Cryonics: Frozen Civilizations

Cryonics: Frozen Civilizations

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This video is sponsored by CuriosityStream. Get  access to my streaming video service, Nebula,   when you sign up for CuriosityStream  using the link in the description.   It might sound pretty cool to be frozen for a  century or two and then thaw out to see what   the future holds. But of course if everyone did  that, the future wouldn't hold anything.   Today we’ll be examining the science and  technology of freezing people and asking   what the ramifications of it would actually  be, if it became a regular and easy process.  

Of course at the moment it’s neither regular  nor easy. Even freezing people isn’t very   easy and that’s supposed to be the easy part. Freezing people for later thawing and revival is   a bit of a misnomer, what we’re talking about in  modern times is taking the corpses of the already   deceased and trying to freeze them before too  much damage sets in and in a way that doesn’t   cause too much more damage during freezing itself.  Indeed the main process focused on these cases is   vitrification, essentially turning the subject  into a non-crystalline solid like glass, but   we’ll treat that as freezing today too, as we’re  not too interested in the specific procedures,   just their impact on society if done successfully.  For a given value of the word ‘success’.   The procedures are utterly lethal to anyone  still alive during it, and it frequently involves   decapitation too. The intent is to preserve the  brain well enough that we can repair or recreate   it at a later date with access to superior medical  technology. Since the alternative is death,  

if that gamble is wrong you’re not out much,  but it’s also probably a good gamble. Medical   nanotechnology able to engage in cellular repair  should be an invention in the 21st century.   Of course, that’s the issue with cryonics,  it’s a technology that depends on assuming the   invention of a future technology and one that  would render it redundant. Cryonics is likely   to be a growing industry as we get better at the  procedure for freezing brains and more confident   that medical nanotechnology able to engage in  cellular repair will be successfully developed.  

Once it is though, your reasons for freezing  dead people pretty much cease, as it’s more   likely the nanotechnology will be developed  on and for the living first, significantly   shrinking the cryonics customer base. This episode isn’t too interested in the procedure   itself, but the critical challenge for that is  the complexity of cells. I think there tends to   be an assumption that a biological cell is bigger  than an atom but in the same way a tree is bigger   than a shrub. I’ve occasionally asked folks how  many atoms they think are in a cell and they   tend to answer hundreds or thousands, and rarely  hundreds of thousands or even millions. However,  

even the smallest cells are composed of more like  a trillion atoms and often a lot more, a human   neuron can mass as much as a microgram, thousands  of times more than a red blood cell for instance.   In context, if we think of an atom as a  brick, a cell is not a house made of bricks,   rather a small cell would be a large city,  while a larger cell would be an entire   nation’s buildings and infrastructure. Each of  our cells is essentially a world to itself.   If you flash froze a city, you would not  expect it to thaw out and be operational,   but you would expect to be able to look at it  while it was frozen and see what got damaged,   like water mains exploding, pipes breaking,  bridges and roads cracking and falling apart.   You would figure you could repair that when it  thawed out if you threw enough manpower at it,   very different then if the city gets hit by an  asteroid for instance. Key notion, freezing does   damage but once frozen that damage ceases. You  can put humpty-dumpty back together again after  

he falls if he shatters into clean pieces and  you don’t give those too much time to scatter   or wear down, you can’t if humpty-dumpty was  incinerated and his ashes scattered to the winds.   This is essentially the notion of cryonics,  each cell needs major repair, but you know what   those cells should look like and they also aren’t  rearranging their location relative to each other.   The task of repair is huge but doable, though of  course it has to be done at the microscopic level.  

