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London - They were a shattered world’s last hope - three great minds from the past who might be able to avert a catastrophe that threatened to extinguish mankind.
In a medical storage facility in the Arizona desert, digital screens that had been dark for centuries suddenly flickered into life as the remains of three beings stirred into life after aeons of slumber.
It’s difficult to say whether this sort of Hollywood sci-fi scenario ever occurred to three Oxford University dons when they signed up to be frozen after death. But what they cannot deny is that along with thousands of others they are putting their faith in a future - known as cryonics - that is more science fiction than science fact.
It was revealed on Sunday that the trio - Nick Bostrom, professor of philosophy at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, and his fellow lead researchers, Anders Sandberg and Stuart Armstrong - have agreed to pay a US company anything up to £50 000 to have their remains frozen at death. The hope is a future society will have the technology to restore them to life.
Armstrong has arranged for his entire body to be frozen by the Michigan-based Cryonics Institute. His wife is expecting their first baby and he is so enthused by the idea that he wants to sign the child up, too.
His two colleagues have opted for the less glamorous but cheaper and supposedly more reliable option of having just their heads frozen when they are declared dead, by the Alcor Life Extension Foundation outside Phoenix, Arizona. Their heads will be perfused with a cocktail of antifreeze chemicals and preserved in liquid nitrogen at -196c.
Previous acolytes of cryonics have often been dismissed as head-in-the-clouds cranks, sci-fi buffs who have watched too much TV or victims of vanity.
Britney Spears and Paris Hilton have both waxed lyrical about being frozen. Simon Cowell is believed to be among several dozen Britons who have joined a cryonics programme, although several hundred have reportedly shown interest.
But most of them are ordinary people - usually retirees who are thinking about defeating death. The science may be sketchy but the principle is simple: nothing ventured, nothing gained.
But Prof Bostrom and his colleagues are young, highly educated specialists who have devoted their careers to humanity. If they are signing up for cryonics, one might think, perhaps we should all pay attention.
And while scientists generally dismiss cryonics for human beings, saying it is far beyond our capabilities, it is interesting that Prof Bostrom has a science background that includes physics and neuroscience.
The 40-year-old Swede is on Foreign Policy magazine’s list of 100 Global Thinkers. His institute is part of the Oxford Martin School, where 300 academics tackle issues such as population growth, inequality and climate change. It’s encouraging that, in the midst of so much doom-mongering about the future, he is keen to come back again.
“Look back at what has happened over the past 100 years, and how many features of today’s world somebody from 1913 would have failed to anticipate,” he told a newspaper. “The more uncertain you are about the future, the more it makes sense to keep your options alive - for example, by trying to preserve as much as possible of the information content in your brain, rather than throwing it away.”
On his internet home page, Sandberg, 41, also Swedish, describes himself as “questing” and “always very happy”.
He says it will be “very exciting” to wake up in a new world. Admittedly, his life would be limited as a disembodied head but, in the future, he predicts people will be able to make “real connections” to computers. He hopes his memories and personality could be downloaded.
He and Bostrom may not even have to put up with living with just their heads: some cryonics devotees insist future science will be able to clone human bodies so the defrosted, severed head can be attached to a new body.
Their colleague, Stuart Armstrong, says it costs him £25 (about R320) a month in premiums to cover the cost of having his body cryopreserved - far cheaper, he says, than the popular alternative of prolonging life, which is to join a gym.
Like his colleagues, he seems one of life’s optimists: “If you picture the world in, say, 200 years, when reanimation is possible, it will probably be a wonderful place.”
By the time they are rushed down to the liquid nitrogen tanks of Alcor, the Oxford academics will be in illustrious company. Alcor has 117 patients already in cryopreservation and 985 members waiting to join them.
Those already lying in state include Ted Williams, one of the greatest stars of baseball, who died in 2002. And Dick Clair, a US.TV sitcom writer, has been there since 1988 following his death from Aids.
Williams became the focus of a family row over how he wanted his body disposed of which focused on the authenticity of a note in which he supposedly chose cryonics. It was later claimed that a technician at Alcor took baseball-style swings at Williams’ severed head with a monkey wrench.
As for those still alive but already committed to Alcor, the list includes film director Charles Matthau and British thinkers Aubrey de Grey and Max More. Recognisable by a silver bracelet they usually wear to specify their wishes to be frozen when they die, believers in Britain even have a support group: Cryonics UK. Alan Sinclair, 75, a retired electronics expert from West Sussex, has been a leading light in British cryonics since the mid-Eighties.
A few weeks ago his wife, Sylvia, became the first Briton to be properly cryonically preserved. She died of lung cancer after an illness of just three weeks, and was rushed to the Cryonics Institute in America.
With the possibility on his mind of a reunion with his beloved wife of 40 years, he tells me scientific progress has led British interest in cryonics to “mushroom” in the past five years.
But he says: “There wouldn’t be any point bringing back a 90-year-old.”
Who wouldn’t be interested in having a good few years added to their lives, I observe. Isn’t the difference that most people want them now when their loved ones are still with them?
“I don’t see that as a problem,” says Sinclair. “What happens when you leave school and move to Australia. We move to completely alien environments all the time.”
But will a future world want to bring back people who have opted to be frozen?
When Simon Cowell dropped his cryonics plan bombshell at a Downing Street party, his host, Gordon Brown, reportedly pointed out he wasn’t sure if his reanimation would be so popular.
Prof Bostrom is already a regular on TV and in the media. A future society would doubtless be intrigued to know what an academic of his standing has to say about its world. But what about an ex-housewife or former electrical technician?
“That’s the biggest problem,” says Sinclair. “Why would anyone bring me back?” Cryonics patients won’t have much novelty value when there are millions of them.
Indeed, the cryonics companies don’t really guarantee much. Success depends on the body first getting to them in the US as quickly as possible. And although their freezing fee - which varies between £16 500 and £125 000 - is supposed to cover an indefinite period, who is to know the company will stay in business?
It is a “leap of faith, but a leap of faith in science”, Sinclair insists. “Unless we want to go into oblivion, this is the only scientific means I know of to avoid it.”
For people like him and his fellow death-defiers at Oxford, there can be no possible concession to the idea that oblivion may be something to be embraced. - Daily Mail