Technological Advances in Cryonics: What’s Next?

In the history of cryonics we can identify a number of major technological developments: the introduction of cryoprotectants to reduce ice formation, the use of mechanical chest compression devices to restore brain perfusion and accelerate cooling, comprehensive multi-modal medications protocols to mitigate warm ischemia and favor good cryoprotective perfusion, remote blood washout with an organ preservation solution to protect against cold ischemia, closed-circuit cryoprotective perfusion to reduce osmotic damage, and, of course, the introduction of vitrification agents to eliminate ice formation altogether.

What are the kinds of major technological developments that we can expect in cryonics in the foreseeable future? When we talk about technological progress we should distinguish among advances in medical science that simply require implementation in cryonics, advances in medical science that require various degrees of modification to be used in cryonics, and technological developments that are conceived and developed within cryonics. These distinctions are important to recognize because they can tell us whether new advances “simply” require acquiring these technologies or whether an ambitious research and development program needs to be launched to validate, develop, and introduce these technologies.

The three most important future technological advances that I can foresee are:

1. Liquid ventilation (cyclic cold lung lavage). Currently there are two basic modes of cooling in cryonics: (a) external cooling in an ice bath and (b) internal cooling with an organ preservation solution. Considering the harmful effects of warm ischemia on the structure of the brain and distribution of the vitrification agent, it is very important to introduce a rapid method of initial cooling that does not require surgery and can approximate the rates of internal cooling. The most potent candidate here is liquid ventilation in which a cold perfluorocarbon is pumped in and out of the lungs to accelerate cooling of the patient.

2. Intermediate temperature storage (ITS). As vitrification eliminates ice formation, fracturing remains the only mechanical form of injury in contemporary cryonics. The most obvious solution is to store patients below the glass transition temperature ((‑123°C for the M22 vitrification solution) but not so low as to induce fracturing. Functional neuro ITS units have been built and detailed designs for whole body ITS units have been developed. Concerns that have not been fully addressed yet include optimal storage temperature and cost. The most pressing practical question at this point is whether fracture-free storage may be possible at liquid nitrogen temperatures if ischemia-induced ice formation is eliminated and a proper cooling protocol is used. Also, would it possible to eliminate the need for ITS altogether if a cold gas is circulated through the patient’s circulatory system instead?

3. Opening the blood-brain barrier. It has been well established that under good conditions loading of the vitrification agent produces severe dehydration of the brain. While dehydration may not substantially alter brain structure, it is a problem in terms of maintaining viability of the brain and producing good electron micrographs. We now know of a number of agents that can modify the blood-brain barrier to allow cryoprotective perfusion without severe dehydration. Current concerns include whether such agents produce edema in other parts of the body, what the optimum protocol and dosage should be for humans, and whether the use of such agents reduces or favors ice formation in ischemic brains.

Other conceivable advantages that can improve cryonics include lower toxicity vitrification agents, drugs that can substantially reduce metabolism in the brain, and integration of brain imaging and cryoprotectant perfusion.

Originally published as a column in Cryonics magazine, April, 2014

Low Cost Cryonics

Over the years some cryonics proponents have expressed interest and support for offering an inexpensive form of cryonics. Before discussing what such a form of cryonics might entail I first would like to briefly address the question of whether the idea of low cost cryonics is a solution to a non-existent problem. After all, for low cost cryonics to make sense, there must be a substantial number of people being priced out of cryonics arrangements who would make arrangements if it were more affordable. For this to occur a person must not only not be able to afford Alcor’s services but also not be able to afford the Cryonics Institute’s either. As far as I am aware, this problem is mostly confined to people who are basically uninsurable due to a medical condition or advanced age, or who wish to cryopreserve someone else where funding is insufficient.

In some cases, however, people who have found themselves priced out of cryonics arrangements have been the beneficiary of fund raising campaigns within the cryonics community. While it may not be possible to provide funding for all such cases, this development does raise the question of how many people who had a strong public desire to be cryopreserved did not get their wishes honored. The major reason to advocate low cost cryonics is to bring the service within the reach of more people. Thus it is important to understand how many people are actually excluded from being cryopreserved due to financial challenges. If access to cryonics is mostly a non-issue one might argue that strategies to simply aim at more people making cryonics arrangements can be more effective than offering lower priced options.

There are roughly three areas where cost savings can be realized in cryonics: (a) long term care costs, (b) cryoprotection, and (c) standby and stabilization. It is not possible to do justice to all the potential cost savings in these areas so let me briefly discuss the major themes.

While it is reasonable to assume that some long term care costs can be reduced by reducing expenses associated with running a cryonics organization (staff, administrative costs, rent) the bulk of long-term care expenses arise from the need to keep patients in cryopreservation until resuscitation efforts will be possible. If there is one thing we have learned since the early days of cryonics it is that it is not wise to compromise on demanding pre-payment (life insurance or cash) or to use wildly optimistic growth assumptions for these funds. A pay-as-you-go system would not just subject many patients to premature thawing but also endanger the reputation of the cryonics field as a whole.

This mostly leaves cryoprotection and standby services as potential cost saving measures. Clearly, offering standby and stabilization without subsequent cryoprotection would be an incoherent approach because attempts to preserve the viability of the brain would be followed by straight freezing. Offering sophisticated cryoprotection procedures without standby is not particularly logical either because optimal cryopreservation requires rapid stabilization and cooling after clinical death. To really realize substantial cost savings a cryonics organization would need to exclude both standby and cryoprotection from its protocol and focus on the isolated brain. Is it responsible for a cryonics organization to offer such a form of low cost cryonics? It is hard to answer this question because it is difficult to predict how much damage is still compatible with inferring the original state of the brain. One research program, however, that could give us preliminary answers to such questions is reconstructive connectomics. We can model these low cost cryonics protocols and then see if we can recognize or reconstruct the original structure of the brain using either conventional electron microscopy or more recent 3D brain mapping technologies. If this project provides reasons for optimism there is a strong ethical argument for an organization to offer this service.

In short, the most credible realization of “low cost cryonics” would entail a financially conservative cryonics organization that offers secure, isolated-brain cryopreservation without standby and without the state-of-the-art
cryoprotection now done at Alcor with a trained team, though a less training-intensive, inexpensive, method of cryoprotection (immersion of the brain in cryoprotectant after chemical fixation) might still be possible.

Originally published as a column in Cryonics magazine, March, 2014

Forever Lost? The First Cryonics Brain Repair Paper

For more than a year now I have been trying to locate Jerome B. White’s paper “Viral Induced Repair of Damaged Neurons with Preservation of Long Term Information Content.” This paper is referred to in a number of books and articles, including Robert Ettinger’s Man into Superman (1972), Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation, and Mike Darwin’s biological repair proposal in his article The Anabolocyte (1977). Despite being recognized as the first presentation about repair of the brain of cryonics patients, I am not aware of any actual quotes or discussion of the paper, raising the question of how many authors who have referenced the paper have actually read it. The best I have been able to find is what amounts to the complete abstract of the paper in Robert Ettinger’s Man into Superman:

“An organic cell is a self repairing automaton, but if environmental interference exceeds a certain limit, damage will become total. Freezing can be used to halt progressive damage along with all metabolism, but means are required to restore or augment the cellular genetic control program, or enrich the environment to enhance repair ability. It has been proposed that appropriate genetic information be introduced by means of artificially constructed virus particles into a congenitally defective cell for remedy; similar means may be used for the more general case of repair. Progress has been made in many relevant areas. The repair program must use means such as protein synthesis and metabolic pathways to diagnose and repair any damage. Applied to brain neurons, this might destroy long term information content, which appears to be stored in molecular form, often suggested to be in a feedback cycle involving mRNA and protein. This information can be preserved by specifying that the repair program incorporate appropriate RNA tapes into itself upon entry and release them on termination of repair.”

Jerome B. White’s paper was presented at the Second National Cryonics Conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1969. Unfortunately, only the proceedings of the First Annual Cryonics Conference in 1968 have been made available as a book. We can state with reasonable certainty, though, that White spoke on this topic at the second conference because Saul Kent briefly mentions his presentation in a review of the conference for Cryonics Reports, April-May 1969. Even more intriguing, the reference for this paper in Man into Superman includes “reprints available [emphasis added] from the Cryonics Society of Michigan,” which provides evidence that this presentation was either transcribed or an actual paper was prepared prior to or after the conference. Notwithstanding this encouraging point, I have not been able to locate this paper so far, despite asking individuals such as Michael Darwin, Michael Perry, Stephen Bridge, and Catherine Donaldson. Could it be possible that a paper was produced and distributed on a small scale but no copies of the paper have survived? This would be a tragedy, especially in light of the fact that it was the first proposal for a cell repair machine to resuscitate cryonics patients.

One person we cannot consult is Jerome Butler White (b. 1938) himself. The “good” news is that Mr. White has not passed away but, after a struggle with AIDS, was cryopreserved in 1994 by the American Cryonics Society (ACS) in collaboration with BioPreservation. (He is now stored at the Cryonics Institute.) Some of his other presentations include “The Technology of Cryonic Suspension,” Cryonics Conference and Scientific Congress, San Francisco, 1971, and “Heat Flow in the Human Patient,” Lake Tahoe Life Extension Festival, 1985. In the internet age it is hard to imagine that any information can be lost forever but we cannot rule out here that only a few individuals who have heard this presentation in 1969 are still alive today (some who have made cryonics arrangements) and that all physical copies may have been (irretrievably) lost. If that is the case, the text of this first paper on viral cell repair of cryonics patients will never be known and we can only speculate on its contents based on the abstract and any recollections of people who were present. One cannot think about this scenario and fail to reflect on the fragile nature of the personal memories stored in our own brains….

Note added by Mike Perry: Someone I know who is a prominent cryonicist thinks he has notes or text for the speech that was given by Jerry White at the 1969 Cryonics Conference. I have been waiting for the scanned document and will report when something comes to light.

Originally published as a column in Cryonics magazine, February, 2014

Postscript: Jerome White’s paper was (re)discovered by Art Quaife in September, 2014 and published in Cryonics Magazine, October, 2014. The paper is now available online here.

The Case for Brain Cryopreservation

Cryopreservation of just the head is as old as Alcor itself. In fact, some people identify Alcor with its “neuro-preservation” option. It is important, however, to recognize that the objective of preserving the head is really to preserve what is inside the head, i.e. the brain. While I am aware of (contrived) technical arguments that prefer head preservation over brain preservation for information-theoretical reasons, I suspect that no advocate of neuro-preservation is anxious about the prospect of having only his/her brain preserved in a pristine state.

This raises an important question – one that is not immediately evident to the general public. Why not just preserve the naked brain instead? I am aware of at least three major arguments against it and I think that these arguments are based on incomplete information or a lack of imagination.

Myth 1: The isolated brain is not a stable organ and will collapse upon itself in a jellylike state if it is removed from the skull.

Answer: In human cryopreservation the brain would only be extracted at low temperatures which provide a lot more stability to the brain. In addition, in a good case the brain will also be loaded with a cryoprotectant and exist in a dehydrated state, which will provide even more stability.

