I've run in to the argument that cryonics beats VillageReach on a simple "shut up and multiply" level, by assuming an infinity vs finite tradeoff. Having read the Fun Theory sequences, it struck me that this wasn't a reasonable assumption, so I sat down, re-read a few relevant posts, shut up, and multiplied.

In Continuous Improvement, Eliezer ballparks a good fun-theory life as having a maximum length of around 28,000 years. In Robin Hanson's Cryonics Probability Breakdown, he assigns cryonics a conjoint probability of about 6%. 28,000 * 0.06 gives us a net return of 1,680 expected years.

Full body suspension from the Cryonics Institute currently costs $28,000.

VillageReach, according to GiveWell, can save an infant's life for less than $1,000.

For the price of Cryonics, we thus save 28 lives. 1680 expected years, divided by 28, puts the break-even point at an average lifespan of 60 years for those infants saved. A quick peak at Wikipedia suggests that the average African life is under 60 years for the majority of the continent, although there are some important nuances to really get a full picture.

Obviously, these are rough numbers, and I doubt many people base their decisions solely on "years lived". I do find it rather interesting that cryonics is currently about on par with one of the most effective charities in the world on that metric, however :)

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Upvoted for actually applying arithmetic!

These calculations are about Cryonics as charity rather than as something for yourself. I am somewhat altruistic, but I definitely don't weight other people's welfare equally with mine.

Upvoted for actually applying arithmetic!

Thank you! I think this is my favorite compliment from here :)

This fails to take into account the difference in quality of life between a brain devoting entire stars or galaxies to fun and a human living in a poor region of Africa (as you acknowledge when you say people don't base their decisions solely on "years lived"). On the other hand, there is also the point DanielLC brought up.

I don't think the rough equality of the number of expected life-years saved reflects anything interesting. Eliezer's estimate could vary by many orders of magnitude even if its basic assumptions were true. The probability estimate could also vary by orders of magnitude.

This completely ignores the fact that having one more person living at the time of the singularity helps just as much as having one more person frozen.

I'm not sure I follow. My post wasn't about the singularity, just a simple "years lived" calculation.

If I understand him correctly DanielLC is saying that the cost-effectiveness of donating to VillageReach is greater than that which your post suggests because in the event of a Singularity scenario it could have the effect of allowing 28 people to lead very very long lives rather than just 1 person.

This is an important consideration. However there's the opposite effect that more people in Africa means more competition for already scare food and resources, and more people living anywhere also means all the CO2 that they, their livestock, etc. generate, whereas a frozen person consumes only the electricity for keeping their LN2 cool. If you think the Singularity will take long enough to make lives lost from global warming an important consideration, this is an influence in the direction of cryonics. Whether its enough to balance out the chance of 28 very very long lives is harder to figure out; anyone whose life is saved from climate-related disaster is as likely to live to the Singularity as somone the same age saved by VillageReach.

Maybe we should start a charity that runs around vitrifying living people who have a large carbon footprint?

That's a clever idea, but it would create perverse incentives. Fortunately, the people with the largest carbon footprints (rich 1st worlders) are already the people with the greatest tendency to sign up for cryonics.

Alternately, you could find another charity to increase the population.


Alternately, you could find another charity to increase the population.

Like a religion whose central tenant is 'be fruitful and multiply'?

Ahhh, thank you! That makes sense, and is definitely an interesting consideration :)

That's exactly correct. But if you take post-singularity life into account, survivors from our time are competing for resources with new lives. If you fix the date of the singularity and trust post-singularity resources to be allocated optimally, our decisions don't have moral consequence beyond the singularity; we can't take credit for the 28k years either way.

If you fix the date of the singularity and trust post-singularity resources to be allocated optimally

But can you? Why not make the singularity earlier, or more likely? As for resources, the best way to do them is to make it early, so we can stop wasting sunlight.

Sure, you should try to affect the singularity. But the OP pretty explicitly takes this off the table by asking to compare just these two charities. The implicit assumption that these particular charities do not affect the singularity has been disputed before, but this takes us to a much more difficult calculation. (multifoleraterose argues both sides in the comments)

It may be difficult to tell how much they affect it, and even in which direction, but the idea that it will is pretty certain.

From what I can see, the only reason for doing something like VillageReach rather than preventing existential dangers or hastening the singularity is if you a) think we're doomed either way, or b) don't care about the future. For what it's worth, I'm (mostly) in group a.


This shifts the argument to estimates of the time frame of a technological singularity.

Eliezer ballparks a good fun-theory life as having a maximum length of around 28,000 years

IMO using that number in your calculation makes the whole calculation useless.

The entire Fun Theory sequence needs to be marked as highly speculative, relative to the rest of the Sequences. Some of the speculation gives us tentative lower bounds on Fun, but some of it (like Continuous Improvement) should be used in qualitative senses only.

Sadly, math requires me to pick some sort of number. I was mostly just tired of hearing "cryonics wins because it produces infinite years, vs finite mortal years." It takes a very optimistic assumption to produce an infinitely long and still-fun immortal life, and seems to be less reasoning and more a Pascal's Wager.

I figured Fun Theory would produce a quick and relatively unobjectionable number, and certainly didn't think I could produce a better number via any other method. The actual value is relatively unimportant to me, and I recognize the sequence as being especially tentative.

