[Prize] Essay Contest: Cryonics and Effective Altruism

by lsparrish1 min read8th Nov 201344 comments

2

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I'm starting a contest for the best essay describing why a rational person of a not particularly selfish nature might consider cryonics an exceptionally worthwhile place to allocate resources. There are three distinct questions relating to this, and you can pick any one of them to focus on, or answer all three.

Contest Summary:

  • Essay Topic: Cryonics and Effective Altruism
  • Answers at least one of the following questions:
    1. Why might a utilitarian seeking to do the most good consider contributing time and/or money towards cryonics (as opposed to other causes)?
    2. What is the most optimal way (or at least, some highly optimal, perhaps counterintuitive way) to contribute to cryonics?
    3. What reasons might a utilitarian have for actually signing up for cryonics services, as opposed to just making a charitable donation towards cryonics (or vice versa)?
  • Length: 800-1200 words
  • Target audience: Utilitarians, Consequentialists, Effective Altruists, etc.
  • Prize: 1 BTC (around $350, at the moment)
  • Deadline: Sunday 11/17/2013, at 8:00PM PST

To enter, post your essay as a comment in this thread. Feel free to edit your submission up until the deadline. If it is a repost of something old, a link to the original would be appreciated. I will judge the essays partly based on upvotes/downvotes, but also based on how well it meets the criteria and makes its points. Essays that do not directly answer any of the three questions will not be considered for the prize. If there are multiple entries that are too close to call, I will flip a coin to determine the winner.

Terminology clarification: I realise that for some individuals there is confusion about the term 'utilitarian' because historically it has been represented using very simple, humanly unrealistic utility functions such as pure hedonism. For the purposes of this contest, I mean to include anyone whose utility function is well defined and self-consistent -- it is not meant to imply a particular utility function. You may wish to clarify in your essay the kind of utilitarian you are describing.

Regarding the prize: If you win the contest and prefer to receive cash equivalent via paypal, this wll be an option, although I consider bitcoin to be more convenient (and there is no guarantee how many dollars it will come out to due to the volatility of bitcoin).


Contest results

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44 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 8:23 AM
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What about negative answers to these questions? I'd be willing to write an essay explaining that I don't think cryonics is a good utilitarian cause (not in the sense that I have another pet cause that I think it is even better, but considerations that cryonics, if successful, would be net-negative).

Would these sorts of entries be considered?

(Edit) An essay simply detailing considerations as to why cryonics has net negative effects if successful would not qualify. However, if you were to answer one of the questions directly (they aren't yes/no, but scenario based) you could still feature your argument prominently.

Example: Some particular kind of utilitarians think cryonics has net disutility for certain reasons (your argument), but in the event that they find that cryonicists are easy to work with (plausible scenario), they would cooperate to accomplish some particular instrumental goal despite the net disutility of cryonics.

(I'm not actively soliciting submissions of such a nature, just noting that they are possible. I actually think the utilitarian-against-cryonics space of arguments has been fairly well explored already, and there is motive to do so in the fact that cryonics competes for resources and is unpopular already.)

That is not what I'm trying to do. I put up the prize with the intent of exploring a certain class of positions that I already know exist in concept-space (utilitarian frameworks friendly to cryonics). If there are weaknesses, I expect them to be highlighted better once explicated. That isn't the same as rejecting a fully different class of positions (utilitarian frameworks unfriendly to cryonics), although I feel no particular obligation to fund the latter.

Also, I would probably feel bad if it turned out to be so clever that it won and I had to take the prize away from someone who I actually agreed with. So after some careful consideration I have decided that I must (respectfully) decline to include it for consideration.

So this contest is essentially a cryonics propaganda competition?

Awesome.

Yep, just like all the other thousands of essay competitions out there.

[-][anonymous]7y 2

This one didn't have any bottom line already written in.

What bottom line are you suggesting this contest has written into it? That cryonics is something that some utilitarians would support under some circumstances? Why is supporting cryonics more controversial than running someone over with a trolley car all of a sudden?

The only filter I'm putting up is a small chunk of prize money, and the only filter is to stay on topic with regards to a specific set of implicitly pro-cryonics issues that I am interested in. Anyone who wants to attack cryonics in a well-written essay is free to do so -- I'm simply under no obligation to pay them for it.

I think the problem that people are having is that it's generally considered an exercise in rhetoric (AKA "dark arts" on LW) to mentally compose an argument with the conclusion already in mind (as opposed to impartially settling upon whatever conclusion the logic leads to) unless you're attempting to steel-man a position you disagree with. Presumably, doing so will enhance confirmation bias. This is the reason that contrarians and devil's-advocate-lovers are common among intellectual circles

That cryonics is something that some utilitarians would support under some circumstances?