What you need is trillions of little  workers who can get in and do the work,   and that’s where medical nanotechnology comes  into play. There may be ways to freeze people   with minimal cellular damage and to thaw them  and revive them so their own regular healing   mechanisms can finish the job, we’ve had limited  but growing success freezing and thawing out other   organisms, but the core of current cryonics  is the assumption we can eventually repair the   frozen person with all those little robots. Critical thing though is that if you’ve got   all those little medical robots that can repair  cells, your society really doesn’t have nearly as   many untreatable medical issues, so you don’t  need to freeze many people. And it’s also a   lot easier for such robots to fix existing  living but damaged cells than repair ones   frozen or vitrified, particularly since your  cells already have very good repair systems.   So cryonics might grow very popular as we get  closer to that point and more folks feel like   it represents a plausible way of extending life,  but once you get to the point you can thaw people,   you don’t really need to freeze  them for that reason anymore.   They should effectively be able to self-repair  any type of damage which wasn’t overwhelming.  

So what does that leave as a reason for freezing? Well interstellar spaceships is a popular   suggestion, but we looked at that before in  our Sleeper Ships episode. One critical note   on that is that I’d have a hard time imagining  us sending ships full of frozen colonists out   unless we already had the revival technology  well-developed. Space is immense, and while   there may be a push to colonize quickly  that might result in some risk taking,   I can’t really see anyone trying to claim the best  worlds by getting to them first by sending out   frozen colonists without a proven way to revive  them yet. Though you might do that if our solar  

system was in imminent danger, as a last desperate  gamble, and even then only if you thought the   thawing process you already had would work, since  no one would be around to continue researching.   If you have that technology you don’t  really need to freeze them as they’re   probably biologically immortal, and that same  sort of technology tends to fix most of your   supply issues in terms of producing, repairing,  and recycling material on an interstellar ship.   You might freeze folks to avoid boredom or to  lower power usage, but you might just put them   all into some non-frozen hibernation, especially  since for really long voyages you have to worry   about radiation damage to the frozen body  from the radioisotopes in your own body,   like potassium-40, and if you’re frozen there’s  no repair going on, certainly not biologically,   but probably not by the little robots either.  Indeed if you did have the robots working on your   frozen body you would probably need to add extra  cooling to make sure you stayed frozen, all that   energy from them moving and drilling around your  frozen cells is likely to thaw you out otherwise.  

Right now we freeze people’s heads and discard  their bodies in most cases. But You might do   the opposite for ship hibernation, render the  person brain dead or close to it while keeping   the rest of the body pretty alive, so that  they didn’t experience much time passing but   their body was repaired and ready for rapid  re-awakening. See the Sleeper Ships episode   though for more discussion of using freezing or  other types of stasis for interstellar travel.   What about other uses though? Emergency medicine is a possibility, and it is   worth keeping in mind those tiny little robots  aren’t magic. A repair crew can fix a damaged  

building, even rebuild it from scratch if needed,  but they can’t do it in the middle of a fire or   hurricane, and you can’t fix a dam when it  just burst during a flood. Your cells repair   minor damage as-is, but a majorly damaged cell  is replaced by another dividing itself. Those   little robots supplement the existing processes  by augmenting or fixing the bits of our internal   repair mechanisms or speeding some processes  up. Freezing someone so you can prepare major   replacements is an option, so too those bots can  do repairs while you’re just very cold, to slow   damage, and while the ones in the regular human  body probably wouldn’t be designed to function   at ultra-low temperatures, we probably could make  some that were and put those in someone we froze.   Or have some in a person already that could  operate like that. This episode isn’t about  

medical nanobots or self-replicating machines  but a point I often make about those is that   the same as we have tons of different species  of microorganisms inside us of varying types,   sizes and purposes, you can build your  nanobots the same way and probably would.   The notion of a tiny and universal robot assembler  is a popular one but probably overly simple.   There’s an advantage in specialized species  of robots. Such being the case you might   have some that existed especially for  trauma operations or during freezing.   We said such robots largely made cryonics  irrelevant even as it made us able to revive   the frozen, but at the same time it makes it far  easier. You could potentially be putting yourself   on ice for a long weekend vacation, depending  on how good the robots are, but then if they   are that good you’ve probably got easier stasis  methods available in terms of avoiding boredom.  