Myth 2: Removing the brain from the skull will damage the brain and will erase identity-critical information.

Answer: It is correct that morticians typically remove the brain with little regard for its ultrastructural integrity but there is no reason why a cryonics organization should engage in such traumatic brain removal. Safe brain removal protocols are technically possible and cryonics organizations have a strong incentive to develop and refine such techniques.

Myth 3: The skull is necessary to provide protection to the brain.

Answer: It is undeniable that the skull provides robust protection to the brain but from that it does not follow that a cryonics organization cannot design a long-term enclosure and maintenance method that provides strong protection of the naked brain, too.

I do not claim that brain preservation is equal in all respects to neuro-preservation. For example, extraction of the brain from the skull requires additional time after completion of cryoprotectant perfusion and during this time the brain will be exposed to high levels of cryoprotectant (strictly speaking, isolated brain perfusion is possible but this requires a very advanced surgical procedure). Keeping the brain temperature low and uniform during brain removal is also a challenge.

On the other hand, there are potential advantages as well. An isolated brain can be placed in the cryoprotectant to allow diffusion of the vitrification agent prior to cryogenic cooldown to compensate for any ischemia-induced cortical perfusion impairment. In fact, if perfusion is no longer an option, immersion of the (fixed) brain in cryoprotectant is the only means to mitigate ice formation during cryostasis. Another advantage is a decrease in long-term care costs (at least 50%), which allows for lower cryopreservation minimums.

But the most important advantage of brain preservation is that public perception and negative PR would be substantially lower than that with neuro-preservation. Even if the procedure were a little riskier (technically speaking) one could still argue that it is safer in general because images of cryopreserved brains do not risk the kind of visceral response that neuro-preservation triggers.

I cannot do justice to all the technical, logistical, and financial issues associated with brain-only cryopreservation here but the topic requires more study for the reason alone that cryonics organizations occasionally receive fixed brains, or patients with long ischemic times, for whom immersion cryoprotection could be superior to straight freezing. Brain cryopreservation does not exist as an option yet, but it has been the reality for a number of patients.

Originally published as a column in Cryonics magazine, January, 2014

Who Decides What We Can Do With Our Body (and Brain)?

Statement on the High Court ruling concerning 14 year-old cancer victim’s right to cryonics

Click here for PDF

Our hearts go out to the young British woman whose battle with cancer ended sadly earlier this month at age 14, as well as to her parents as they cope with this very difficult time. And we commend the British High Court Judge for his important ruling enabling the girl to obtain her wish to be cryogenically preserved. While we have no comment on the specifics of this case, and do not ourselves offer services of this nature, we hope we can shed some light on the project of experimental medical biostasis / cryonics more generally.

Over the past decade, scientists have made significant advances in low-temperature biology, and scientists developing molecular machines will receive this year’s Nobel Prize on December 10. Many, including scientists at places like Cambridge, Oxford, MIT, NASA and Harvard, now openly support cryonics as a legitimate scientific endeavor. Of course there is no guarantee that any cryonics patients will be revived in the future, but as discussed by four tenured professors in this recent MIT Technology Review piece, the best evidence suggests that cryonics deserves open-minded consideration.

Coordinator of the UK Cryonics and Cryopreservation Research Network, Dr João Pedro de Magalhães, when asked for his thoughts, observed that “no matter the probability you assign to the procedure, we think it’s important to give people the choice, just as we give dying patients the opportunity to try other experimental medical therapies to save their lives”.

Cryonics is a similar experimental treatment, albeit one with different legal and ethical implications, and whose probability of success is unknown. Many parts of the world are now taking progressive stances towards the idea of death with dignity. It seems incongruous with these beliefs to stigmatize a procedure for what is at worst an over-optimistic belief about the state of the future.

Despite the many intermediate successes in low-temperature biology over the past few decades, no cryonics organization can currently revive a patient. Nobody has claimed otherwise, and arguments based on this premise are missing the point.

Cryonicists look at how medicine has progressed over the past hundred years, at the millions of people whose lives would have been cut short if not for advances in technology, and it fills them with hope about what might be possible for the future. The goal of cryonics is not to be able to revive someone with contemporary technology, rather the goal is to preserve a person and her brain well enough that future technologies may be able to (repair and) revive the person. One can think of this as transporting the body forward through time or as medical time travel. This depends on technologies that will be developed in the next decades or centuries, not on the world’s capabilities today. All the major cryonics organizations in the western world are non-profits with the goal of surviving for centuries.

As Aschwin de Wolf, President of The Institute for Evidence-Based Cryonics, explained, “Cryonics is based on the premise that the neuro-anatomical basis of identity is more robust than folk wisdom suggests, and we envision future technologies that can infer the healthy state of the brain from the injured state – and even repair any damage that occurs during the cryopreservation process itself. As such, cryonics is not an act of faith, but an act of reason.”

We will cure cancer one day, and it is reasonable for this girl, born too early through no fault of her own, to choose for herself the best chance to make it to that world where more is possible.

Contact / interviews:

Dr João Pedro de Magalhães

Coordinator, UK Cryonics and Cryopreservation Research Network

+44 151 7954517 /

Aschwin de Wolf

President, Institute for Evidence-Based Cryonics

Appendix of key supporting materials

  • “The patient should participate responsibly in the care, including giving informed consent or refusal to care as the case might be…The patient’s right is based on the philosophical concept of respect for autonomy, the common-law right of self-determinationAmerican College of Physicians Ethics Manual, 2016

Bitcoin and Cryonics

In this article, I want to introduce you to Bitcoin, a topic that fascinates me almost as much as cryonics. Many Cryonics readers will have already heard of Bitcoin (certainly my first introductions to it were by members of the cryonics community), but in order to go on and talk about cryonics-specific uses for Bitcoin, I think it is important to give the actual technology a proper introduction, as well as a brief history of its creation and development. But perhaps most importantly, cryonicists have had important involvement in Bitcoin’s inception and spread, and through the backward-looking lens of history, I believe this is a connection the cryonics community will be proud of. [At this point, I think it’s important to make the following disclaimer: I own bitcoins, and am very optimistic about their future, both in value, and their potential as a highly positive disruption in the global financial system.]

What is Bitcoin?[1]

A “peer-to-peer electronic cash system” is what Bitcoin’s creator, Satoshi Nakamoto called his idea in its initial design paper. The more wieldy name for Bitcoin and the many, lesser-known “altcoins” that have been developed in Bitcoin’s wake, is cryptocurrency, the prefix crypto—referring to the fundamental role cryptography plays in its operation. Bitcoin is sometimes called a “virtual currency,” and while this is certainly an easier way of communicating the general idea to the uninitiated, it does ignore what differentiates Bitcoin from other, equally “virtual” currencies in online games, such as World of Warcraft “gold” that has acquired real-world value (to the game’s players, at least) and is traded for regular currency. Online merchants such as Amazon have also developed virtual currencies specific to their brands, as the next paradigm of prepaid gift cards and loyalty rewards programs. But all these other sorts of virtual currencies are ultimately controlled by a single entity— not unlike governments’ control over their local currencies—whereas Bitcoin operates by consensus over a distributed peer-to-peer network. So bitcoins, World of Warcraft gold, and Amazon Coins are really apples, oranges, and bananas.

Others reject the “currency” characterization entirely, instead conceiving of Bitcoin as a “digital commodity.” But to me, that simply begs the question of what features of the bitcoins themselves has commodified them? If it is their usefulness as a means of transferring value, are they not a currency first, and a commodity second? There is something of a chicken-and-egg aspect to that debate, so I will leave it to the economists and philosophers. Personally, I think it is more useful to define Bitcoin descriptively, in which case Bitcoin is a globally distributed ledger of transactions of a unit called “a bitcoin.” A bitcoin has whatever value (in other currencies, or goods) that those who concur in Bitcoin’s utility agree it has— voting with their traditional currencies by purchasing bitcoins with them. And so far, the global market’s valuation of Bitcoin has increased by at least six orders of magnitude since it was released into the world in early 2009.

Now, the distributed ledger which forms the backbone of the Bitcoin network actually has a name of its own— the “blockchain”—so called because transactions between addresses of the network are recorded in the ledger in sequential “blocks” of data one megabyte in size. The transactions are collected into these blocks, verified for validity, and added to the blockchain by specialized users of the network, who must first “solve” the block by running it through a computationally intensive process called “hashing” until a particular result is reached, at which point that block is added to the chain and that user is rewarded with new bitcoins, along with any of the (optional) transaction fees included with the transactions in that block. [2] Because doing this work that keeps the network functioning is incentivized with the block reward, this whole process is referred to as “mining” bitcoins. The block reward halves approximately every four years, and the number of bitcoins will never exceed 21 million, though they can be subdivided further by adding additional decimal places as necessary.

Bitcoins reside at bitcoin addresses, which are rather unsexy strings of letters and numbers, like 14cD6PwopFAoeyPwtGAsSiMwJcLxS9ePC. However, these addresses can be represented as QR codes like the one to the left, which are a little more sender-friendly. Bitcoin is often referred to as an “anonymous” currency, but this really isn’t true. Being a public ledger, it is only an anonymous system for a particular user if there is no way of tying their real-world identity to the transaction(s) that they wish to be anonymous. However, in contrast with IP addresses on the internet, one can have as many bitcoin addresses as one likes (and the private keys entitling them to transact with the bitcoins at those addresses), without ever paying for them or asking for someone’s permission to have one. This is because the bitcoin addresses and associated private keys are all generated algorithmically, and the algorithm used to define them provides for many more than enough for everyone on the planet (approximately 2×10^38 per capita, at present). Thus, pseudonymity can be approximated by never using the same address twice, and this behavior is built into most Bitcoin wallet software by default.

A Very Abridged History of Bitcoin

Nakamoto’s original design paper was posted to Perry E. Metzger’s cryptography mailing list in late 2008. [3] The “genesis block” of the chain, containing the first 50 bitcoins, was brought into existence by Nakamoto in January of 2009, with the first version of the Bitcoin client released a week thereafter. Interest in Nakamoto’s creation was sufficient to attract other developers to refine the protocol and the client, and design new clients—and of course mine for bitcoins, which at the time could be done with ordinary CPUs. In those very early days, it was not easy to pin any particular value on bitcoins themselves, but a now famous $25 pizza was ordered by one Bitcoin user at the request of another, in exchange for Ƀ10,000 in May of 2010. (At today’s exchange rate, that pizza would now be worth nearly $1.3 million.) Two months later one bitcoin surpassed $0.01 in value, and later still in 2010, after the first major bitcoin exchange, Mt. Gox opened its virtual doors, $0.10. Bitcoin reached parity with the dollar in early 2011, hit $10 on June 2 of that year, and then “bubbled” up to over $30 within the next six days, before “popping” back to $10 and retreating all the way back down to $2 over the next six months. But by the second half of 2012, Bitcoin was back over $10, and jumped another order of magnitude to $100 during the first half of this year, shooting over $200 briefly in April before resettling to a (slightly) less volatile hover pattern around $100 over the months following. This more recent “bubble” received significantly more mainstream media attention, despite having a significantly more stable outcome than the 2011 bubble.