If one wishes to conclude that there is no viable number due to the error bars being too huge, that's fine. It just means "years lived" is an unevaluable criteria.

Do you think it's too large, too small, or just has huge error bars?

Huge error bars.

You can choose not to use math but you can't avoid choosing between alternatives. Perhaps we implicitly assume that either the "fun-years" or cryonics probabilities are lower than those used to account for the fact that there is no cryonics charity?

I agree with the second paragraph of steven0461's comment.

The present posting ignores the impact of signing up for cryonics / donating to VillageReach on existential risk which should outweigh all other considerations in utilitarian expected value.

I presently believe that for most people who are interested x-risk reduction, the expected x-risk reduction of signing up for cryonics is lower than that of the expected x-risk reduction of donating to VillageReach. My thinking here is that donating to VillageReach signals philanthropic intention and affords networking opportunities with other people who care about global welfare who might be persuaded to work against x-risk whereas signing up for cryonics signals weirdness to everyone outside of a very narrow set of people.

However, as Carl Shulman has remarked:

"widespread cryonics would have beneficial effects in encouraging long-term thinking."

And lsparrish has written:

As to most people not being capable of being convinced of cryonics, I strongly doubt that this is the case. It's a huge uphill battle no doubt but given enough dollars towards PR (or enough intelligently done promotion by unpaid advocates on the web) it can be done.

The beneficial impact of signing up for cryonics on x-risk reduction seems to me to be predicated on the possibility of spreading cryonics to a population positioned to decrease x-risk who would not work to decrease x-risk if they were not signed up for cryonics.

I would expect the existential risk reduction returns from encouraging long-term thinking by getting people to sign up for cryonics to be dwarfed by the returns from encouraging long-term thinking directly, and I would expect those returns to be dwarfed by the returns from encouraging rational long-term thinking on especially important topics.

That would make cryonics a self-serving reward that utilitarians award themselves after doing some good deeds.

It's not hypocritical if we acknowledge that our values are partially but not completely selfish.

Yes, I can imagine that position. I was more curious to see if anyone else was going to try and make a utilitarian case for it.

Donating to VillageReach signals philanthropic intention and affords networking opportunities with other people who care about global welfare who might be persuaded to work against x-risk

Also, donating to VillageReach saves people's lives, and those people will have agency and abilities and may very well contribute to existential risk reduction.

They will still come from a very poorly educated area of the world. I think the effect is overall a little unclear (it might stabilize that area of the world somewhat, which would have positive spillover for everyone else; or the population increase will spark additional conflict that has negative spillover).

Should we also work to boost birth rates in all areas of the world? Because we are working against that goal in some key ways. It is hard to control all the variables but there is very convincing evidence that modernization affects birth rates in developing countries in a number of ways. Including influences of cost of children, productivity of children, and education of women.

But they may also contribute to existential risk increase. What sort of calculation have you made that makes you think these people are more likely to contribute to existential risk increase?

I don't think I've seen any reasonable argument that can be made that simply having more random people around will help deal with existential risk. Most likely existential risks (UFAI, grey goo, bioterrorism, whatever) will be caused by people afterall.

Another consideration is whether or not the Village Reach will actually let them live to adulthood. Saving people as infants doesn't mean that they will live to adulthood.

  1. If I remember correctly, infant mortality rate in sub-Saharan Africa is around 10%; by way of contrast with that of ~ 1% in the United States. I think (but am not sure) that the bulk of this difference is due to vaccinations. I can dig up a citation if you'd like me to.

  2. Even if the 10% infant mortality remained with vaccinations, in absence of evidence to the contrary one should expect that saving ten infants will allow nine of them to live past infancy.

  3. According to GiveWell's page on standard of living in the developing world sub-Saharan Africans have about a 50% chance of living to age 65.


The rate in the US is 6.3 per 1000 live births, according to Wikipedia. Mozambique (where VillageReach appears to focus their efforts) has a rate of 95.9 per 1000.

Eyeballing this GiveWell graph gives sub-Saharan Africans about a 50% chance of living to age 50. I suspect dodgy statistics.

This is a good point that I hadn't noticed before; the graph linked gives a figure of around 35% of living to age 65; so there's something wrong with the data or analysis from at least one of the two sources.

This is Elie Hassenfeld from GiveWell. I just wanted to clear up any confusion about GiveWell's charts. The difference between the two charts is the region they cover. The chart on our standard of living in the developing world page shows life expectancy across all of the WHO's low-income countries. The chart on our page on life expectancy in Sub-Saharan Africa is only for Sub-Saharan Africa.

Thanks for coming along and clarifying things!

Possibly it is just an older graph. The one I linked to says data from "2001", while yours says data from "2006".

If so, 15 years difference in life expectancy in 5 years is impressive progress!

It's worth noting that standard life expectancy figures include infant mortality, etc. and thus already account for this. I believe the average life expectancy is actually ~65 years if you correct for infant mortality.

Now I'm considering cryo. Thumb up. blink of surprise

And the sooner the money is spent (not saying I should hope to die more quickly, but that if more people in this generation sign up... eg. me) the sooner they'll figure out how to do this effectively, which means that a (relatively) small amount of money spent on that right now could multiply the number of human years that are saved by quite a few...

Hmm. Now I'll have to think this over...