That again is one of the reasons we often consider  cryonics, to leap frog through time and avoid   boredom, but there are probably much easier ways  to avoid boredom. For instance , given that a   lot of what we think of as boredom is chemical,  all those little robots able to repair cells can   probably also play with the neurotransmitters  responsible for boredom to just decrease it,   one example of what we call neurohacking. Of course that presumably has its limits,   the ability to remove the sensation  of hunger doesn’t remove hunger, and   presumably being able to dial down the sensation  of boredom doesn’t alter boring circumstances,   so this might be one reason why a civilization  had large numbers of people go on ice, emerging   every few years or centuries based on predefined  triggers, like if that book series they loved was   finally done. Hopefully they have a contingency  trigger in case the author goes on ice too.   We should also note that experiencing huge  swaths of time beyond the normal lifespan is   likely problematic beyond just figuring  out how to extend youthful physiology   indefinitely. I genuinely do not think anyone who  had a full memory of having lived a million years   could qualify as even vaguely human  anymore beyond the biological sense.   So why else might we use cryonics in mass? One example I’m fond of from fiction is the   planet Hubris from Dan Abnett’s Eisenhorn  series. The planet was settled by a colony  

ship full of frozen colonists and they didn’t  realize till after arriving that the planet was   on a wildly elliptical orbit that left it an  ice ball for eleven of its 29 month long year,   so they adapted their stasis pods to keep  99% of their population on ice during that   period. As a sociological consequence of  that the caretaker population during the   Dormant Season tends to live in places where the  lighting is on all the time, a perpetual noon.   I love the notion and the book, however it is  not a terribly likely scenario for a planet,   you could put artificial lighting and heating  in place by many means, such as orbital mirrors   around the world to add light when you need  it, and that would seem a better approach   than freezing your population. Though if your  planet’s orbit is elliptical enough, you might   try the other approach, and if life evolved  on such a world it might do that naturally.   Artificial lighting and heating would seem  the better path for a technological species   though. But not so much from  a cost savings perspective.  

Freezing people is rather cheap, in terms  of the storage equipment and the coolant.   It’s not terribly expensive even now and  that’s with most of the cost going into   research and into the efforts to get someone  frozen on short notice after their death.   If a culture has refined this process it might  be about as easy as we often see in scifi,   where you just get in the tube and pull the  door shut after setting a timer. It might be the   routine approach for ambulances to have freezers,  or combat medics too, to just have some bag with   an endothermic chemical in it ready to freeze an  injured person. Folks might have them in their  

own home and household robots ready to just haul  you into your cryo-vault if you were injured.   Indeed it’s quite possible such a cryo-vault  might not only be no larger than a bed   but no more expensive either. I really could  imagine them as a standard feature on board   spaceships or in people’s normal homes, the ice  closet, as it were. There is a distinct cost  

for keeping things ultra-cold but it goes  down when you pack the stuff in together.   At a minimum your cost drops with the cube-square  law as heat exchange is about total surface area,   so a freezer ten times bigger on each side, has  10-squared or a hundred times the heat loss on its   expanded surface, but contains 10-cubed or 1000  times the storage space, so your coolant cost   drops to a tenth in terms of cost per person. But  it’s not really prohibitive even for individual   pods in personal homes and with only modern costs  for coolant, liquid nitrogen is dirt cheap.  

Still not free though, except in deep space.  Now any spaceship is probably going to need   some active parts that are kept warm,  but you can keep them frozen for free,   it is heating them that costs power. This is part  of their appeal for interstellar space travel.   We recently discussed interstellar trade and one  of the concepts we discussed was the Interstellar   Cycler, giant spacecraft that are essentially  on long circuits around a collection of stars   that other ships rendezvous with. It would  not be hard to imagine such ships having huge  

sections of them that were powered down and frozen  during those voyages. You dock with the Cycler,   disembark, and check into your freezer, leaving a  wakeup call for when you near your destination.   Given the potential enormity of  those vessels, they would qualify   as civilizations all on their own, and ones  that might spend much of their time dormant,   like our example of Hubris only even more so,  spending decades asleep and perhaps a year awake.   This implies the crew might be awake and  the nominal passengers engaged in the trade   efforts or traveling would be asleep, but it  might be the other way around sometimes too.   The interstellar cycler is a trade ship that  makes a circuit of centuries between its many   destinations, but we have another vessel  we call the Gardener Ship that visits many   worlds but only to drop off colonists. The Gardener Ship uses the premise that   any realistic interstellar colony vessel needs  to be essentially self-sufficient and able to   manufacture any spare parts it needs from raw  materials, and that means it can keep producing   colonial gear, not just ferry the gear to a  single planet one time. And given the length  