Personally, I prefer the characterization of these sudden upward price movements followed by downward corrections before resuming the long-term upward trend, as “hypermonetization” [4] events, as opposed to bubbles. Unlike tulips (the famous economic bubble example), Bitcoin has far clearer fundamentals supporting its increasing valuation by the global market. The more people that are exposed to the network and start using it, the bigger it gets, making it less vulnerable to attack, more useful as a currency, and more secure as a store of value (there is some debate around this, particularly around a possible trend towards centralization of mining on account of the more specialized and expensive equipment now required, but I think the general idea holds true). Furthermore, while the service-layer infrastructure around Bitcoin it is still somewhat lacking—notably widespread, easy-to-use ways of turning traditional  currencies into bitcoins and back again [5] — the existing financial transactions paradigm simply cannot compete with Bitcoin when it comes to transmitting wealth across the world as cheaply as to someone standing immediately next to you. Even PayPal has had to take note, and Western Union, too. [6] In addition to becoming an accepted form of payment with more and more online merchants (and even some brickand-mortar ones) every day, bitcoin mining has become an industry in its own right, due to the ever increasing difficulty of the mining algorithm. Difficulty increases are a design feature of the protocol intended to secure it from a malicious entity simply amassing enough computing power to centralize control over the network, thereby destroying its primary fundamental value. Thus, the required hardware for anyone looking to derive profit from mining has graduated from regular old CPUs, to high-end GPUs, and now finally to chips specifically designed for the task (application-specific integrated circuits, or ASICs). Setting up and maintaining GPU “farms,” and now, more recently, developing and deploying ASICs has required significant investment, precipitating the arrival of “virtual” companies that raise capital through Bitcoin IPOs on virtual securities exchanges, sharing the profits back with the “virtual” shareholders. (This of course being a securities regulator’s nightmare, but we’ll leave that alone for now.)

Early Connections to Cryonics

By now, you are probably wondering how any of this relates to cryonics. Perhaps it would surprise you to know that one of Alcor’s long-time board members’ names is written right into the Bitcoin protocol? Indeed, without Ralph Merkle’s work in cryptography some decades prior, Bitcoin might not even exist—or at least not in its current form. Public key cryoptography, for which Merkle was inducted into the 2011 National Inventors Hall of Fame, is a core enabling technology of Bitcoin. A cryptographic data structure called a “Merkle tree” (and associated “Merkle root”) is an integral part of the bitcoin hashing algorithm, so our illustrious Mr. Merkle’s work is essentially stamped on every block in the blockchain. While Merkle’s website does not indicate a personal interest in bitcoins, it does include the following foreboding prediction:

“The likely development of quantum computers (QCs) in the next one or two decades would compromise all widely used publickey cryptosystems (PKCSs)… [I]t may already be too late to deploy a QCresistant PKCS standard throughout the world before quantum computers become available. […] The developers of a quantum computer are likely to keep its existence secret for some time, during which time they could freely forge signatures for any system that was not QC-resistant: signatures that most would find hard to dispute.”

That being said, the Bitcoin community is aware of the threat quantum computing could represent (a threat to which the traditional financial transactions insitutions, i.e. banks, credit card networks, etc, will be highly vulnerable as well), and already has ideas of how to upgrade the protocol’s security when necessary. [7] Regardless, Ralph Merkle’s contributions to cryptography have made possible a major leap forward in the very idea of what money can be.

But the early connection between Bitcoin and cryonics goes further. A man named Hal Finney was an early responder to Nakamoto’s initial posts to the cryptography mailing list, and ended up being the recipient of the very first bitcoin transaction, from Nakamoto himself in early 2009. Finney also identified a specific kind of double-spend attack possible against merchants who accepted payments without waiting for network confirmations of the transaction, which has been given the name the “Finney attack.” Finney was also a member of the Less Wrong online community (created by well-known cryonicist and Friendly AI researcher, Eliezer Yudkowsky), and later in 2009, Finney posted to Less Wrong that he had been diagnosed with ALS. [8] In the responses to Finney’s post, Yudkowsky asked him if he had cryonics arrangements in place, to which Finney replied that he had been an Alcor member for 20 years. Finney’s involvement on Bitcoin forums and Less Wrong did diminish over time, but after the 2013 price rise, Finney made a post on relating his early involvement in Bitcoin’s development, his diagnosis with ALS, and his continued work developing more secure Bitcoin wallet clients. [9]

The Mystery of Satoshi Naka

An interesting twist in the story of Bitcoin is that the true identity of its creator is not known. Satoshi Nakamoto’s writing style, and the timing of his daily activity/ inactivity cycles have led many to doubt that he was the 37-year old Japanese man he claimed to be, with some even suspecting that Nakamoto was a singular virtual identity masking a group effort. Having written the first Bitcoin client himself, Nakamoto’s coding has been described as “elegant in some ways and inelegant in others,” potentially indicating that Nakamoto was not a professional programmer, though not a complete amateur either.[10] Whoever he/she/they was or were, Nakamoto’s involvement in the project waned over the course of 2010, and the task of continuing to refine Bitcoin has become a collaborative effort clustered around one person who is paid to develop the protocol full-time.[11]

But in honour of Satoshi Nakamoto’s grand idea, the (current) smallest subunit of a bitcoin, Ƀ0.00000001, is called a satoshi. And boy-oh-boy, does Satoshi ever have a lot of satoshis! As one of the earliest dedicated users and miners, at a time when mining could be done with ordinary CPUs and the network was not nearly as distributed as today, Nakamoto amassed quite a hoard of bitcoins. However, since his disappearance in 2010, the lion’s share of the bitcoins traced back to the protocol’s creator (over a million of them) were never spent. [12] Depending on the real-world identity of the person or persons behind “Satoshi Nakamoto,” and the underlying motives behind creating Bitcoin and then retreating away right as it started attracting real attention to itself, maybe those coins will never be spent.

Legal Status of Bitcoins

Part of the reason Bitcoin is difficult for lawmakers and regulators to categorize is because it does not lend itself to analogy very well. Or perhaps it does this too well—that is to say Bitcoin can be meaningfully analogized to different and competing schemas. Fundamentally, as I discussed in the first part, Bitcoin is a ledger of transactions. But normally, a ledger of transactions refers to a unit which represents some physical thing, and even if that physical thing rarely actually changes hands in the vast majority of transactions of it, somewhere there is some form of property, in the legal sense, that the ledger is tracking. Even where this property is just a “right” to something else (think shares in a company), there’s usually some material thing (often money) at the end of the line.

Even bank notes and coins, the physical manifestations of traditional currency, are “referring” to something else—namely the respective territorial government’s acceptance of that currency for payment of taxes, etc., and its authority to insist that merchants within the territory accept the currency as “legal tender.” Sometimes the governments will have some kind of reserve of another valuable thing (like gold) in place to “back” the value of its currency, but in more recent times this has become less common, and a territory’s currency has value by government fiat. Bitcoin defies all this. There is nothing “backing” Bitcoin, only communal trust in the protocol itself, which is basically faith in cryptography and in the Bitcoin community’s collective will to see the project succeed. And so, Bitcoin defies or at least confuses the current legal conceptualization of what property is. Could it be said that a Bitcoin user has “rights” to particular bitcoins, even though they don’t actually exist anywhere other than on a ledger? Or does it make more sense to say they have exclusive rights to the address and private key that they have claimed for themselves—even though those were generated by a publicly available algorithm, with some real (but very, very, very small) chance that someone else could randomly generate the exact same ones, and be able to transact any bitcoins happening to be there..?

Other virtual currencies, like World of Warcraft “gold” and Amazon coins, while conceptualized as currency, derive their value, and any legal rights their users may have, from the contract agreed upon between issuer and user (however cursory that agreement may have been). Often, these agreements actually bar the user from trading the virtual currency to another user in exchange for traditional currency, and the issuer reserves the right to unilaterally change the contract on notice to the user. Nevertheless, the users of these currencies do have some legal rights, arising out of contract.

Bitcoin defies this too. There is no single issuer, and no one entity has the ability to change the Bitcoin protocol. The limit of the “powers” of those most closely involved with developing the protocol, is to release an update to the basic client, which is open source, and suggest that the update be adopted by the many users of the network—miners in particular. For major changes, all users must accept the update or risk a “hard fork” of the blockchain, with two parallel ledgers each purporting to be a true representation of the state of the network. Thus, it needs to already be a foregone conclusion that a large majority of the network will accept such major changes before it is even released, else doing so will undermine the project itself. In legal terms, we could perhaps conceive of the Bitcoin protocol as a multi-party, majority-guided, consensus-driven contract regarding the formulation of a ledger of transmissions of a unit that all the contractors accept have some value—value derived from the nature of the system thus described. But this “contract” is written in computer code, and is constantly self-executing (or to continue the metaphor, self-enforcing) in real time all the world over. And far from a simple contract of sale or services, or even a complex corporate transaction, the Bitcoin contract describes an entire economic system, not tied in any way to the geographic territories its users reside in, or, more importantly, the laws of those territories. Bitcoin is living law, created, sustained and refined by the supranational community of its users.

Now, with all that said, it is still completely within the purview of courts and lawmakers to “admit” bitcoins as a form of property. And while it is still early days, it appears that at least one court has done just that. In an early ruling in the prosecution of a rather notorious Ponzi scheme involving Bitcoins, a Texas District Court judge ruled that “Bitcoin is a currency or form of money,” and thus the defendant’s claim that Bitcoin was not money and therefore his offerings were not securities within the jurisdiction of the SEC was baseless.[13] Also, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”), the anti-money laundering enforcement agency of the U.S. Treasury has stated that both bitcoin exchanges as well as miners that exchange their newly-mined bitcoins for money are money transmitters subject to state licensing requirements—though how and why this would be enforced against the latter group is unclear to say the least.[14]

Meanwhile, up north, the Canada Revenue Agency has indicated that the rules which apply to bartering apply to trades involving bitcoin, which means that purchases of goods, services, or other currencies with bitcoins will result in taxable capital gains (or losses) if the value of the bitcoins (in Canadian dollars) has increased or decreased since they were acquired.[15] And, in contrast with the U.S., Canada’s Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre (“FINTRAC”; agency equivalent to FinCEN) has informed bitcoin exchanges that they are not subject to regulation as money services businesses under the applicable anti-money laundering laws (for the time being, at least).[16]

Other concerns regarding the technology

Aside from uncertain, sometimes conflicting legal classification and treatment, other concerns have been raised regarding the use of bitcoins in illegal drug and weapons trade, and for money laundering by criminals and terrorists. However, these arguments flounder somewhat when faced with the simple fact that as a public ledger, it is technically easier to trace dirty bitcoins than it is to trace dirty cash. That said, bitcoin mixing (read: laundering) services have sprung up for bitcoins too. It is worth noting here that the Silk Road, one of the largest marketplaces for all things illegal, operating on the near-anonymous Tor network and using bitcoin as its primary trade currency, was recently shut down by the U.S. government—its alleged operator arrested on drug charges and conspiracy to murder.[17]

Others point to the fact that it is possible to use the Bitcoin protocol to encode other kinds of content into the blockchain— including illegal content, like links to child pornography—immortalizing it there in the computers of every user of the network (whether they have the means or the desire to decode the content or not). Of course, this is not a new argument—it has been leveled against the Internet itself. And like the Internet, the Bitcoin protocol cannot be held responsible for the moral acts of its users, good or bad. Law enforcement agencies will simply adapt, as they already are doing.

