The Cryonics Strategy Space

by Froolow 8 min read24th Apr 201447 comments


In four paragraphs I’m going to claim, “It is highly likely reading this article will increase your chance of living forever”. I’m pretty sure you won’t disagree with me. First, however, I’d like to talk about how much I don’t like Monopoly.

I play a lot of Monopoly, because I am forced into it – against my will – by friends, family, work-related-bonding etc. I understand this is a controversial opinion, but I really, really don’t like Monopoly – there is very little scope for creative play. In fact there is so little scope for create play I spotted that I could win at Monopoly, in a probabilistic sense, by going online and looking up the optimal allocation of houses to properties and valuation of houses in the ‘bargaining’ mid-game. For a while, the fact that nobody but me played ‘perfect’ Monopoly meant I won nearly every game, and I felt much better about playing because games tended to conclude more quickly when one player was a soulless, utility-hungry robot – it left me more time to concentrate on the stuff I actually enjoyed, which was socialising.

But Monopoly, despite being an almost completely deterministic dice-rolling game, hides unexpected complexity; a salutary lesson for an aspiring rationalist. Winning the game was completely secondary to my actual aim, which was forcing the game to take as little time as possible. I realised a few months ago that it didn’t matter who won, as long as somebody won quickly, and it was very unlikely the strategy optimised for one player was the same as the strategy optimised for all of them. As a consequence, I reran the computer simulations I built and developed an optimal ‘turn reducing’ strategy (it won’t surprise you to know that the basic rule is ‘play with as much variance as you possibly can’; having one maverick player lowers the average number of turns to the first bankruptcy, and bankruptcy is gamebreaking in Monopoly).

I agree that I could lower the number of turns even more by simply flipping over the board and storming out when someone suggests I play, but let’s assume I am also trying to balance a nebulously-defined but nonetheless real value of ‘not losing all my friends’, which is satisfied when I play a risky-but-exciting strategy and not satisfied when I constantly demand to play games I find fun. The point is, I had what Kuhn calls a ‘paradigm shift’ – once I realised that my goal when playing Monopoly was not to win as quickly as possible, but to ensure anyone wins as quickly as possible I was able to greatly, greatly increase my utility with no troublesome side-effects.

I’m relating this story to you because noticing my aims and strategy weren’t perfectly aligned improved my experience of Monopoly without doing anything difficult like hacking my motivation, and I’m sure you have similar stories of paradigm shifts improving your experience of a certain event (I hear people talk about the day they discovered coding was fun once they learned the rules, or maths was awesome once they got past the spadework. That has yet to happen to me, but my experience at thrashing my friends at a children’s board games means I can totally relate). What’s striking with these paradigm shifts is how obvious the conclusion seems in retrospect, and how opaque it seemed before the lightbulb moment. With that in mind, let me make a claim you might find concerning; “The aims and strategy of people who want to live forever are highly likely to be out of alignment”. In particular, from what I read on LW and other pro-cryo communities, the strategy-space explored is vastly smaller than the strategy-space of all possible cryonics strategies. Indeed, the strategy space explored by people who want to live forever is – in some ways – smaller than that explored by me while trying to get out of playing tedious boardgames. I’m going to talk about that strategy space a little in this article, mostly with the aim of triggering a ‘lightbulb moment’ – if there are any to be had – in readers a lot more committed to cryonics than me. To draw an obvious conclusion, if there are such lightbulb moments to be had, it is highly likely reading this article will increase your chance of living forever by increasing the size of the cryonics strategy space you consider.

That the strategy space explored is small is pretty hard to disagree with; there is an option to freeze or not-freeze in the first place, go with Alcor or The Cryonics Institute (or possibly KryoRuss), go for your full body or just your head and – maybe – whether to hang on for plastination or begin investing in cryonics insurance now. As far as I can tell, more ‘fringe’ options are not discussed with very much regularity. A search of the LW archives turned up this thread which was along similar lines, but didn’t trigger anything like the discussion I thought it would; this surprises me – when the ‘prize’ for picking a marginal improvement in your cryonics strategy that doubles your chance of revivification is that you double your chance of living forever, I’m highly surprised the cryonics strategy space is not exhaustively searched at this point, certainly amongst people who turn rationality into an art form.

For example, there are at least three ways I can think of to raise your chance of being successfully frozen:

·         (Sensible) Redundancy cryonics: Make redundant copies of the information you intend to preserve. For example, MRI scans of your brain and detailed notes on your reactions to certain stimuli. In the event that current technology almost-but-not-quite preserves information in the brain, your notes and images might help future scientists reconstruct your personality. You might even go further and send hippocampal slices to multiple cryonics facilities, gambling on the fact that the increased probability of at least one facility’s survival outweighs the lower probability of revivification from a single hippocampal slice.

·         (Sensible) Diversified cryonics: In addition to cryonics, employ some other strategy(s) which might result in you living forever but which are as completely uncorrelated with the success or failure of cryonics as you can manage given that ‘the complete destruction of the earth on a molecular level by a malevolent alien race’ correlates with many bad outcomes and few good ones. I actually have a list of about ten of these, which I will happily make available on request (i.e. I’ll write another discussion post about them if people are interested) but I don’t want the whole discussion of this post to be about this one single issue, which it was when I tried the content of the post out on my friend. This is about the cryonics strategy-space only, not the living-forever strategy space, which is much bigger.

·         (Inadvisable) Suicide cryonics: Calculate the point at which your belief in the utility of cryonics outweighs the expected utility of the rest of your life (this will likely come a few seconds before the average age of death in your demographic). Kill yourself in the most cryonics-friendly way you can imagine, which I suspect will involve injecting yourself with toxic cryoprotectants on top of a platform suspended over a large vat of liquid nitrogen so that when you collapse, you collapse into the nitrogen and freeze yourself (which should limit the amount of time the dead brain is at body-temperature). If you are not concerned about your body, you should also try to decapitate yourself as you fall to raise the surface area to volume ratio of the object you are trying to freeze.

