Is cryonics the answer to immortality?

Digital lifestyle

In 1986 Freddie Mercury sang "Who Wants to Live Forever?", And not only fans of the rock band Queen fell into their dreams: Eternal life - that would be something! So far nothing has been certain, only death. We didn't have to do anything but die. But the scientists and technicians of the 21st century are setting out to shake these certainties. They want to abolish death and give people immortality.

There are many approaches to this. The Alphabet subsidiary Calico, for example, is researching drugs against age-related diseases and is looking for the key to a superhumanly long life in DNA profiles. Apart from a few cryptic target formulations, not much has been heard from Silicon Valley so far, especially no concrete results. Elsewhere it seems to be further.

Epigenetics: turning back the biological clock

Steve Horvath, who was born in Frankfurt am Main, has been researching in California for 30 years - today he is Professor of Human Genetics and Biostatistics at the renowned UCLA. He is convinced that there will soon be drugs that will rejuvenate us. The underlying science that is supposed to turn back the human clock is called epigenetics. Put simply, epigenetics determines which genes in the DNA sequence are active and which are not.

Although identical twins are genetically identical, they develop in different directions over the course of their lives due to environmental influences, habits, etc. - and their epigenetic codes change to the same extent. This explains why the twins' eyesight does not deteriorate in lockstep, or why only one twin (and not both) develops a disease like diabetes. At a young age, hardly any differences can be measured - with increasing age, the epigenetic codes of twins differ more and more. As a link between environmental influences and genes, epigenetics determines gene regulation.

The starting point for Horvath's optimism that he will soon be able to cheat death is the epigenetic or "Horvathian clock", an algorithm with which the biological age of a person can be determined with great accuracy. In addition, a statistical prediction of the highest possible life expectancy is possible. All that is needed for this is a cell sample. According to Horvath, people live longer when their molecular clock ticks more slowly. Such a slowdown should be possible with medication.

At least in individual cases it has been proven that the clock can even be turned back. After a volunteer had been injected with a special cocktail of active ingredients over a period of several months, Horvath announced: "He has become two years younger - only in a few months." A scientific sensation. After the aging process of animals could already be significantly delayed in the recent past, the rejuvenation of a person has now been proven for the first time.

A research team led by the immunologist Dr. Gregory M. Fahy, who also works with Horvath in Los Angeles: Nine men between the ages of 51 and 65 were found to have positive effects on the aging process after treatment. The spectacular results were also a surprise for the researchers at UCLA, even though the study was only carried out with a few test subjects. It remains to be seen whether the effect will also be confirmed in the planned, large-scale study. But epigenetics gives hope that the clocks of chronological and biological age will tick differently in the future.

Cryonics: Frozen in the Future

Those who do not have enough (life) time to wait for the breakthrough of epigenetics can place their hopes in the future. Today humans are doomed to die, but in a hundred, two hundred, or five hundred years from now, science may be able to defeat life-threatening diseases, halt the aging process, and prolong our lives indefinitely. This is where cryonics or cryopreservation comes into play: Those who have the necessary change can freeze their bodies after death - in the hope of being brought back to life by their evolved descendants.

Sounds like lukewarm science fiction? But it is an ice cold reality! A handful of companies already offer cryopreservation. According to its own statement, the American Cryonics Institute has frozen more than 150 patients, the Alcor Life Extension Foundation exactly 181 patients, and the Russian company KrioRus advertises 74 people and 42 pets that are currently on hold. The complex storage at minus 160 to 200 degrees Celsius is expensive, however: between 40,000 and 200,000 US dollars are due. If you want to save money, you can also just have your head or brain preserved - but then you have to hope that your body can be cloned or otherwise replaced in the future.

The principle of hope plays a major role in cryonics "patients" anyway. Because as soon as death occurs, processes of decay begin to work in the body and especially in the brain. If too much time passes before conservation, there is not much that can be saved for the future either. In Germany, the funeral inspection laws stipulate that death must be determined on the basis of certain signs of death: corpse marks, rigor mortis or putrefaction. First, after 20 to 30 minutes, the corpse marks become visible. After death, at least half an hour passes before the "patient" can be frozen - probably too much time to preserve a reasonably intact brain.

But this is not the only reason why cryonics is viewed critically by the majority: Many scientists consider it impossible to bring a deceased body back out of the ice and then back into life. In addition, there are many open questions that will arise if the method is successful one day: Will cryonics companies still exist in a hundred or two hundred years? And if not, what happens to the "patients" in the meantime? Who will feel responsible in the future for getting people out of the ice again? Who pays for the cost of resuscitation and subsequent treatment? Because the "patients" only paid for the cryopreservation ... And what are the physical and psychological side effects of the procedure? Only the future can answer these questions. Until then, cryonics will remain an unredeemed promise.

Digital clones: copied by AI

Digital immortality seems much more tangible. In 2015, Michal Kosinski from Stanford University and Wu Youyou and David Stillwell from Cambridge University published a study that states: Computers can only judge people's personalities better than family members on the basis of Facebook likes. The traces we leave behind on the internet reveal a lot about us. Our essence can be extracted from the huge amounts of data and finally a digital clone can be created.

The key to this is Artificial Intelligence, which is able to create personality profiles. AI recognizes patterns and can imitate us - our preferences, our humor, our way of speaking. Online companies all over the world are working flat out to develop the most exact digital images of human beings possible. Voices are synthesized, physiognomies are reproduced with increasingly better computer graphics. In this way, digital clones could communicate with their descendants both as an audio version and physically manifested, for example as a three-dimensional hologram.

Today it still seems quite absurd to us to speak to an AI-developed version of a loved one. But how do we feel when we can no longer distinguish the digital copy from the original? If we look even further into the future and assume some progress in robotics, we may find the digital clone transplanted into a shape that looks and feels completely the same as the original. Even if people continue to die in this vision of the future, they will remain alive forever for those around them.

"Who Wants To Live Forever?"

The desire for eternal life raises many questions - practical and, above all, ethical. What would be the consequence for an already overpopulated earth if people are only born but no longer die? Is immortality even desirable? Would we appreciate our life just as much if we knew we could extend it indefinitely?

Without having satisfactory answers to these troubling questions, science and technology continue to search for eternal life. Spurred on by transhumanist dreams, the discovery of the Holy Grail is noticeably closer, but it still seems far away. Maybe it is the bad luck of our generation not to see the breakthrough anymore. Or luck, because for us only today counts for now. Freddie Mercury pulls in the Queen's song "Who Wants to Live Forever?" the résumé for mortals: "Forever is our today".