The above is by no means an exhaustive analysis of the legal status of Bitcoin or of any particular uses for the technology, it is just meant to give you an idea. Generally speaking, owning and using bitcoins seems to be legal, but doing things with Bitcoin that would be illegal to do with money or with the Internet, remain illegal. It’s as simple as that.

Cryonics-specific uses for bitcoins

(1) Asset preservation
It has been suggested that since bitcoins appear to store value (in a somewhat erratic, volatile fashion, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms), they could provide an alternate means to those currently employed by cryonicists seeking to maintain possession of their accumulated wealth during their period of cryopreservation (namely, asset preservation trusts). And in fact, since Bitcoin is designed to be a deflationary currency[18], assuming that it survives and is adopted widely, wealth stored as bitcoins will likely be worth much more in the future than it is now. This might be attractive to cryonicists for whom volatility on shorter timescales is not terribly concerning.

So how could cryonicists accomplish this? The all-important piece of information that gives a particular person the ability to send bitcoins stored at a particular address is the private key for that address. Trouble is, no matter how that private key is stored, whether digitally on a computer owned by the cryonicist, or on a secure cloud server controlled by the cryonicist under some agreement entered into with the cloud server provider, or even written down on a simple piece of paper (the so-called “paper wallet”), none of these records of the private key will escape the effects of estate law if they remain the cryonicist’s property upon legal death. Thus the information required to transmit the cryonicist’s bitcoins would end up in the hands of beneficiaries—beneficiaries who today might not even know what to do with them! This could result in either the loss of the bitcoins to the cryonicist, or the permanent loss of the bitcoins altogether, since if the private key is outright lost, the bitcoins stored at that address are no longer accessible.

The only way to avoid this would be to use essentially the same mechanism currently used for cryonics asset preservation, i.e. giving the medium with the private key on it to a trustee to hold for the cryonicist until they are successfully resuscitated. But then we haven’t actually come up with a new solution to the problem we set out to solve, because this trust will have to be drafted in more or less the same way as other cryonics asset preservation trusts, such as the Alcor Model Trust, with an interim beneficiary standing in for the cryonicist while they are not a legal person. And there is nothing wrong with that in principle, but since bitcoins are informational in nature, there might be another way of preserving them for later use, without using trust law mechanics—perhaps as a way of hedging oneself against the possible failure of the trust for one reason or another.

This alternate method relies on the fact that, as information, bitcoin private keys can be memorized. However, private keys are even longer than bitcoin addresses themselves, and thus not the easiest things to memorize. So, some clever people have devised a way of generating private keys by hashing series of words that are much easier for the average human being to remember, like “correct horse battery staple.”[19] These approaches to securing bitcoins are referred to as brain wallets. Fair warning, though: short, simple combinations of ordinary words are vulnerable to “dictionary attacks.” For similar reasons, a beloved section of poetry, in unaltered form, is not a wise choice of phrase to generate a private key either. As with ordinary passwords, addition of numbers, special characters, and variations of case are advisable.

In their brain wallet, the cryonicist stores some of their wealth in bitcoins using a secret passphrase known only to them. Upon resuscitation, they generate the private key from the passphrase, and they have everything they need to transact with the bitcoins as they desire. Conceivably, brain wallets could even be used to incentivize resuscitation, by telling your cryonics provider about the bitcoins and promising them some portion of them upon your return.[20] Of course, that idea leads to a potential pitfall of storing the key to your wealth in your brain, as it makes your brain potentially quite valuable—that is, valuable to people other than yourself and those that care about you for you. If it became common knowledge that cryonicists were using this as a strategy for asset preservation, mightn’t this make cryonics facilities attractive to the future’s version of tomb-raiders, lusting after the riches locked away in cryopreserved brains? The best case scenario there would be that the technology exists to somehow “read” the private key from a brain while still cryopreserved. A worse scenario would be that the cryonicist, having been abducted from their long-term care provider, is later resuscitated under rather different circumstances than they intended—as hostages of their resuscitators, and only of continued value to them until they give up the goods, as it were. I will say however that both those scenarios sound more like premises for science fiction stories than likely futures.

Another, less fantastical problem with using brain wallets for asset preservation is the possibility that part of the cryonicist’s brain that is involved in storing the private key—or more likely the passphrase used to generate it—is damaged during cryopreservation in a way that is not reparable. However, without delving too far into the subject, I wonder if there are mnemonic strategies that would reduce the likelihood of this undesirable outcome. Even something as simple as ritualized, periodic recall of the passphrase to continually reactivate the memory and strengthen it might result in a memory that has sufficient physical redundancy in the brain to resist some amount of damage.

Lastly, there is always the chance that during the patient’s cryopreservation, Bitcoin fails for some reason, either because some major flaw in the protocol is discovered and exploited, or a successor technology comes along, and the value and wealth currently stored in Bitcoin drains out of it into the successor. That said, Bitcoin still has a strong first mover advantage, and as a protocol, any deficiencies identified through experimentation with the numerous “altcoins” that exist can simply be implemented into Bitcoin, which has considerable network effect favouring its competitive survival. However, due to this and the aforementioned risks, it would be seriously inadvisable to make storing wealth in Bitcoin brain wallets one’s only asset preservation strategy.

(2) Collection of donations, and payments for services
Case in point: I created a Bitcoin address for the Institute for Evidence Based Cryonics just before the symposium on Resuscitation of Cryonics Patients in May, and merely because we accepted bitcoins, someone in the audience, with whom we had no prior relationship, made a donation. And all he had to do was scan the QR code of IEBC’s public address that was on my phone.

In addition to soliciting donations this way, cryonics service providers could also accept member dues and lump-sum prepayments via Bitcoin. Compared with the transaction fees charged by credit card companies and PayPal, which are generally a percentage of the value of the transaction itself, the default suggested transaction fee is only 0.0001, or at today’s exchange rate a little over one cent[21]. And historically, as the price of bitcoins has increased, the default transaction fee has been reduced, since transaction fees only need to be a small component of the miners’ incentive while the block reward is still quite high. Anyway, this is much cheaper than the competition, and also much faster, as Bitcoin transactions “settle” securely in about an hour, and realistically can be relied on even sooner when dealing with relatively small transactions, as the risk of a doublespend attempt is very low there due to the cost of the computing power required to successfully pull it off.

However, for organizations worried about the extra level of accounting complexity created by accepting payments in a currency with a value that fluctuates relative to their home currency, there is an alternative. Numerous payment companies are springing up in the Bitcoin service layer that aim to make accepting bitcoins easier on companies, Coinbase being a wellfunded frontrunner that gives merchants the option to have incoming bitcoin transactions converted immediately into USD at the current exchange rate, plus a 1% service fee (which is still significantly cheaper than credit cards and PayPal).[22]

Other cryonics-relevant uses

The surface has only just been scratched with respect to what the Bitcoin protocol is capable of. Blockchain technology is an incredibly powerful tool, that has already been adapted for use as a cryptographically secure, peer-to-peer messaging system[23], as well as a decentralized domain name system[24]. Automated contracts with built-in dispute resolution mechanisms, aka “smart contracts” are in the works, and “smart wills” should be possible as well, though cryonicists will probably be more interested in ways of maintaining personal control over their wealth, as described above.


Hopefully, this article has served as an understandable yet accurate introduction to Bitcoin, from both a technical and a legal perspective, with special attention to its historical connections to the cryonics community, and its possible future uses for cryonics.

Learn more:

Already a Bitcoin user? Consider making a donation to the Lifespan Society of British Columbia using the address in the article above. The Institute for Evidence Based Cryonics ( also accepts bitcoins, at 1Mouv 8BcRUmqVHRRNPaQPmFkzskMqoiSDk.


[1] For those who might be irritated by my switching back and forth between “Bitcoin” and “bitcoin,” the capitalized former is usually reserved for referring to the protocol as a whole, whereas the non-capitalized latter refers to units of the currency itself.

[2] Transaction fees are not required to broadcast a transaction to the network, but miners can opt only to include transactions with fees in any blocks they solve, so including a fee will result in faster confirmation by the network. The current default fee (no matter how large the transaction) is Ƀ0.0001—approximately one cent.



[5] That said, the world’s first operational Bitcoin ATM will be installed in Vancouver this month, with four others in Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Ottawa:






[11] Gavin is paid a salary by the Bitcoin Foundation, a non-profit working to standardize, protect, and promote the Bitcoin protocol:


[13]. Securities and Exchange Commission v. Shavers, No. 4: 13- CV-416 (E.D. Tex. Aug. 6, 2013).

[14] “Application of FinCEN’s Regulations to Persons Administering, Exchanging, or Using Virtual Currencies,” FIN-2013-G001. Available at regs/guidance/html/FIN-2013-G001.html


[16] welcomes_bitcoin_traders_fintrac_letter/


[18] The mining reward will halve approximately every 4 years, resulting in the total number of bitcoins never exceeding 21 million—the design rationale being that over time the number of transactions on the network will increase to the point where competition for rapid inclusion in blocks (and thus, faster confirmation of the transactions) will result in sufficient transaction fees to incentivize miners’ continued support of the network without the block reward. So while technically the supply of bitcoins is increasing, it is expected to eventually behave like a deflationary currency, relative to traditional currencies. Since 25 new bitcoins are created approximately every 10 minutes, at present over $3,000 USD worth of “new money” in traditional currencies needs to enter the bitcoin market just for the price of bitcoins to remain flat; thus, the rising price of Bitcoin, while appearing like deflation, is actually merely a function of supply versus demand (and also exchange bottlenecks).

[19] This example is rather famous in the Bitcoin community, as it was used in the popular online comic strip, xkcd: http://

[20] I must credit this idea to Danila Medvedev, who floated it on Cryonet Asset Preservation mailing list in August: conversations/messages/5448 (requires joining the mailing list to view).

[21] Remembering that the transaction fee is only required if you want your transaction confirmed relatively quickly. If there is no rush on the recipient’s end, one can send bitcoins without any fee at all, though it may take some time to be included in blocks, as transaction fees are part of the miners’ incentive, though for now a relatively small incentive compared with the 25 bitcoin block reward… but this will change over time.




Getting the Word Out

For this month’s column, I have been asked to write about how to start a viable and well-attended local life extension group. I suppose the reason I am qualified to write on this subject is because I have been working on precisely that for the past three years, ever since I first learned about life extension and cryonics. However, I certainly didn’t know how to do such a thing when I started out, so as much as I would love to provide a step-by-step recipe for the successes we have had in Vancouver, so much has been done by trial and error that the best I can do is communicate some of the things I believe have been instrumental in what we have managed to accomplish so far with Lifespan Society of British Columbia. So, without further ado:

Indulge your obsession… at least at first. If you are still in that highly energetic, early phase in your interest for life extension, just go with it! Read everything you can about the topics that interest you, including what the critics and detractors have to say, so that you can credibly educate others on the subject. Learn the answers to the typical objections—but be gentle when you repeat them, you don’t want to scare people off by treating them like they’re stupid for not being so sublimely rational as you are. Aim to become the person others are referred to in order to learn more about cryonics/ SENS/supplements/your topic of choice.