Here are three ways that raise your chance of successfully remaining frozen:

·         (Sensible) Positive cryonics: Lobby for laws that ensure the government protects your body. Either lobby for these laws directly (I talked about a ‘right to not-death’ in my last post on this subject) or promise to report to future!USA’s equivalent of the Department of Defence to see if they can weaponise any microbes on you after you’re unfrozen. Remember that we’re talking in terms of expected utility here; the chance that such lobbying is effective is minute, but it might be an effective way to spend your twilight years if you would otherwise be unproductive.

·         (Sensible, but worryingly immoral) Negative cryonics: Sabotage as many cryonics labs as possible before going under, or lobby for laws that make it illegal to freeze yourself which only come into force after you die. This raises the chances that you are the James Bedford of modern cryonics and society has a particular interest in keeping your body safe. Note that though sabotaging an entire lab is difficult and illegal, trashing the field of cryonics itself is pretty easy and socially high-status because people already think it’s pretty weird – you’d predict that at least some detractors of cryonics are actually extremely pro-cryonics and trying to raise their chances of being kept frozen as a cultural curiosity rather than as only one of millions of corpsicles.

·         (Sensible if your name is Lex Luthor, otherwise implausible) Ninja cryonics: Build a cryonics pod yourself, with enough liquid nitrogen to keep you frozen for several thousand years, known only to the highly trusted individual who transfers your cryo-preserved body from Alcor to this location (if you could somehow get yourself into an unprotected far-earth orbit after freezing this would be perfect). Hope that your pod is discovered by friendly future-humans before you run out of coolant. This is insurance against the possibility that society destroys all cryonics labs somehow and then later regrets it (although, now I think about it, someone following this strategy certainly wouldn’t tell anyone about it on a public forum…)

Here are three ways that raise your chance of successfully being revived:

·         (Sensible if legal) Compound-interest cryonics: Devote a small chunk of your resources towards a fund which you expect to grow faster than the rate of inflation, with exponential growth (the simplest example would be a bank account with a variable rate that pays epsilon percent higher than the rate of inflation in perpetuity). Sign a contract saying the person(s) who revive you receive the entire pot. Since after a few thousand years the pot will nominally contain almost all the money in the world this strategy will eventually incentivise almost the entire world to dedicate itself to seeking your revival. Although this strategy will not work if postscarcity happens before unfreezing, it collapses into the conventional cryonics problem and therefore costs you no more than the opportunity cost of spending the capital in the fund before you die. (Although apparently this is illegal)

·         (Sensible) Cultural-value cryonics: Freeze yourself with something which is relatively cheap now, but you predict might be worth a lot of money in the future. I suspect that – for example – rare earth metals or gold might be a decent guess at something that will increase in value whatever society does, but the real treasure trove will be things like first-editions of books you expect might become classics in the future, original paintings by artists who might become very trendy in the 25th Century or photographs of an important historic event which will become disputed or lionised in the future (my best bet would be anything involving the relationship between China and America if we’re talking a few centuries, and pre-technology parts of Africa if we’re talking millennia). It’s hard to believe even a post-singularity society won’t have some social signalling remaining, so you’ve got a respectable chance of finding a buyer for these artefacts. These fantastically valuable artefacts will be used to pay your way in a society where – thanks to the Flynn effect – you will have an IQ which breaks the curve at the ‘dangerously stupid’ end and you might not be able to survive otherwise. Be careful nobody knows you’re doing this, otherwise your cryopod will be raided like an Egyptian tomb! Even disregarding this financial advice, it might be a good idea to ensure you freeze yourself with e.g. a beloved pet, or the complete works of Shakespeare. This ensures that even if future society is so totally different to what you were expecting you will still have some information-age artefacts to protect you from culture-shock.

·         (Inadvisable and high-risk) Game-theory cryonics: Set up an alarm on your cryonics pod that unthaws you after five hundred years. This is insurance against the possibility that society is able to unfreeze you, but chooses not to, since no society would just let you die (you hope). You could go more supervillain-y than this by planting a deadly bomb somewhere, timed to go off in five hundred years unless you enter a 128-digit disarming key. This should incentivise society to develop revivification processes as a matter of urgency. Bear in mind if it is easier for future society to develop extremely strong counter-cryptography or radiation shielding your plan may backfire as research that would have been undertaken in cryopreservation is redeployed to stop your diabolical scheme.

I think most of these strategies have never been written about before, and of those that have been written about they have all been throwaway thought experiments on LW. Given that the strategy space of cryonics strategies is much bigger than cryonics advocates appear to instinctively gravitate around, I conclude that it is very unlikely there has been a serious effort to optimise the cryonics process beyond the scientific advances made by Alcor (and hence it is very unlikely we have all hit upon the optimal strategy by chance). This is especially true because the optimal strategy in some cases depends on the probability that the future resembles certain kinds of predictions, and I know people disagree over those predictions on LW. For example, the ratio of culturally-valuable artefacts to sanity-preserving artefacts you should take with you probably depends on the relative likelihood you assign that a post-scarcity or post-singularity world will be the one to revive you. I’m not in a very good position to make that particular judgement myself, but I am in a good position to say that there is a very real opportunity cost to considering a narrow strategy space when considering life-extending strategies, just as there is an opportunity cost when considering over-narrow Monopoly strategies. In the first case, the impact of your decision might result in you throwing your life away. In the second, it only feels like it does.