of the voyages, decades, they can breed up new  colonists too. It is the opposite of the classic   sleeper ship, you need your colonist awake for  the journeys, living and manufacturing and having   families, but the crew maybe not so much. Indeed  a big part of the crew’s job is making sure the   ship stays on the same task from beginning to end,  and as we saw in our Galactic Gardeners episode,   that end might be a million years down the road  as some gardener ship leaves Earth and goes to   world after world on its way to the galactic rim,  settling thousands of new systems on the way.   With a task that long, your biggest barrier  to success is losing the will to continue,   and that more than boredom might be why certain  people or groups go on ice. They have a goal that   will take a very long time to happen, and they  want to be around for it to make sure it happens,   so they go on ice for periods, waking up  occasionally. Civilizations might sometimes   do the same, after all it may be that the  best way to achieve cultural stasis, if   that’s your goal, is to put the people in stasis. However it is a dangerous play, which makes sense,  

hibernation is always a risky strategy in nature.  Isolated on a colony ship, your sleeping crew   would still be very vulnerable to hijacking by  anyone still awake, be it colonists or whatever   bit of the crew was awake, and the risk of such  hijacking may be nearly as great as what risks to   the mission would be entailed by generational  drift of goals and ideals by not freezing.   On the other hand, freezing part of your  civilization while leaving part unfrozen   places the unfrozen portion in charge of  it. We usually assume that’s intentional,   the caretaker crew who hopefully were  selected for stability and trustworthiness.  

This is a gamble all on its own, but mutiny  by your caretaker crew may be secondary to   the risk of takeover from outside groups, rebels  in the hills so to speak or a foreign invader.   If the majority of your population goes on ice,  for whatever reason, whoever is left unfrozen is   in a pretty good position to have things their  way. Assuming they don’t die anyway, after all   if everyone is going on ice there’s probably a  good reason for it and one of the more obvious   ones is that normal life won’t be viable soon. Though why it would be viable down the road is   unclear. A civilization that decided that it had  damaged its planet and was continuing to do so   might decide to go on ice while the world  recovered but would probably be better   off devoting efforts to figure out how to  fix that damage or at least do less of it.  

You don’t get much work done while you’re asleep,  and little new work gets done if most folks are,   so if your civilization is full of bored people  hoping to leapfrog forward and see new things,   not many new things will develop if almost  everyone is on ice. I suppose if there was a set   cost to staying frozen folks might opt to sleep  for as long as their personal wealth permits.   The very richest might be able to go on  stasis long enough to go hang out at the   Restaurant at the End of the Universe. This would  be a rather bizarre economy that would give a   whole new meaning to the phrase ‘Time is Money” Trying to skip ahead into a bright new future, or   the end of the world, is one motivation for going  to sleep on ice. Or to be a frozen corpse anyway,   it's customary to call folks on ice asleep  in fiction but they are thoroughly dead,   and nowadays they are dead even before we freeze  them. However, that might not be true either,  

which takes us to our last and maybe most  plausible example of a frozen civilization.   In Alastair Reynolds’ classic scifi novel,  Revelation Space, we have a faction of humanity   that spends a lot of its time on near-light-speed  vessels, called light-huggers, and spend most   of its time in frozen stasis too. That may be a  very common way to leapfrog forward through time   and those interstellar traders might be their  own civilization, and the longest lived one,   and indeed we see an example of that in  another of his novels, House of Suns,   but I have a different example in mind today. In Revelation Space the captain of one of those   ships, the Nostalgia for Infinity, is infected  with a virus that causes severe and gross mutation   in flesh and machine, indeed it's really  machines it seems to go after, people’s   cybernetic implants, and the captain is very much  a cyborg. They put him on ice, and very cold too,   down to below a Kelvin, whereas most cryonic  freezing assumes to be more like 100 Kelvin.   Incidentally there is no set temperature you  have to freeze people to, the two key bits   are the Arrhenius Equation, the formula for  the temperature dependence of reaction rates,   of which decay is one such reaction, and  the desire to keep the temperature constant.  