Make yourself available. It’s easy— just offer to take people out for coffee! Even once you have a group going, many people will find the idea of going to a group composed entirely of unknown people somewhat intimidating (I know I do!). If people reach out to you about life extension or cryonics, tell them about your group but also offer to meet them for coffee/beer/whatever. Many of Lifespan’s current members are people I had a one-onone conversation with about life extension and cryonics over the last three years.

Listen. One major piece of advice I have for anyone interested in life extension advocacy is to really listen to the people you talk to about these subjects, and learn to understand why they are interested. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that their reasoning, their philosophy, their politics are either the same as yours, or else wrong. Of course many of us tend to think that way privately, but if you allow yourself to be permeable to other viewpoints (even as you intentionally challenge mainstream beliefs by holding your divergent beliefs publicly), you could be surprised by others’ capacity to grab onto new ways of thinking. Arguing with the intent to have someone change their mind publicly is almost always a losing battle, and is more about the arguer’s ego being around to see its own triumph of reason than it is about the desired effect of changing the way people think. Ask questions and answer questions, but do so softly and humbly.

Reach out and meet up. One of the earliest things I did after becoming interested in cryonics was make contact with someone through the Cryonics Society of Canada mailing list, who I knew lived reasonably close to me, and offer to host him and any other likewise interested people he knew from the area to meet me in the boardroom of my condominium to discuss local developments. The majority of us are still involved with what became Lifespan Society, and are still meeting regularly three years later. I really think in-person meetings are key, even if the group starts small and it seems like the same discussion could be done over email. If you don’t know anyone in your area yet, check out the regional sections of larger forums, like, or by posting an invitation to meet on a mailing list. There is also a list of regional cryonics groups at the back of this magazine, which is a good place to start.

Don’t just talk. Now, I would say that this movement is still in a sufficiently early stage that simply meeting live and talking about it is progress, but even the most passionate supporters can get bored sitting around a table discussing the same points over and over. So the next step is to build some kind of activity around the conversation (the true content) to adhere to. As an example, at Lifespan we host movie nights where we screen documentaries, videos of conference presentations, or even just thematically-related films, and then discuss them afterwards. These have proven very popular. We also had a night out at the theater recently, when the opportunity arose to see a play that touched on themes of radical life extension, transhumanism and the Singularity. We also hold nature walks and hikes, which, as a life extension group, puts our money where our mouth is by integrating some physical activity into our meetings.

Start a local mailing list, or online forum. Larger mailing lists and social networks are fantastic places to learn and to meet people, but once you reach a critical mass in your local meetings, it will become unwieldy to coordinate these via direct emails (people getting dropped from the cc’s, etc.). Get yourself a space where you can talk about local issues with local people without worrying about spamming outsiders. Some people who may not be as comfortable discussing these topics on large public fora may open up on a smaller, locally-oriented list as well. Google and Yahoo groups are both good for this, though if you’re fairly privacy-oriented, you may want to look for alternatives.

Set goals. The group’s keeners will want to be able to make progress on particular ideas, and while public meet-ups are very valuable for growing your network, they are not the best venue for objective-driven meetings with agenda, etc., because every newcomer ends up needing to be brought up to speed before they can contribute meaningfully. Sometimes also the topic of discussion may be of a sensitive nature, or there might be people who would like to attend, but are a reluctant of being publicly affiliated with “controversial” ideas, and would rather there was someone playing gatekeeper to the more serious meetings. Float a date, book a room (or if you have a big enough space yourself, volunteer your place), and circulate agenda items on your local mailing group.

Infiltrate your local university. Obviously, in this case it helps if you happen to be a university student, as I was when I first became aware of life extension. But if you aren’t a student, nor do you know one, you could strategically host a public meet-up at a venue on campus and advertise there. Students are often looking for volunteer experience for their resumes, and many universities have a club ‘incorporation’ system which grants student organizations access to club grants, and use of university venues at reduced rates or even free. Undergraduate students are comparatively easy to get excited about life extension, probably because they haven’t been in the “system” long enough to become doctrinally entrenched and hyper-skeptical. If anything, the revolution in medicine that Aubrey de Grey’s and others’ visions of life extension represent makes science feel exciting again, giving students a taste of what it might have felt like to be a budding scientist during the Space Race.

Infiltrate other groups. Find related groups, such as humanists, transhumanists, or rationalists, and start attending their meetings. There are very good arguments for separating life extension advocacy from all the “-isms” it has historically been attached to, but that said, groups devoted to these ideologies are still good places to meet people who are more likely than the average person on the street to get excited about life extension. The cross-pollination can work both ways, exposing your existing members to a forum where they can discuss things they may be interested to talk about, but that is outside the scope of your life extension group.

If you are under 30, and interested in cryonics, I would highly recommend getting funding arrangements in place, for all the usual reasons of course, but also to attend the Teens and Twenties cryonics gathering in Florida. Having attended in 2010, I can say with certainty that you are unlikely to meet a more interesting group of young persons. The gathering draws young scientists and researchers, philosophers, actors, musicians, and cryonics professionals, and there are scholarships available for cryonicists under 30 to pay full or partial costs of travel and attendance, generously provided by the Life Extension Foundation.

Find something to rally around. One of the most challenging aspects of life extension activism is that it is such a broad concept in the first place (even before considering the differences of opinion as to what exactly counts as life extension within the community itself!). Here in B.C., our need to better clarify what exactly the notorious anti-cryonics law means for cryonicists in the province, and our desire for the government to justify its existence have, since the inception of our local community, served as rallying points around which the other parts have coalesced. But a good rallying point doesn’t have to be reaction against government intervention. Perhaps there is someone in your area in a situation like Kim Suozzi, or Aaron Winborn, who is interested in cryonics, but due to circumstances (likely immediate need) cannot afford it. Whatever your objective, if you can convince the larger community of its value, you may find that they have a sufficient stake in what you are doing to provide much-needed financial support.

Get Help! At some point, it will simply not be possible for you to do everything yourself. If you are in school, or working, you will need help keeping meetings and events happening, and growing. Start developing these kinds of relationships early on, so you never get to the point of burning out—or even if you do, there are others able to take the reins for a while. And then, once you’re ready, incorporate! Not only is this a sign that you have officially ‘arrived’ as an organization, but it’s also a good idea if your activities are starting to get more attendance, and especially if they’re getting more… adventurous (from a liability perspective). It’s also difficult to attract significant funding without a corporate identity and bank account. Take advantage of free or low-cost local resources available to fledgling nonprofits. The local university chapter of Pro Bono Students of Canada was immensely helpful to Lifespan early on, connecting us with lawyer supervision for drafting our incorporating documents, as well as doing some legal research for us on the B.C. anticryonics law.

Conclusion. In writing this, I came to realize how many of the suggestions I have could be lumped under the heading of “networking.” I don’t consider myself to be a very effective networker—and if someone asked me for my feelings on networking in the abstract, I would probably tell them I positively abhor it… and that is usually the truth! But in life extension I found a topic that captivated me so completely that I did quite a lot of networking over a relatively short period of time without really realizing it. So I guess it all goes back to the top item in the list: indulge your obsession (within reason). Fuel your passion, and the rest will come naturally.

First published as a regular column called In Perpetuity in Cryonics Magazine, September 2013.

Bootstrap Personhood

(Or, Corporations are People, Too…)

In my last article, I looked at some historical and contemporary examples of legal activism aimed at expanding legal personhood to beings not already included in that category. As much as it was a fairly superficial survey, some trends could still be ascertained, firstly (and not so surprisingly) that courts tend to preserve the status quo when faced with these hard questions, and secondly, that even when the decision is made to admit or recognize new persons, courts do not provide much in the way of guidance with regards to what qualities the beings possess that were necessary and sufficient to their recognition as persons. The groups of beings which have seen some successes suing for increased recognition as persons (slaves, women) have been ones capable of speaking for themselves—even if lawyers were hired to make the actual legal arguments. Advocates for unborn human fetuses and nonhuman animals have received answers from the courts more or less along the lines of “these beings asserted to be persons have never before been recognized as persons, therefore they are not persons,” leaving any potential for change to the political realm (probably at the constitutional level). Some intermediate recognition or protection was carved out for late-term fetuses in Roe v Wade, and this is probably the most relevant case for future cryonics personhood activism because the court there gave some explanation for this protection as being founded upon the “potentiality of life” of the unborn fetus. So, if a cryonics personhood case were to rely on that particular precedent to argue that cryonics patients should receive some higher level of protection against unwanted interferences, I suspect the kind of proof required to substantiate their “potential” to live would be the resuscitation of a non-human animal from a cryopreserved state. Even then, the intermediate category carved out for cryonics patients may only extend so far as those humans who are preserved under the same or very similar circumstances to the experiment model, which may very well not include anyone preserved today.

So, the prospects for suing for cryonics patient personhood, or partial personhood are, for the moment, poor. Political activism might have a better shot, considering that “personhood amendments” extending personhood to fetuses have at least managed to make it through state legislatures in the U.S., but it is hard to imagine an interest group as small as today’s cryonics movement managing to get that kind of traction—we simply don’t have
enough votes for politicians to worry about winning. On the other hand, we have the simple truth that cryonics patients could really benefit from personhood, even if for no other reason than to hold assets that will otherwise be transmitted to next-of-kin or beneficiaries named in the patient’s will.

But haven’t we already solved that problem? Haven’t cryonics asset preservation trusts (or personal revival trusts, or reanimation trusts, or whatever name is currently in vogue), been developed for precisely this reason? Yes, they have, and with the abolishment of the rule against perpetuities in numerous jurisdictions these are a reasonably effective workaround to cryonics patients’ current lack of personhood. In a way, cryonics patients are not unlike some of the earliest users of trusts in English law— the Crusaders venturing off to faraway lands, whose future status as alive or dead was sufficiently uncertain that they felt it necessary to hand over their assets to trusted third parties to hold for the benefit of their families (and themselves, if they made it back alive), with some assurance that the law would recognize those beneficial entitlements. But ultimately, the law only recognizes persons as possible beneficiaries (well, with a few exceptions that cryonics patients don’t really fit into), and for these trusts to work as intended our patients do still need to resume personhood at some point—upon resuscitation, if not earlier.

What if, for some patients at least, revival doesn’t proceed by “resuscitation” in the mechanical sense, or even “repair,” but through some kind of uploading scenario which results in a being rather different in form from the original? If such beings are not recognized as legal persons, or the same persons as were cryopreserved, then even if the trustees do what they are supposed to do and recognize these beings as the beneficiaries, they will not have legal capacity to hold title to the property, and this could significantly limit their ability to actually use and benefit from those assets. So are we assuming too much about the legal status of such future beings when we establish trusts that, for the moment, can only benefit “persons”? Perhaps not – arguably it might not even be ethical to revive cryonics patients into any format that was not on equal legal footing with what we call “persons” today. But on the other hand, maybe we are unnecessarily committing ourselves to fitting into particular socially constructed boxes.

