Effective Altruism and Cryonics, Contest Results

by lsparrish1 min read19th Nov 20139 comments


Personal Blog

Thank you to each of the five contestants who entered an essay into the contest that was started a little over a week ago to explore cryonics as a prospective target for effective altruism. The five entries (listed chronologically) are:

  1. jkaufman
  2. deleted
  3. RomeoStevens
  4. jaime2000
  5. Ishaan

All five of essays show evidence of much thought and hard work. Based on multiple readings of each, here are some brief impressions from each essay:

  • The entry by jkaufman is intelligently written and even-handed, giving math-based arguments why cryonics might or might not be competitive with effective charities such as AMF. The bar set by such charities is very high. However, depending what utilitarian framework you use, cryonics could be competitive if the chances of it working are sufficiently good. On the other hand, when considered in person-neutral terms, advertising cryonics seems to be a better use of a given dollar than signing up, as chances are you could induce multiple others to sign up for the same money.
  • The entry by deleted, which is presented in outline form, brings up several good points, although it does not defend all of them at length, and comes up slightly short of the 800 word target. Despite the brevity (and some spelling errors), I had a positive reaction to it personally, particularly the discussion of cryonics as a possible alternative to end-of-life intensive care. It would be interesting to see a more fleshed out version and/or multiple essays exploring the points touched on in this outline.
  • The entry by RomeoStevens discusses, among other things, the prospect that money raised for cryonics is likely to be money that could not otherwise be raised for a beneficial purpose. Although similar in some respects to the jkaufman essay, it stresses the usefulness of self-interest in others (e.g. aging wealthy people) as a way to attempt to produce the most good. It also goes into some of the more counterintuitive points that argue for cryonics as potential EA, such as effects on low-funded/high-value research, and the altered time preference of a cryonicist.
  • The entry by jaime2000 examines the necessary conditions for someone to be signed up for cryonics to determine which is the most efficient use of additional funding. This essay is well organized and sourced. It recommends building public awareness (for example, advertising) as the most efficient path to promoting cryonics.
  • The entry by Ishann is an introspective look at why some utilitarians whose intuitions run contrary to cryonics (and life extension in general), as a person-neutral effective altruism target, might reconsider those intuitions when considering life extension in the absence of cognitive decline (the familiar status quo for extending life past 100).

Each of these impresses me as incredibly valuable in its own right, for its own reasons. I would encourage the authors to expand them into top-level posts now that the contest is over.

Prize Winner: The essay that that I think best makes its points is the one by RomeoStevens, which encompasses significant breadth and depth on this topic. Well done, RomeoStevens!


9 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 1:19 AM
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It's beyond me why someone would push a short term, questionable solution like cryonics as being more altruistic than contributing to SENS. I could arguably see cryonics as better than a number of other charities, but against SENS, with its current level of funding, it's not even close.

I'm a member at Alcor because I'm imperfectly altruistic and wish to maximize my odds. But I contribute far, far more to SENS, as they have a vastly better plan for preventing death in the long run.

If cryonics works in the here and now, we could in principle (with adequate PR, policies, and so forth) replace all funerals with cryonics and save almost everyone from dying today. I would expect regenerative therapies to finally get out of clinical trials after 50 years or so, even if we were to get them working right away. This represents a very large amount of expected utility (2.5 billion deaths worth, at 50 million per year) with that amount of time.

That said, it is not such a good comparison to hold current cryonics tech up against future advances anticipated in antiaging tech. If you want to put money into future advances in life extension, generally considered, it makes more sense to consider whether meaningful antiaging (say, something significant enough to get large numbers of people to actuarial escape velocity -- perhaps a 10-year improvement) is more/less likely than the cryonics equivalent (say, reversible vitrification of the brain) to be adequately solved, and cheaply distributed to the global population, first.

