Real Future

Silicon Valley’s young tech workers are betting that this 1960s technology will let them live forever

This is Episode 9 of Real Future, Fusion’s documentary series about technology and society. More episodes available at realfuture.tv.

In a nondescript industrial office park in San Leandro, a little city on the outskirts of Oakland, sits the headquarters of a business named Trans Time. The walls in the foyer of the building are filled with posters about anti-aging research. There’s a lab with microscopes and beakers that look like they’ve been around since Trans Time opened in 1974, and a white room with an operating table. In the very back of the office, you’ll find a large canister of liquid nitrogen, and a handful of 10-foot-tall metal vats that look like huge coffee Thermoses.

Visitors aren’t allowed to look inside these vats, but if you could, you’d see that one of them contains three human corpses—or, as the facility refers to them, “patients.” Shortly after their deaths, these patients’ bodies were drained of blood, pumped full of a special chemical preservative, and placed upside-down in the vats, which were filled with liquid nitrogen and chilled to 80 degrees below zero. (The bodies need to be upside-down so that, if an emergency causes the liquid nitrogen to run low, their heads will be last parts to thaw out.) Next to the vats, there’s a glassed-in foyer with a couch, so that loved ones can come visit.

Cryonicists believe that people who bury or cremate their bodies instead of freezing them are, essentially, committing suicide.

Several months ago, I stood in the Trans Time visiting room with Dan Held, a 27-year-old tech worker who was deciding whether he was willing to spend $120,000 so that he could one day join the frozen bodies in the tanks.

A tall, broad-shouldered, blond transplant from Texas, Dan moved to San Francisco three years ago to be in the heart of Silicon Valley. His obsessions are constantly changing, based on what he thinks is on the brink of exploding into the mainstream. At first he was obsessed with Bitcoin, then drones.

But his new passion is cryonics—a 50-year-old futurist movement that advocates for freezing dead people in special chambers, so that they can be reanimated in 50 or 100 or 200 years, when medical science has progressed enough to bring them back to life. The founder of cryonics, Robert Ettinger, a World War II veteran turned academic, made the scientific argument for it in the 1962 book The Prospect of Immortality. Cryonicists believe that once dead people are unfrozen, decades into the future, they could get new body parts from a biological 3D printer. Or nanobots would dive into their bodies and rebuild everything. Or their consciousness would be transported into a cyborg body. (They haven’t really figured out what the waking up part will look like.)

cryonicsFusion/Citizen Jones

The dewar room at Trans Time's headquarters, where "patients" are kept in liquid nitrogen in giant metal tanks.

Cryonics first got attention in the U.S. in the 1960s, with the publication of Ettinger’s book, during a decade that involved medical breakthroughs such as the first heart transplant. The first cryopatient was frozen in 1967. It’s been in science fiction books and films ever since, with people popping into cryonic states for long space trips, like Han Solo in Star Wars and the astronauts in Interstellar and Space Odyssey: 2001, or more comically, with characters using it to travel through time on Earth, as in Austin Powers and Encino Man. While Hollywood made cryonics look easy, the real-life cryonics movement had a hard time convincing the skeptics. (The movement wasn’t helped by the 1979 implosion of a cryonics facility that couldn’t afford to continue storing its bodies, leading to their thawing and decomposition.)

With just three patients frozen in its tanks, Trans Time is a scrappy little cryonics competitor. (The last person to enter one of Trans Time’s vats was the company’s founder, Paul Segall, a Berkeley Ph.D who co-founded the publicly-traded medical company BioTime. He died of a brain aneurism in 2003.) The two largest cryonics facilities are Alcor, in Arizona, and the Cryonics Institute, in Michigan; that’s where you’ll find most of the 300 or so people who are currently frozen, including cryptography programmer and Bitcoin hero Hal Finney. There’s also KrioRus in Russia, which has 45 people on ice. And there are over 2,000 people worldwide who have signed up to be frozen, but haven’t died yet.

A map of the Cryonic Institute's members

A map of the Cryonic Institute's members

A half-century after its founding, cryonics is still a small, fringe community. But Dan is part of a new wave of young Silicon Valley tech workers who are hoping to revitalize it and bring it to the mainstream. They are convinced that the human body is a machine, and the brain a kind of computer—one that can be shut down and then, under the proper conditions, rebooted. And they see cryonics as their best shot at living forever.