I am interested in exploring whether we could bootstrap personhood for our patients using the existing legal personhood of corporations. The current “standard” setup for cryonics asset preservation trusts has the trustee(s) holding legal title to assets for some interim beneficiary that has the personhood status required of it by trust law, with the resuscitated cryonics patient written into the trust as a contingent beneficiary and intended ultimate recipient of the trust capital. The interim beneficiary could in theory be anyone, but the traditional wisdom is that the patient’s cryonics organization is the safest choice, as being far less likely to seek to terminate the trust (which is something trust law allows beneficiaries to do under some circumstances).

In my model of cryonics patient corporate personhood, however, the patient incorporates a unique, incorporated “avatar” of themselves (named after them even) while still alive, to be the interim beneficiary of their asset preservation trust while they are not a person.

Now hold on a moment, you should be asking yourself—if the patient incorporates a corporate avatar of themselves, they own that corporation by holding all of its shares, and when they die, those shares will pass to their next of kin or the residual beneficiaries of their will, who would then “own” the beneficiary of their asset preservation trust. So how would that solve anything?

Well, these cryonics patient corporate persons need to be propped up somehow, and to that end I am imagining a cryonics patient personhood organization, a nonprofit organization formed expressly for the purpose of anchoring cryonics patients’ corporate identities during their cryopreservation. After incorporating their patient corporations, the cryonicists transfer their shares, and thus ownership of their legal avatars to the personhood organization. The personhood organization would be independent of all the cryonics service providers, patient care trusts, asset preservation trustees and institutions. While the patient is neither recognized as a legal person nor able to speak for themselves, the personhood organization’s only function is to perpetuate the existence of the patient corporations. Then, if the time comes that the patient is able to speak for themselves, but lacks personhood (i.e. the scenario I imagined above where “uploaded” beings are not recognized as persons, or the same kind of persons, as “natural” human persons), then the unalterable by-laws of the personhood organization direct it to operate the patient corporation on the revived patient’s instructions. And, of course, if and when the patient’s own natural personhood is recognized, the shares of the patient corporation will be transferred back to them—though by this time, its utility will have waned.

The personhood organization can serve as the anchor point for any number of patient corporations, and it would also fall within the mandate of such an organization to advocate concurrently fo recognition of “real” personhood for the patients, both before their resuscitation/ revival, and after if necessary. The critically important feature of this model for cryonics patient personhood is that not only is the cryonicist-composed membership and directing mind of the personhood organization bound by unalterable provisions of the organization’s constating documents to perpetuate and operate the patient corporations according to the patients’ wishes, but also that they have a very strong incentive to do so because they will all be relying on the same mechanism to prop up their own personhood down the road.


There is one other thing that interests me about using corporate personhood in this way. I have written before about whether cryonics patients are “property” in a truer, legal sense than we usually think of them. If this is so, then title to the patient “specimen” could be transferred to that patient’s corporate personality, subject, of course, to all the same conditions regarding the specimen’s use that accompanied the original anatomical gift to the patient’s cryonics service provider—namely that the specimen remain in the custody and care of the cryonics service provider. For some reason I find the idea of putting the “brain” inside the person like this to be very elegant, but I am not at all sure it poses any real advantage. One possible reason to do this would be that it would keep the specimens out of the cryonics organization’s asset column if at some point down the road a monetary value could be assigned to them that could become vulnerable to the threat of litigation. This, of course, is the reason why the funds earmarked by Alcor for indefinite patient care have been transferred into the Alcor Patient Care Trust; would it not make just as much sense to take similar precautions with the patients’ most precious assets—themselves?

When I presented this idea for cryonics patient corporate personhood at the Institute for Evidence-Based Cryonics symposium in May, I was asked whether it wouldn’t be simpler to just draft patient control directly into the asset preservation trusts instead of adding further complexity by inserting a patient corporation and personhood organization into the mix. I had to admit it is possible that cryonics patient corporate personhood is a semantic improvement more than a functional one. However, I do think it is important to remember that a trust is not a person, but rather a relationship between persons (i.e. trustee and beneficiary), and for so long as the cryonics patient is not a person, the trust is pointing at some other person as its beneficiary instead, that the cryonics patient is simply trusting without any legal recourse. My solution doesn’t avoid the “trust” issue entirely, but adds an additional check/balance, and gives the patient indirect control not just of the funds, but of a “person” on the other side that can hold title to property, enter contracts, and sue (…and be sued). I think it could be argued also that cryonics patient corporate personhood makes asset preservation trusts redundant—that is to say, why would you have someone hold your money for you if “you” are holding it yourself (while someone else is propping you up)? But we mustn’t forget to divide labor where appropriate. The mandate of the cryonics patient personhood organization would not be focused on wealth management, so there is still good reason to place assets in the hands of those with the expertise to make their value rise with the times. On the flip side, something cryonics patient corporations could do that asset preservation trusts (and the institutions which typically act as trustees for such trusts) are not well-positioned to do, is hold non-monetary personal property (i.e. keepsakes which are more valuable to the cryonicist in non-liquidated form).

Cryonics patient corporate personhood is also subject to one major risk that on its own justifies keeping the trust portion of the larger structure intact. Corporate personhood, or perhaps more correctly, the rights and protections currently enjoyed by corporate persons, have become the object of heightened public suspicion in recent years. It is not impossible that these rights could be rolled back, though I think a complete abolishment of the entire concept would only occur if there was a complete political revolution. In any case, as I’ve pointed out, trusts are useful to cryonics patients for some purposes, and patient corporations may be useful for others; and having an organization specifically devoted to advocating for and upholding cryonics patient personhood, in its natural and bootstrap forms, respectively, would benefit the cryonics movement overall.

First published as a regular column called In Perpetuity in Cryonics Magazine, August 2013.

We Shall Overcome

Legal Approaches Toward Cryonics Patient Personhood

The current medico-legal definition of death creates numerous obstacles to the successful resuscitation and reintegration of cryonics patients: our ability to be cryopreserved under optimal conditions is restricted in the first place, and once cryopreserved, we are no longer legal persons, so we are only weakly protected from undesired interferences and we cannot continue holding property that we would like to have post-resuscitation. That said, the cryonics community is not the first to desire enhanced legal status and protection for its members. In this article, I will survey some instances of legal activism in historical and contemporary personhood movements, evaluating their success and applicability to the cryonics movement.

Why personhood?

Personhood is important to cryonics because it is important to us right now, though we probably take the status for granted. Though it is not necessarily true to say all persons enjoy equal protection under the law, by default the level of protection (that is to say, the rules on others not to interfere) of persons is much higher. Furthermore, personhood is what gives us access to the legal system, and with it the ability to enter enforceable contracts with other people, own property and exclude others from the use of it. For cryonics asset preservation, this last feature is probably the most important, though protection of the patient from undesired physical interferences is still of paramount importance to the overall endeavor. However, while we take these abilities for granted as being features of our present personhood, not all persons have always enjoyed these, and not all beings who are currently persons were always so. There are also beings that are not persons that some argue should be, and some non-beings that are persons, that some argue should not be (corporations, and other “legal” persons). Generally speaking, there has been an expansion of personhood to include more beings in recent centuries, and also an increase in the protections afforded those beings (at least on paper). Some of these advancements have come about as a result of legal activism, i.e. members of the excluded or under-protected groups (or their advocates) petitioning courts either to recognize novel classes within existing definitions, or make principled alterations to historical criteria for membership. Other gains have been made through political activism, but this article will focus primarily on the role of legal activism in the expansion or attempted expansion of personhood to particular groups (slaves, women, fetuses and animals) and enhancements of protections afforded certain subgroups. The second part of this article will consider whether anything can be learned from these historical and contemporary movements, and look at opportunities for legal activism in cryonics. A follow-up article will look at a novel way that corporate (artificial) personhood could enhance the protection of cryonics patients and/or their assets.


In 1772, the English case of Somersett v Stewart set an important precedent in the global abolition movement. Three years prior to the case, a customs officer named Charles Stewart had brought a slave purchased in America back to England with him. The slave, James Somersett, escaped in 1771, but was recaptured and imprisoned by Stewart, whereupon three people claiming to be Somersett’s godparents by baptism in England applied for his release on the grounds that there was no lawful reason for his imprisonment. However, far from being based on humanitarian principles, the arguments put forward on Somersett’s behalf simply relied on the absence of any statutory or common law in England recognizing slavery (serfdom having been abolished over 600 years prior). Since the common law of contract could not bind a person absent their consent, Somersett’s imprisonment was unlawful, it was argued. Lord Mansfield of the Court of King’s Bench agreed with this argument, proclaiming that “the state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of now being introduced by Courts of Justice upon mere reasoning or inferences from any principles, natural or political; it must take its rise from positive law.” Lord Mansfield held that the legal status of an alleged slave depended not on the law of the state where he or she originated, but on the law of the jurisdiction of the legal action, in this case England. Thus, while the institution of slavery was alive and well in America, a slave was free to withdraw from the service of his former master upon arrival in England.

The result is pleasing enough, but unfortunately for our purposes the decision avoids the hard moral, philosophical, and most of all legal question of what makes a person; rather, it presumes that in the absence of a law declaring him to be anything else, Somersett was a person and not property. The arguments based on contract law relied on this—after all, property cannot enter into contracts in the first place. No reasoning was put forward by the plaintiffs, nor considered by the court, as to what qualities distinguish a person from property, either in the abstract or in the specific context of an American slave of African descent.

Not long after Somersett’s case, the United States did enact positive law recognizing slavery, in Article Four of the United States Constitution: “No person held to service or labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labour, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due.” This law was essentially an answer to the decision in Somersett’s case (which, while not binding on the States, was still an open question there), as between the slave states and the free states. The U.S. abolition movement did not reach its boiling point until 80 years later, with the case of Dred Scott v Sandford, (1857). Mr. Scott sued for his freedom on grounds that he and his master had resided for a time in a state where slavery had been banned, but the Supreme Court of the United States held that as a person of African ancestry, Scott was not a citizen of the United States and had no right to sue in federal court (notwithstanding the fact that free blacks in some states did enjoy the rights of citizens of those states). According to Chief Justice Taney, the drafters of the U.S. Constitution viewed all blacks as “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which white man was bound to respect.” Unsurprisingly, the Chief Justice is not taking personal responsibility for the morality of this position, merely declaring it to be the intent behind the law he is bound to apply.

Now technically, the jurisdictional issue in Dred Scott turned on the question of citizenship, not personhood, as this was the language of the relevant section; however, in obiter dicta, Chief Justice Taney also held that the Fifth Amendment prevented any law from depriving a slaveholder of his property, such as his slaves, upon the incidence of migration into free territory. It is implicit to this holding that slaves were no more persons than they were citizens.