Some things to consider:

  1. Cryonics has already been pioneered to the point of reversible rabbit kidney, and the prospects for a brain are defensible (if uncertain) in patients right now, despite clinical death. By contrast, we can be pretty sure nobody currently has been rejuvenated from aging. The closest existing thing is caloric restriction, which appears not to work in primates. SENS is still speculative.
  2. The problem of cryonics is largely brute physics (cooling, diffusion, cryoprotectant chemistry), whereas aging is predominantly a matter of the biochemistry of metabolism and regeneration. The complex biochemical technologies we uncover that we can expect to be helpful against aging may be even more effective towards cryonics, because they can be combined/hybridized with mechanically based advances (e.g. cooling more rapidly to prevent toxicity while simultaneously mitigating toxicity with engineered biochemicals).
  3. Experimental feedback for cryonics research tends to be faster (and involve less suffering) because you do not have to wait for the animal to die of old age. The study can be done on a healthy animal, where the only relevant form of damage is the cryobiological/toxicological damage, which occurs instantly, and after anesthetization.

Apart from the technical advantages, it is worth considering that cryonics may be cheaper to deploy on a massive scale. Liquid nitrogen costs are much lower (per unit volume) for larger storage units. Perfusion with cryoprotectant could be worked into the existing end-of-life medical system. You wouldn't have to experiment on healthy old people with innovative therapies as SENS would need to to, only terminal or clinically dead patients would be subject to cryonics.

Place your fingers on your pulse and feel your heartbeat. If you're sitting at rest, every beat you feel is accompanied, somewhere in the world, by two or three people running to the end of the time nature allotted and being annihilated forever.

Short term solution is exactly that. People are dying RIGHT NOW. And cryonics is a way to potentially save those lives RIGHT NOW.

The following is merely my own intuition and guess, but... I suspect that the future will look back on this era, see that we had cryonics and CHOSE not to use it, and condemn current funeral practices as systematic murder.

The problem I see with your reasoning lies in the term "potentially save".

Personally I think it is better to focus our efforts on actions that bring >1% chance to increase the quality of life and average lifespans of a huge populations (say fighting diseases and famine) rather than on something that has a 0.0005% percent chance of possibly preserving your mind and body so that there is a 0.0005% chance that you achieve immortality or elongate your lifespan when future generations decide to "thaw" you (or even give you new awesome body if you are lucky enough).

As for judgements, I hope they wouldn't really mind just like no one of our contemporaries condemns ancient egyptians for not balsaming more corpses or medieval philosophers for not seeking philosophers stone with enough effort.

cryonics is a way to potentially save those lives RIGHT NOW.

"potentially" is pulling a lot of weight there. What probability do you give cryonics of working? Roughly?

SENS is aiming to fix our biological bodies. Cryonics researchers are working on the more permanent solution of tech that enables brain scanning.

This is speculative, but I think cryonics could be useful to fix the biological body as well. Cryogenic conditions are easier for certain types of things, for example some types of molecular nanotech might not work well under warm conditions but should work fine if kept cold. Also, more finely detailed printing could be possible under cryogenic conditions. It might turn out to be the most reliable way to replace the body when it gets old -- vitrify, cut out the brain, then print everything else around it. When printing in a cold state to begin with, there would be less concern of overexposure to cryoprotectants or achieving perfusion (you could use less toxic, harder to perfuse cryoprotectants such as trehalose).

I enjoyed this opportunity to spend more time thinking about EA and cryonics. It was not obvious to me when I began writing what conclusion I would come to, as cryonics is something I had been putting off considering. I say this to counteract the discussion about "writing the bottom line first." One can participate in such contests without writing the bottom line for oneself. Of course this changes the expected value of spending resources on participating, as there is now some probability that you will come to the opposite conclusion and thus not be considered for the prize. But you are still getting paid to think, even if the EV is low, which is awesome. I think prizes are pretty awesome and usually find the results meaningful. I greatly enjoyed the quantified health prize and am glad that material, which would not otherwise exist, is now available. So thanks to Isparrish for putting this on, thanks to Mel for providing emotional support while thinking about death, and thanks to Pepe and Colby for providing detailed feedback.

[-][anonymous]7y 2

Damn. I should have straight out offered to sell you my raw arguments , instead of trying to make them into an essay. Well, next time.