In the desert climate of Scottsdale, Arizona rest 147 brains and bodies, all frozen in liquid nitrogen with the goal of being revived one day.
It's not science fiction — to some it might not even be science — yet thousands of people around the world have put their trust, lives and fortunes into the promise of cryonics, the practice of preserving a body with antifreeze shortly after death in hopes future medicine might be able to bring the deceased back.
"If you think back half a century or so, if somebody stopped breathing and their heart stopped beating we would've checked them and said they're dead," said Max More, CEO of the Scottsdale-based Alcor. "Our view is that when we call someone dead it's a bit of an arbitrary line. In fact they are in need of a rescue."
That "rescue" begins the moment a medical doctor declares a patient to be dead. It's then that Alcor's team prepares an ice bath and begins administering 16 different medications and variations of anti-freeze, until the patient's temperature drops to near freezing.
"The critical thing is how fast we get to someone and how quickly we start the cooling process," he said. In order to ensure that can happen, Alcor stations equipped teams in the UK, Canada, and Germany and offers members a $10,000 incentive to legally die in Scottsdale, where the record for getting a patient cooled down and prepped for an operation is 35 minutes.
Next, a contracted surgeon removes a patient's head if the member selected Alcor's "Neuro" option, as it's euphemistically called, in hopes that a new body can be grown with a member's DNA once it comes time to be thawed out. It's also the much cheaper route. At a price tag of $80,000, it's more than half the cost of preserving your whole body. "That requires a minimum of $200,000, which isn't as much as it sounds, because most people pay with life insurance," More said.
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In fact, that business model is pretty consistent in the non-profit cryonics community. Michigan-based Cryonics Institute offers a similar payment structure, albeit at the more affordable cost of just $28,000 for whole-body preservation. Which begs the question: Why the price discrepancy?
"We've been very conservative in the way we plan the financing," More said. "Of that $200,000, about $115,000 of it goes into the patient care trust fund," which is meant to cover eventual costs, and is controlled by a board of trustees (a certain number of whom are required to have loved ones currently in cryopreservation). More says the trust currently boasts a total of over $10 million, which is supported by Alcor's most recent non-profit 990 filings.
Who is doing this?
When Max More came to the U.S. in 1986 to train at Alcor, it was run by volunteers and he signed up as Alcor's 67th member. Since then, the company has hired a full-time staff of 8 employees, added another thousand members, and is looking into doubling the size of its patient care bay.
And while Alcor said its membership includes some high profile names like billionaire investor Peter Thiel and Google's Chief Engineer Ray Kurzweil, a fraction of the growth in members has come from more modest means.
Elaine Walker, 47, is a single mother and part-time college instructor at Scottsdale Community College who signed up to have her head frozen at Alcor nine years ago after first discovering cryonics in an online newsgroup back in the pre-Google days of the 1990's.
Having just come out of college, she initially saw the cost of Alcor's services as prohibitively expensive, until the company shifted to allow front-funding requirements with life insurance policies. All that was left after $14 a month in life insurance payments was worrying about the nearly $600 in Alcor's annual membership fees, which she covered by canceling her cellphone plan.
"I have a cellphone now, but at the time it's all I had to do," she said. Nine years later, she still worries about saving for the eternal future but she's less concerned about what it might look like. "I actually spend zero time worrying about that," she said. "It's not that I want to be alive again so I can live out some lifetime or do something I didn't get a chance to do. It's really just because I want to see what happens."
When asked, she said she would even prefer coming back as a cyborg slave laborer on a distant planet to dying on Earth. "I mean unless it's extremely physically painful or something, and I'll ask the cyborg next to me, 'What happened, did we make it to Mars?'"
Can cryonics work?
In the eyes of the law, Alcor is under no commitment to deliver life after death. In fact, after legal death has been declared, the government views Alcor's 147 "patients" as nothing more than bodies and organs donated to science under the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act (UAGA), which means even though Alcor signs a contract with its members saying it will deliver its cryonics services, it is under loose obligations to do so.
"It would be a very bad idea not to follow through," More told CNBC. "But we're actually very aggressive in following through — we will if necessary go to court to get possession of our patients, or file an injunction to stop an autopsy for instance, and we've done that many times."
But apart from the legal hurdles of suing those who try to interfere in the handling of a patient, there are laws of science that cryonics must face.
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As Michio Kaku, futurist and professor of theoretical physics at the City College of New York explains: "When people ask me a scientific question I have to give them results that are testable, that are reproducible, and falsifiable. Unfortunately cryonics offers none of the above." While advocates of cryonics point to successful in-vitro fertilization of frozen embryos and experiments with simpler animals, Kaku points to the lacking human evidence.
Others note the inherent complexity and lack of current scientific understanding of the human brain. Pointing to the existence of over 100 billion neurons and the minute fraction so far mapped by science, Columbia neuroscientist Dr. Ken Miller likened cryonics to "selling tickets to a ride you can't go on."
But in the eyes of Max More, it's not hope Alcor is selling. It's a chance. And to be fair, before cryonics posed these questions, scientific evidence was no more a prerequisite than hope for believing in an afterlife. For members like Elaine Walker and others, that's enough to pay for.
"I want to see the future, so this is what I'm excited about," she said. "The cost is very small considering I have that hope."