The essential reasoning of Dred Scott was: (1) the being talking to us needs to be a citizen for us to listen; (2) a citizen is what the people who chose that word when drafting the statute would have meant by citizen; (3) historical analysis reveals the drafters would not have considered you a citizen because you are a Negro descended from a slave; therefore (4) you are not a citizen. The English decision, on the other hand, simply presumed Somersett to be a person in the absence of any positive law making another status possible, without explaining why (this may not be that surprising, however, since there were, at the time, free blacks in England). Both courts let slip the opportunity to expound upon the qualities of the being before them that are, or would be, necessary and sufficient to a finding of personhood, even though such a finding was a necessary prerequisite to the disposition of each case.

Ultimately, it took a constitutional amendment subsequent to the American Civil War to elevate the status of American slaves to persons and citizens. However, in stating that “[a]ll persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside,” the Fourteenth Amendment does not actually accord slaves freed under the Thirteenth Amendment the status of personhood—like Lord Mansfield in Somersett v Stewart, their personhood is simply presumed.


Of course, neither personhood nor citizenship guarantee equal protections and participation in public life. Women, for instance, were recognized as citizens of the United States falling within the meaning of the 14th Amendment in Minor v Happersett (1875), which as we’ll recall requires an implicit finding of personhood, but the decision in that case held the right to vote was not one of the “privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States” when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted (1868). Indeed, at the time the 14th Amendment was adopted, in many places women actually lost legal rights under local marriage laws—among those the capacity to own property. And once more, a constitutional amendment—a political achievement as opposed to a legal one—was required to enhance the status of women to equal footing with men on the issue of voting (19th Amendment, 1920).

However, the question of women’s personhood was directly considered in the Canadian case of Edwards v Canada (AG) (1929), aka the “Persons case.” At issue there was whether the phrase “qualified Persons” in Section 24 of the British North America Act (the precursor title of Canada’s Constitution), in reference to senate appointments, included women. The Supreme Court of Canada found that based on (i) the usage of the word “He” in the nearby section detailing the necessary qualifications, (ii) the historical intentions which could be imputed to the drafters of the of the Act, and (iii) the common law incapacity of women to exercise public functions at the time, women were excluded from Section 24.

Luckily, the Supreme Court of Canada was not the final say in the matter at that time, and the case was appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in England. Overturning the decision, Viscount Sankey ruled that “[t]he British North America Act planted in Canada living tree capable of growth and expansion within its natural limits… Their Lordships to do not conceive it to be the duty of this Board… to cut down the provisions of the Act by a narrow and technical construction, but rather to give it a large and liberal interpretation….” But once again, the Privy Council’s decision on the definitional matter at issue doesn’t actually consider whether women are in fact persons, and why, but rather whether the term “person” in that context impliedly excludes “female persons.” Instead of being about what makes a person, the debate turns on what kinds of persons the drafters meant by “persons.” It assumes that women can be persons, either if those responsible for drafting the document giving persons certain capacities meant to include female persons, or, in the Privy Council’s opinion, by default unless exclusion is explicit. This is still a textualist interpretation, just a progressive one as opposed to originalist. But it most certainly isn’t semantic—that would require an examination of what qualities define personhood.


Perhaps we need to go looking for a case that forces the “qualities” of personhood into determination. In the landmark abortion/fetal rights case of Roe v Wade (1973), the respondent argued that a fetus was a person within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment, guaranteeing its right to life. In its decision, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that the Constitution does not define “person,” and found that there was no intra-textual support for a pre-natal interpretation, nor any legal precedent to support this interpretation either. But then, instead of addressing the issue head on, Justice Blackmun wavers, saying “[w]e need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate.” Nevertheless, it is apparent he is tempted at the prospect, responding to the conception theory of the beginning of life (and personhood) by pointing to the problems with this view caused “by new embryological data that purport to indicate that conception is a ‘process’ over time, rather than an event, and by new medical techniques such as menstrual extraction, the ‘morning-after’ pill, implantation of embryos, artificial insemination, and even artificial wombs.” So this court is not averse to scientific evidence suggesting the question is not as black and white as alive-person vs. non-alive-non-person, but it only applies that evidence one way, to prop up its “legal” conclusion that personhood has always begun at birth. The same process-not-event reasoning could just as easily be applied on the other end, i.e. in the days shortly before birth, against the argument that life and personhood begin at birth—especially since birth can occur prematurely both naturally and as a result of artificial inducement. But Justice Blackmun prefers his concept of the “potentiality of human life,” in which the State’s interest matures to the “compelling” threshold upon viability of the fetus. So, despite not meeting the definition of personhood (however arbitrarily derived), an intermediate category is carved out for the fetus and granted some protection. (Note also that there is a long history, emanating from English law, that a fetus can have a defendable interest in property that is contingent upon its being born.)

In the decades since Roe v Wade, a number of attempts to enact “personhood amendments” at the state constitution level have mostly failed to gain traction. However, in March 2012, the North Dakota House of Representatives passed an amendment to its constitution that “the inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected.” Reactions to this have included concerns that such a drastic redefinition would effectively outlaw not only abortions in all circumstances, but many reproductive technologies that involve production, storage, and disposal of excess embryos. It remains to be seen whether this amendment will survive a challenge founded on the U.S. Constitution and Roe v Wade. Nevertheless, political activism appears a more viable option for activism than legal challenges.

Non-human Animals

Of course, while fetuses’ presence at the blurry category boundary between non-life and life has obvious analogical relevance to cryonics patients, it is not a perfect model because it involves a presently unavoidable contest between the fundamental rights of two beings, the mother’s and the fetus’s (that is, if rights are imputed to fetuses at all). The question of non-human animal personhood does not pose this same issue, and there have been a number of interesting developments regarding the legal protection of these beings. However, despite how these are usually reported, none have granted “rights” to any animals, nor conferred upon them the personhood they would require in order to have rights, in the legal sense. Rather, of the numerous reports of non-human animals being granted rights, what has in fact occurred includes: (i) constitutional recognition of the “dignity” of animals, which need be considered by the state in regulating research activities (Switzerland, 1992), (ii) somewhat vague imperatives to protect animals by legislation (Germany, 2002), and (iii) expanded protections of some classes of animals, like the great apes, preventing their use in research or testing (New Zealand, 1999).

Attempts at legal activism towards non-human animal personhood have been less successful. In Citizens to End Animal Suffering and Exploitation v The New England Aquarium (1993), the Massachusetts district court held that Kama the dolphin lacks standing to maintain an action under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, as the Act only authorizes suits brought by persons. As we should be coming to expect by this point, the decision simply accepts as a foregone conclusion that animals are not persons without asking why. Similarly, in Cetacean Community v Bush (2004), the Ninth Circuit Court held that “the Cetaceans do not have statutory standing to sue,” as they are not persons— no deeper questions asked.

Nevertheless, the will behind these suits is strong. An organization called GRASP (Great Ape Standing & Personhood), hosts a model legal brief on its website titled “From Property to Person—The Case of Evelyn Hart,” however, the organization is not very active, and the brief itself has not been used. Much more impressive is the Nonhuman Rights Project (NHRP), headed by Steven M. Wise. The NHRP is working to identify American state jurisdictions that may be most receptive to animal personhood arguments, and which have retained the old, common law causes of action used by human slaves and their advocates to challenge their “unfreedom,” namely the writs of habeas corpus, and de homine replegiando. Wise sums the objective and strategy up thusly:

“James Somerset’s legal transubstantiation from thing to person at the hands of Lord Mansfield in 1772 marked the beginning of the end of human slavery. Persuading an American state high court to similarly transform a nonhuman animal is a primary objective of the Nonhuman Rights Project…. A court confronted with a plaintiff’s claim to possess any legal right need only determine the plaintiff’s species. If the plaintiff is human, the answer is, ‘It is possible that the plaintiff has the legal right she claims.’ If the plaintiff is a nonhuman animal, the answer is, ‘Impossible.’ The goal of the interdisciplinary Nonhuman Rights Project is to change this paradigm. It intends to demand that American state high courts declare that a nonhuman animal has the capacity to possess at least one legal right, to declare that she is a… legal person. Once a court recognizes her capacity, the next legal question is… which legal rights she should possess, an appropriate shift from the irrational, biased, hyper-formalistic, and overly simplistic question, ‘What species is the plaintiff?’ to the rational, nuanced, value-laden question, ‘Does the plaintiff possess the qualities relevant to whether she should be entitled to the legal rights she claims?’ ”

Whether one supports this objective or not, the approach is certainly admirable, and the relevance of the project, and other personhood initiatives to the issue of cryonics patient personhood cannot be denied.

Preliminary Conclusion

In the slave cases we see courts avoiding the question of what makes a person, deferring to legal precedent, historical context and textual analysis; we see the same in the women cases, the fetus cases, and the animal cases. Even though on occasion the decisions flow with the progressive expansion of personhood instead of against it, there is definitely a resisting inertia, especially in the cases where the claimants cannot speak for themselves (fetuses, non-human animals). Generally, it appears that political activism reaps the greater gains, especially, of course, where the status quo is entrenched in statutory law as opposed to common law, as it was in the status of slaves in the U.S.

In light of this, it seems that achieving reclassification of cryonics patients to persons through the courts would be somewhat unlikely at this juncture—not that anyone is seriously advocating for it right now. However, looking at the allimportant fetal rights case, Roe v. Wade, we do see some willingness to consider scientific data that threatens previously binary legal concepts of life and death, and also to carve out intermediate categories therein which receive enhanced protections. Because courts have been so reluctant to comment on what qualities make a person, it is not easy to say what kind of evidence would need to be brought in order to carve out a similar intermediate category for cryonics patients. I would hazard a guess that the “potentiality of life” would need to be known, and I think this goes further than retrieving organized electrical activity from cryopreserved brains. I think whole animals would need to be resuscitated from cryopreservation—with return of cognition and “personality.” Then legal arguments could be made that humans cryopreserved with the same process (or close), who are not yet being resuscitated because the procedure needs to be refined before it would be ethical to attempt on humans, contained the same “potential” for life, and should receive some heightened protection from interferences. The capacity to have contingent interests in property might also be obtainable at this point.

Otherwise, as we see from history, political activism remains an option. And cryonics patients do have the advantage of being able to speak out for themselves prior to becoming voiceless patients. What we lack, currently, is numbers, both in actual membership and also moral supporters. Hopefully that will change as time goes on, but in the interim there are still opportunities for legal activism and innovation that would increase the protection of cryonics patients, both before and after cryopreservation, as well as the protection of their assets. Attempts by governments to regulate cryonics represent possible opportunities to bring constitutional challenges on the basis of cryonicists’ liberty and freedom of belief. Corporate personhood may also present a bootstrap solution to some of the problems caused by cryonics patients’ loss of personhood, which I will address in a future article.

First published as a regular column called In Perpetuity in Cryonics Magazine, July 2013.