No fluctuations to cause cracking from repeated  expansion and contraction. You could build a   cryonic facility in Antarctica or Pluto but you  still need some active equipment to make sure the   temperature stays put, no seasonal variance. Anyway the captain is Ultra-Cold,   appropriate since his faction’s name is  the Ultra’s, and yet he is still able to   be conscious because his brain is a mix of the  organic and the computer. We often discuss the   notion of replacing damaged neurons in our minds  with something more synthetic, and that seems to   be the most preferred approach to mind uploading  and augmentation as well, to simply replace our   billions of neurons and their connecting synapses  gradually as each one starts wearing down.   A person who went that path probably could  be placed in stasis and remain conscious in   whole or part if those synthetic neurons were  able to keep firing at sub-zero temperatures   and could function as a brain without the rest.  Indeed there are many advantages to computing,  

or thinking, at low temperatures, as we discussed  in the civilizations at the end of time series.   This raises an interesting option, not just that  those on ice might be able to continue in some   dream-like slumber, but that civilizations  that decide to embrace cold-computing and   post-biological existences, as we often look at  in our Civilizations at the End of Time series,   might make the transition by freezing themselves.  I think a lot of folks would prefer to keep their   body around if they went digital anyway,  as opposed to the usual suggestion it be   destroyed in the upload or discarded afterward,  and so I could easily imagine finding some world   full of nothing but frozen tomb vaults full of  computers of minds expanded beyond their bodies,   with a frozen body in the center of each one.  Their inhabitants slumbering away in artificial   virtual worlds, or very awake and possibly  existing at a far higher subjective time rate.   Such a frozen civilization might not be waiting  around at all, not pausing out of boredom, but   gone onto ice to gain the advantage of ultra-cold  computing efficiencies and be very busy indeed.  

One of the most common applications suggested  for Cryonics is as a way to extend lifespans,   and as we saw today it really only does that in  a short-term context of potentially letting us   take advantage of such technologies in the early  21st century when they will probably be more of   late 21st and early 22nd century sort of thing,  and outside this specific period of history we   won’t see freezing people as a way to extend  life. There’s an excellent video, “Waiting for   Immortality” that does looks at Cryonics as well  some other methods that might be more useful for   extending life like cloning, age-reversal,  and mind uploading over on Curiositystream.   Curiosity Stream has thousands of fun  and educational videos, but they’ve also   partnered up with us at Nebula, our Streamy-Award  Nominated streaming service, to offer Nebula’s   content along with their own, if you sign up  at the link in the episode description. That  

means you will not only get Curiosity Stream,  and at a 26% discount, but also lets you catch   SFIA episodes early and without ads, and help  support our show while you’re doing it, as well   as see our Exclusive Coexistence with Alien Series  and other great content from our sibling shows.   Again you can get a year of both  Curiositystream and Nebula for less than $15,   get to support the show and see our episodes  early, and get all that for less than $15 by   using the link in the episode’s description. Last year I got into the habit of doing not   just one episode a week on Thursdays but also a  monthly bonus episode and a monthly livestream,   usually on the middle and final Sunday of each  month respectively and I have decided to keep   that up this year even though I’ll be devoting  a lot of time to writing a book after years   of audience demand. I am loosely calling that  mid-month bonus episode SciFi Sundays for now,   as I’ve noticed I tend to write them more with  a focus on science fiction tropes and concepts   than the average episode. This year's first will  be “Machine Overlords & Post-Discontent Societies”   on Sunday, January 17, then we will return  next week to the Alien Civilizations series   for a look at Oceanic Aliens, before looking at  Zero-Gravity Civilizations the week after that.  

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2021-01-16 03:04

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