Florida-based life insurance agent Rudi Hoffman, who told me that he’s written the insurance policies for roughly half the people currently signed up for cryonics, has seen a resurgence in interest out of Silicon Valley. (Most cryonics patients take out six-figure insurance policies to pay for their preservation plans, with the cryonics facility named as the beneficiary.) Hoffman, who has been signed up for cryonics for more than 20 years, says that 75% of his current customers are software engineers.

“A disproportionate number of them are from California and Silicon Valley. There are quite a few Googlers,” he said over Skype. “My clients skew heavily male and toward tech-savvy, computer-oriented guys, who see the brain as another kind of programming.”

Cryonicists are convinced that the human body is a machine and the brain a kind of computer—one that can be shut down and then, under the proper conditions, rebooted.

Life extension is already a hot topic in Silicon Valley, which sees death as the next worldly problem it could solve. Tech luminaries such as Peter Thiel and Ray Kurzweil have talked publicly about their cryonics plans. And Google, as a company, is trying to beat death with its investment in anti-aging start-up Calico Labs.

The brochure that Trans Time gave out on our visit dates back to 1975

The brochure that Trans Time gave out on our visit dates back to 1975

Trans Time, the closest cryonics facility to Silicon Valley, hopes that it will benefit from the tech industry’s obsession with extending the human lifespan. But to judge from Dan Held’s reaction, the company is going to have some challenges. When we visited the facility last summer, Dan said it felt shabby and dated. When he imagines his cryonics afterlife, he imagines being in a facility of glass and metal, something modern and new, with a personalized vat that looks more like a Facebook profile page than an anonymous Thermos.

These days, Trans Time is run primarily by its chief technology officer, Steve Garan, whose full-time job is as the director of bioinformatics at the University of California-Berkeley’s center on aging. Through his work at Berkeley, Garan is trying to figure out how to stop aging altogether. Cryonics, he says, is just a back-up plan for those who die before we’ve figured out how to keep our bodies alive forever.

In his Berkeley lab, Garan is working on mapping the brain’s processes to understand the effect of aging, and developing 3D printing techniques using cells as ink. Researchers like Garan think that one day, we’ll be able to use our own stem cells to recreate organs that fail us.

“Steve Jobs should have been frozen. We could have reprinted his pancreas,” Garan said to me at one point, referring to Apple’s founder who died of pancreatic cancer in 2011. “The human body is just a piece of technology. It’s made of cells. It wears out over 80-90 years. But what if we could fix it, and replace bad parts, the same way you change the tires on your car?”

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People in the cryonics community realize that you think they’re crazy. Nutters who are so desperate for eternal life that they’re being swindled, just like adventurers who met their deaths in the Florida swamp looking for the Fountain of Youth. And it’s true that many mainstream scientists scoff at the idea that dead bodies could be brought back to life decades later. (Neil deGrasse Tyson calls cryonics “a marvelous way to convince people to give you money.”)

But cryonics fans cling desperately to news and research that gives their beliefs some sense of scientific validity: the freezing of eggs and sperm that are used years later; the tales of people being revived after laying “dead” in the snow for hours; a rabbit’s brain being successfully cryopreserved with no damage; worms being cryonically frozen and then brought back, with their memories intact; and the medical community experimenting with injecting critically injured people with a saline solution and then cooling them down to keep them alive until doctors can operate.

Greg Fahy is a cryobiologist at 21st Century Medicine, a scientific institution based in southern California that has received funding from the National Institutes of Health to work on cryonically preserving organs. And he thinks the sci-fi fantasy of bringing frozen bodies back to life may not be as far-fetched as we think.

“We’re getting pretty good at this. We can load a kidney up with cryoprotectant and save it,” Fahy told me by phone. “We now know we can remove a piece of the brain and preserve it with perfection, and then put it back and it will still operate.” Fahy, who has experimented successfully with cryonic preservation in rabbits and rats, thinks it may one day work in humans, too.

“There’s nothing about brain tissue that prevents it from being cryonically preserved,” said Fahy.