The Valley of the Shadow of Death

The “uncanny valley” is a theory described in 1970 by robotics professor Masahiro Mori which posits that as a robot’s appearance becomes more human-like, observer affinity towards it will increase until the likeness reaches a certain threshold, after which affinity will drop sharply into the negative—the uncanny valley—before rebounding again towards levels exhibited toward ordinary, healthy-appearing humans.[1] The theory has received more widespread exposure since the advent of 3-D animated films, where attempted realistic depictions of human characters have sometimes resulted in quite negative viewer reactions, citing “creepiness” of the characters, despite animators’ efforts to render them as close to life (and presumably not-creepy) as possible.

The phenomenon is not unique to humans—it has been observed in monkeys presented with photographs and 3-D rendered images of monkey faces of varying degrees of realism. Mate selection and pathogen avoidance have been suggested as possible evolutionary reasons why subtle deviation from appearance norms would evoke a stronger negative response than a more substantial deviation. However, one researcher, Roger K. Moore has come up with an explanation of the uncanny valley effect, using Bayesian models, that suggests that the effect applies to all conceptual categories (to some degree), not just human vs. non-human.[2]

According to Moore, “the uncanny valley effect is a particular manifestation of… [the] ‘perceptual magnet effect’, in which stimuli close to a category boundary are judged by observers to be more dissimilar than stimuli that are away from a category boundary”. Where membership in one category or the other is determined by reference to more than one perceptual cue, and these cues are in conflict with each other, the differential distortion that results at the class boundary will cause “a form of perceptual ‘tension’… [that] may be experienced as physical or emotional discomfort, e.g. feelings of eeriness or creepiness.”

Moore posits that the drop in affinity described by Mori is a function of (1) decreased familiarity near the class boundary between a ‘target’ perception (i.e. human) and a ‘background’ perception’ that does not overlap significantly with the target (i.e. non-human), and (2) perceptual tension arising from conflicting cues to category membership. Individual observers have varying sensitivities to perceptual conflict, so the depth of the valley will differ from observer to observer, but the feelings of creepiness/eeriness “may induce the observer to take action in such a way as to reduce its effect.” Moore suggests four possible behavioral responses: withdrawal, attack, willfully ignoring one or more conflicting cues (‘turning a blind eye’), or integrating the new information into the category schema (i.e. habituation). Which behavior results from a particular stimulus depends on the stimulus itself, and intrinsic properties of the observer. Moore’s model even accounts for the different curves Mori proposed for still human-like artifacts versus moving ones. However, Moore asserts that “the model derived here provides a more general mathematical explanation… for a range of real-world situations in which conflicting perceptual cues give rise to negative, fearful or even violent reactions.”

One piece that I believe is missing from Moore’s explanation of the uncanny valley is the role that observer category membership plays. I suspect that the sensitivity of an observer to particular perceptual tension, and the nature of the behavioral response exhibited, may depend in part on whether the target perception is a category the observer considers themself to be a member of. This would explain why the effect seems more pronounced when the target perception is ‘human’. It may be that the individual observer sensitivity Moore discusses is generally higher when the cue conflicts force introspection into why the observer themself is a member of the target category, which could result in feelings of insecurity as cues previously assumed to be sufficient for determining category membership need to be reconsidered. It may also be relevant whether the observer considers themself to be a core member of the target category, or on the fringe—or alternatively, a member of the background category.

Now, let us consider cryonics. Might the uncanny valley theory shed some light onto why cryonics has such a difficult time garnering public and mainstream scientific support? I think it can. Mike Darwin has written about the conflict between cryonicists and cryobiologists, pointing out that there was not always a “war” between them, and that “[s]everal cryobiologists who later became some of the most vocal critics of cryonics were not only not hostile, but actually demonstrated interest in and support of cryonics; particularly with an eye towards getting money to pursue cryobiological research.”[3] Several cryobiologists sat on the Science Advisory Council to the Cryonics Societies of America in those early years, and Arthur Rowe, who went on to become a prominent anti-cryonics cryobiologist, at one time even wished Robert Ettinger “continued success in [his] endeavors”, was consulted for his expertise in an early cryonics case… and obliged! Though the collapse of the Cryonics Society of California and tragic loss of the patients at Chatsworth no doubt contributed to rising anti-cryonics sentiment, it is interesting that the move to ban cryonicists from entry to the Society for Cryobiology appeared to occur in reaction to close exposure to “medicalized” cryonics in an impromptu presentation by Darwin at the Society’s meeting in 1981.

This negative reaction by cryobiologists to the arrival of cryonics as a serious scientific endeavor can be explained using the uncanny valley theory. The target category here is clear enough—cryonics aspires to be recognized as a medical procedure. But what is the background category causing perceptual tension? One option is quackery, and certainly many public comments from scientists superficially seem to support this. However, remembering back to Moore’s explanation of the uncanny valley, perceptual tension arises from conflicting cues to category membership near the boundary between categories with low overlap, whereas quackery and actual medicine share many perceptual cues in common (if they didn’t, the snake oil wouldn’t get sold). So while we might not expect scientists to provide ringing endorsements of a practice they perceived to sit near the boundary between quackery and medical procedure, we also would not expect a previously neutral (and in some instances positive) response to shift sharply into the negative as a result of that same practice transitioning towards operating on a more rigorously scientific basis.

I believe the background category causing the trouble is ritual burial practice. The tip-off is that the regulators that anti-cryonics agitators invariably prod to clamp down on “cadaver freezing” are state funeral boards—even though the supposed cause for governmental intervention is that “it won’t work,” a standard which would never be applied to beliefs associated with other burial practices. This approach is illogical: a better strategy against cryonics would be to push for its regulation within the medical establishment, and in particular any devices which fall under FDA’s authority over “medical devices.” This strategy would require cryonics to prove its efficacy, which of course, by presently accepted definitions, cannot be done. Instead, cryonics is shoved in the direction of regulators responsible for burial practices and other modes of disposition of human remains, where, of all places, it might actually have a chance of being protected on the basis of the practitioners’ beliefs. It is telling, too, how often negative responses by scientists to cryonics will ignore or distort well-established science, often from their own field. To me, this all points to the irrational/emotional nature of these responses—many of these researchers no doubt consider themselves members of the extended medical community, and are trying to put distance between themselves and something that looks like them and talks like them, but is nevertheless decidedly not them. Without necessarily realizing it, their instinctive reaction is to push cryonics back towards the background category causing the perceptual conflict.

Ritual burial practice and medical technology are far more dissimilar from each other than medicine and quackery, and thus Moore’s model would predict any cue conflict near the class boundary to cause perceptual tension. Here, cryonics is the perfect storm of conflicting cues: it is a procedure performed after the person is already declared dead, that looks at first like attempts to resuscitate, followed by surgery (possibly involving decapitation) and then preservation, with the ultimate objective of continued life in an as-yet-unknown form, on the basis of a theory that can never be absolutely disproven… so long as the person’s remains are left undisturbed. These perceptual cues are a complete and utter jumble, pointing 100% in both directions at the juncture of life and death.

And if that all weren’t confusing enough, what role might the category of ‘scientific research’ have in this? We utilize anatomical gift legislation to effect transfer of the body for the purpose of research, but then refer to our specimens as “patients” and wait for other research to produce the evidence and technology in order for this research to become a medical procedure. In my opinion, the ‘scientific research’ label is a red herring—it has obvious utility for us, but it is a loose foothold in the uncanny valley, given how candid we are about our objectives.

So, will any amount of R&D short of actually resuscitating someone increase our public approval, or will it just heighten perceptual tension and plunge us further into the valley? Moore’s model tells us that individual sensitivity to perceptual tension isn’t something we can directly control for, other than perhaps through desensitization, but that is hard to accomplish with a movement so small. Also, some of the conflicting perceptual cues are not ones we can change. If our objectives sound quasireligious to others, we can try to explain how we reject the ordinary definition(s) of death while still being rational people—but if they are not persuaded, there’s not much else we can do other than keep building up our evidence, brick by brick. However, we may be able to reduce cue conflict on other dimensions. We can accomplish this by continuing to emulate medicine in more positive ways, and also by de-emphasizing cues that pull the other direction (i.e. the trend away from the word “immortality” is a good one, at least for the public acceptance of cryonics).

The current legal definition of death is a source of perceptual conflict that we may not be able to do much about just yet, but in the interim, we can at least try to minimize its apparent importance to the procedure. Reliance on life insurance to fund cryonics arrangements seems to pull in the wrong direction, as we are opportunistically capitalizing on a definition of death we fundamentally disagree with, in order to afford an opportunity to disprove it— to our benefit. Of course, for many life insurance is the only real means of access available to them, but perhaps down the road, we could negotiate or design a new form of insurance specific to cryonics, formally triggered not by the patient’s legal death, but initiation of cryonics procedures. This is really just a rose by another name, but it would also finally put to rest that old worry that the insurers will come back for their money if the patient is resuscitated.

A feature of mainstream medicine which is conspicuously underdeveloped in cryonics are surrogate decision makers for patients post-cryopreservation. As it stands currently, cryonics organizations have complete or near-complete authority over their charges, and while this is for the good purpose of preventing interference by third parties, it does give the appearance that the patients are essentially the property of the care provider. Given the potential time frames we are looking at, recognizing something like a power of attorney for health care, in cryonics care, still might not stretch far enough, unless it contained a power to delegate the authority further, or was vested in a trusted organization instead of an individual. Due to the legal status of the patients, the cryonics organizations would have a lot of latitude in designing what exactly their obligations were to the patient’s representatives, postcryopreservation, keeping in mind the precarious and high stakes nature of the cryonics venture. However, one scenario which should be seriously considered, is under what circumstances a surrogate decision maker (or self-regulatory body, see below) could insist that the patient be moved.

Another aspect of medical practice which cryonics can and probably should emulate sooner or later is self-regulation. Mainstream medicine is of course regulated through a mix of government and professional self-regulation, and the cryonics organizations’ proactively developing shared standards and oversight mechanisms will give the public confidence that whatever the patients’ status is in law, they are being treated with due care and respect. In the same vein, self-regulation may help ward off the risk of inappropriate government regulation down the road.

These are only a few ideas of how to keep non-research, non-technical dimensions of cryonics progressing smoothly toward recognized medical practice, mitigating as much as possible any perceptual tension with the background category of ritual burials.

If the uncanny valley theory holds true, there’s a high mountain of public acceptance on the other side waiting. The question is, have we already reached the bottom?


[1]: Masahiro Mori, “The Uncanny Valley”, 7 Energy 4 (1970) 33-35. Available online (English): org/automaton/robotics/humanoids/ the-uncanny-valley

[2]: Shawn A Steckenfinger & Asif A Ghazanfar, “Monkey visual behavior falls into the uncanny valley” 106 PNAS 43 (2009) 18362-18366. Available online: content/106/43/18362.full

[3]: Roger K Moore, “A Bayesian explanation of the ‘Uncanny Valley’ effect and related psychological phenomena”. Scientific Reports 2, Article 864. Published online, November 16, 2012: http:// srep00864/full/srep00864.html

[4]: Mike Darwin, “Cold War: The Conflict Between Cryonicists and Cryobiologists”. Cryonics, June, July, August 1991. Available online: html/coldwar.html

First published as a regular column called In Perpetuity in Cryonics Magazine, June 2013.