Matthew Deutsch is a singular teenager. He is not only afraid of dying, but he’s made plans to put his brain on ice after he does so that he might be revived in the future. At 17, he is very likely the youngest cryonics candidate in the world.
I met the Maryland high schooler in his element, last October at the Singularity Summit at New York’s 92nd St. Y. There, he and hundreds of other expert and amateur technologists rubbed elbows with futurist luminaries like Ray Kurzweil, investor Peter Thiel, techno talker Jason Silva, and Aubrey de Grey, the biologist-philosopher who calls aging a disease. Deutsch says it was de Gray, in the documentary Do You Want to Live Forever, who inspired him to sign up with a neuro contract at Alcor Life Extension Foundation — or rather, to ask his parents to sign him up.
“I don’t remember how I first brought it up to them,” he says, “but my mom is supportive of me. She’s now an unfunded signup, like my dogs. My dad thinks it’s crazy, but he signed the contracts so I’m not bothered by it.”
Founded in the 1970s by cryonics pioneers Fred and Linda Chamberlain, and named after a distant star, Alcor, a non-profit based in Scottsdale, Arizona, now boasts 968 members and 111 patients in cryopreservation, 76 of which have elected to only preserve their brains. That is the more affordable option, and, Deutsch points out, a perfectly reasonable one: once we’re able to revive a human brain, it stands to reason that we won’t need bodies (because we’ll live inside computers) or we’ll be able to build new ones. That’s assuming that Alcor can keep Matthew’s brain frozen long enough to reach that future.
Alcor’s “bigfoot” Dewar is custom-designed
to contain four wholebody patients and six neuropatients
immersed in liquid nitrogen at −196 degrees Celsius.
It’s an assumption that Deutch is staking his young life on now: he’s an active participant at cryonics conferences, and for a time harbored an ambition to become an EMT specialized in making sure deceased patients are preserved in the critical hours after death before they can be put on ice. Preservation isn’t always possible – one Alcor member perished in the attacks on the World Trade Center – and even after freezing, bodies and brains are at risk. Technology and procedures have matured since the infamous case of Bob Nelson, the TV repairman-turned-cryonics experimenter who accidentally let a pile of candidates melt in the California desert (and who has since become the subject of a great This American Life episode, as well as an upcoming feature film by Errol Morris), but good technology can’t prevent bad actors.
In 2003, former Alcor COO Larry Johnson) alleged that employees at the company had mishandled baseball player Ted Williams’ head by drilling holes and accidentally cracking it (at one point, the frozen head is said to have become stuck to a tuna fish can). Denying the allegations, which were published in Sports Illustrated, Alcor explained that microscopic cracking can result from the head-freezing process, cracking that presumably would be repairable in the future.
Decades of doubt over cryonics hasn’t appeared to slow interest in the idea. Among current life extension candidates signed up with Alcor are nanotechnology pioneer Eric Drexler, Internet pioneer Ralph Merkle, engineer Keith Henson and his family, MIT professor Marvin Minsky, aging researcher Aubrey de Grey, mathematician Edward O. Thorp, casino owner Don Laughlin, inventor Ray Kurzweil, and futurist Natasha Vita-More.
And the ranks of non-American patients are growing too. One of the other people I met at the singularity conference was Danila Medvedev, an earnest and dedicated futurologist, politician and founder of Moscow-based KrioRus, the first cryonics company outside of the United States, which has now preserved 17 humans or their brains, along with 2 cats, 4 dogs and 2 birds in cryopreservation.
Deutsch, who has also signed up his dogs for freezing at Alcor, and is still trying to convince his grandparents, says he intends to continue exploring emerging technologies and to contribute to the field as more than just a patient. “If nanotechnology and nanorobotics isn’t developed, my dogs are as good as popsicles.”