In fact, Fahy said, the biggest obstacle to successful cryonic reanimation might be the law, not science. Most cryonics experts agree that cryonic preservation would work best on bodies that aren’t yet dead, and haven’t begun to decompose. But under current law, cryonics facilities are prohibited from freezing their patients while they’re alive. (Doing so would be considered assisted suicide, or possibly murder.)

Just because someone’s not breathing, or their heart isn’t beating, doesn’t mean they’re dead.

“There may need to be legal changes that need to be made to allow cryonic preservation before deterioration begins,” said Fahy.

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Shortly after our visit to Trans Time, I went with Dan Held to meet Louie Helm, a 30-something tech worker who has signed up to be cryonically frozen when he dies. Held wanted to hear about the benefits of cryonics from another young person who had been through the process, and Helm fit the bill.

Helm signed up for a cryonics plan with the Cryonics Institute in Michigan six years ago, after reading about it on rationalist blog LessWrong. A sometimes-professional poker player, Helm rationalized his decision to get himself frozen after death in terms of odds.

“It’s not guaranteed to work. The business could fail. There could be a complicated process neurons undergo. The protein unlinking might not be solvable even by nanotechnology. The world could end,” said Helm. “But there’s a reasonable chance that it will work. It’s not 2 or 3 percent. It’s 10 percent or better.”

Like most cryonics patients, Helm wears a dog tag around his neck with instructions for his demise. He who used to wear it on a bracelet, but it made for awkward conversation on first dates. “If dead, cool with ice, especially the head. Do not embalm or autopsy,” it reads, along with the number to call for retrieval of his body. (Some young cryonicists call this necklace a “horcrux,” after the enchanted objects in the Harry Potter series where wizards hide pieces of their souls to get everlasting life.)

A cryonicist's jewelryKashmir Hill

A cryonicist's jewelry

“I think of my brain like a hard drive,” Helm told Held. “A hard drive is not immediately erased the second you turn off the power. Brains don’t lose their memories the second your heart stops beating. Just because someone’s not breathing, or their heart isn’t beating, doesn’t mean they’re dead.”

Helm has become something of an evangelist for the cryonics movement. So far, he says, he’s gotten three ex-girlfriends to sign up.

“A lot of people say it sounds amazing,” said Helm. “Then you see them three months later. They still haven’t done it. You give them a number to call. You see them a year later and they still haven’t done it.” (Helm calls this phenomenon “cryocrastinating.”)

Like most young, healthy cryonicists, Helm has a quarter-million dollar life insurance plan; his cryonics facility is the main beneficiary, but part of it goes into a trust so that he’ll have some spending money when he wakes up in the future. Helm told Held that he pays just $35 per month for his cryonics insurance.

“It’s lower than my cell phone bill, and it means I could be living forever,” he said.

Helm says that signing up for a life insurance plan involved a lot of paperwork and was generally a pain, but the really hard part was telling his Midwestern family.

“My mom is religious and didn’t understand why I needed to do this,” said Helm. “She told me that I was already saved by Jesus Christ. But I don’t see this as going against that.”

Cryonics, itself, represents a kind of faith—a faith that scientific progress will continue unabated, and will eventually be able to solve even death itself. Cryonicists believe so strongly in our scientific future that many think that people who bury, cremate or compost their bodies instead of freezing them are, essentially, committing suicide.

Today, being a cryonicist is a fairly lonely hobby. But if Silicon Valley tech types can be convinced to fork over six figures to companies like Trans Time for a chance to live forever, it’s possible the movement could finally break out of the shadows.

“I hope in 20 or 30 years, this will be a ubiquitous choice and I won’t be a fringe participant,” said Helm.

After visiting Trans Time and talking to Louie Helm, Dan Held told me he’s convinced cryonics is the right choice for him. But he still hasn’t signed up. He’s busy, he says. He just got a new job at a big tech company. He admitted that he was “cryocrastinating,” but he said he definitely plans to sign up eventually. He’s not sure that cryonics will work, but it’s worth the gamble to him.

“There’s a 100% chance you’re going to die,” Dan said. “This gives you a chance to come back.”

You can watch our trip to Trans Time, and learn more about the cryonics movement, in this video:

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