will be recognized as the normal, rational, thing to do. Something like is already happening in subcultures that are interested in human enhancement or reducing bias in decision making.
Do you think there will be a day when cryonics is the normal procedure for treating those with diseases incurable by contemporary medicine?
Yes, or at least some kind of long term stabilization procedure will be used for people that cannot be treated by contemporary medicine. I find it hard to imagine that people will persist in burying or burning a person just because there is no treatment today. That is just irrational and reckless.
Philosophy and legal status of cryonics
Are those who are currently cryopreserved, in your view, actually dead?
No. But I do not think we can just claim that they are alive in the conventional sense of the word either, although that may change if we can demonstrate that cryopreservation can preserve viability of the brain.
If not, what state do you consider them to be in?
If the original state of the brain, what some scientists call the “connectome,” can be inferred and restored, cryonics patients are not dead in a more rigorous sense of the word. Their identities are still with us in an information-theoretical sense.
What legal status do you think those who are cryopreserved should have?
They should have much stronger legal status than the deceased have today. While a meaningful philosophical/technical distinction could be made between conventional patients and cryonics patients I think we need to err on the side of caution and give them the same kind of protection as other patients with terminal diseases.
At the very least, obstacles to conducting good human cryopreservation in hospitals should be eliminated because a lot of reservations people have about cryonics are not intrinsic features of the procedure but the results of cryonics organizations being forced to practice cryonics as a form of emergency medicine.
When should it be legal for someone to have themselves cryopreserved (eg, any time? when diagnosed with a terminal illness? or only when brain-dead according to current definitions? etc)
If a patient has been diagnosed as “terminal,” that is basically an admission of the physician that (s)he has exhausted contemporary medical treatment options. At that point it is prudent to identify other means of saving the patient’s life, including stabilizing them at lower temperatures for future treatment. This is particularly important if the patient is in a condition where continued metabolism will progressively destroy the brain. Such a procedure would be the opposite of assisted suicide because its aim would be to preserve life, not to end it.
The overpopulation problem: if a few generations of people do all have themselves cryopreserved, then when technology permits them to be revived and healed, will there not be an enormous population boom? How will this be managed?
There are several responses to this question. The most obvious one is to draw attention to the fact that today’s socio-economic debates in the West are about the consequences of a decline in population in the future as a consequence of people having fewer children.
It is also important to recognize that cryonics does not operate in a sociological, psychological, and technological vacuum. If support for the procedure changes so will our views on reproduction and sustainability.
Of course, it should not even be assumed that future generations will be confined to one planet (Earth).
What do you say to the idea that death gives meaning or shape to life?
Cryonics is not a permanent cure for death. There may always be catastrophic events that could irreversibly kill a person or whole populations. In fact, it may never be possible to know that we will not die for the simple fact that this would require absolute knowledge about the infinite future.
Having said this, no, I do not think that death gives meaning to life. That is just an admission that the things that matter do not have intrinsic value but are experienced with mortality as a framework. Neither introspection nor observation of ordinary life suggests this.
In fact, I suspect that short human life-spans have an adverse effect on morality because it fosters instant gratification and indifference about long-term reputation and/or consequences.
On the other hand, do you think we are morally obliged to practice cryonics (as we might be to try to prolong life in other ways)?
My qualified answer is “yes.” If we believe that the aim of medicine is to preserve life and reduce suffering, cryonics is a logical extension of this thinking. Cryonics is not only a rational response to the recognition that science and technologies can evolve, but it also can be important to stabilize devastating cases of acute brain trauma.
When did you first become interested in life-extension technology?
In my case, my interest in life extension was a consequence of making cryonics arrangements.
When did you first hear about cryonics? When did you sign up for it?
I first read about cryonics on the internet in the mid-1990s. The idea seemed quite reasonable to me but I did not consider it as something that had direct personal relevance to me at the time. This changed in 2002 when a rather trivial medical condition prompted me to think more seriously about my remaining life and mortality. I read a lot of cryonics literature in a short period of time, attended the Alcor conference that autumn, and finalized making cryonics arrangements in January 2003.
Do you proselytize among friends and acquaintances? Have you had much luck in persuading others to sign up for cryonics?
Unless I know that a person has a strong interest in making cryonics arrangements, I generally do not explicitly try to persuade them. This is partly because I do not want people to get defensive in response to the idea. In cases where I know that the person is very open to cryonics, I put more effort into it. I think I have been successful in persuading around 4 people to make cryonics arrangements. There may be more that I am unaware of because of all the writing that I do.
Are you pursuing life-extension practices in the hope that you won’t need to be cryopreserved?
Yes. As most people with cryonics arrangements, I have a strong interest in life extension and rejuvenation research. I am not very optimistic about short-term breakthroughs so I try to eat healthy, exercise, and avoid dangerous activities and excessive stress.
What is your educational background?
I graduated in political science at the University of Amsterdam and have a strong interest in economics and philosophy as well. Over time my academic interests have mostly shifted to biology and neuroscience – also because of the experimental research that I am involved in.
What is your involvement with Alcor or other cryonics institutes/firms?
I have been an Alcor member for 10 years and have been employed in cryonics either as an employee or on a contract basis since 2004. My main activities right now are to conduct neural cryobiology research in my lab at Advanced Neural Biosciences and to edit Alcor’s monthly magazine, Cryonics.
I have always had a good relationship with the other major cryonics organization, the Cryonics Institute, too. In fact, without its support, and its individual members’ support, our research would not have been possible.
What would be your best guess for the year when you will be revived by the scientists of the future? What might the world look like then?
I do not think that there is a uniform year for all cryonics patients. Much will depend on the condition of the patient and prevailing technologies and capabilities at the time. For a typical patient, I doubt we are going to see meaningful resuscitation attempts before 2075.
If the past is any guidance, the (far) future will be a combination of things that have always been with us and things we cannot even imagine right now. I suspect that the most characteristic change in the future will be a seamless integration of human technology and biology and greater control over the aging process.