Yes, I think that's it. "Bottom line" refers to the conclusion that you must eventually arrive at in order for your essay to qualify.

By army1987's usage of "bottom line", an essay contest without a bottom line asks a question, but does not presuppose an answer. An essay contest with a bottom line specifies a conclusion, and asks participants to think of the most clever way to arrive at that conclusion.

Disclaimer: I myself do not think that existence of essay contests with "bottom lines" is necessarily bad practice, although I'm not willing to give an unqualified yay / boo because I haven't thought about it sufficiently.

Edit:: I suspect that it's okay if the writer and audience is aware of the potentially bias-inducing nature of the format, and wish to use the format explore the space of arguments for a certain position. You might even change your mind this way (In a "really? That's the best argument for this?) sort of way.

The efficient charity essay contest had a bottom line, it just wasn't something anyone would be likely to dispute (and which had been previously argued for on Less Wrong). Qualified entries were supposed to explain, in less jargonistic terms, that you should optimize for utilions rather than fuzzies. The idea in that case was to put the existing ideas in more layman-friendly terms.

If the bottom line we're discussing is just "some utilitarians in some situations support cryonics", my thinking is that it shouldn't be controversial, since that's pretty much already implied by the fungibility of utility. At least, if the opposite were true, I'd be surprised and want a good explanation for it. But I'm wondering if there's a more subtle issue -- perhaps it is being experienced as implying in some dark-artsy way something like "no rational utilitarian would ever oppose cryonics", something I never intended (and don't agree with).

Another explanation is that there's a real disagreement about the relative plausibility of utilitarians supporting cryonics. I have more or less implied (by the existence of the contest) that it is fairly plausible for lots of kinds of utilitarians. That is something I actually think, but is open to question. Some might be thinking it is fairly implausible for most kinds of utilitarians. It could be seen as a dark arts move on my part, that I didn't really give the opposite perspective much consideration in composing the contest.

However, the results of the contest should render that idea more of a testable prediction than it was before the contest. If it's right, it should be possible to critique most of the essays produced for the contest by pointing out how implausible the scenarios are or how odd/implausible the particular kind of utilitarianism they discuss are. If it's wrong, at least some of the scenarios should be fairly plausible ones for realistic utilitarianisms.

So this contest is essentially a cryonics propaganda competition?

Tongue in cheek answer: Sure, I'll admit to that. I'd never have lasted long in Slytherin anyway.

Awesome.

Serious answer: I'm just trying to avoid an awkward situation by not appearing willing to actively fund a position I don't agree with at a core level. An honorary submission would be welcomed, and in fact I think I've read and recommended Thrasymachus work in the past on this very topic. It's based on pro-natalism, if I remember right. So it is on topic in the sense that it would present interesting contrast to the other essays, it just doesn't answer the questions I actually asked / am willing to pay for answers to (which I expect that many here to already have thought of, but think they need incentive to actually write it out in a nice essay format).

You should clarify this in your original post.

Cryonics as an effective altruism target can capture resources that would otherwise be unavailable to beneficial causes.

The average effective altruist, in determining where their marginal unit of resources will do the most good, should wish to devote themselves to charitable causes that are currently underfunded relative to the amount of good they can do. Every contribution changes this equation, as charities run out of low hanging fruit to pursue. GiveWell discusses this as the scalability limitation. A side effect of the rapid improvement in quality of life is that our opportunities for cheap dramatic improvements are decreasing over time. This has lead to differing viewpoints within the effective altruism community. There are those who wish to save lives now and those who wish to ensure future lives. Those who work on existential risk forego gained QALYs (quality adjusted life years) now in favor of small reductions in the probability of losing huge numbers of QALYs. The reasoning that argues for and against these positions is too complex to discuss at length here.

Cryonics is popular among the second group of people as it offers a similar deal, a small probability of gaining a huge number of QALYs. Analysis of whether this gain is at all comparable to the near certain QALYs one can buy for others in the present is swamped by uncertainty in several of the terms. For the sake of argument, let us be charitable to the idea that in the future humans will have extreme longevity, meaning the QALYs of a single revived cryonics patient will swamp the QALYs of a life or many lives saved now. Unfortunately even given this caveat cryonics doesn’t fare too well. The issue is that the lives saved now could also potentially have extreme longevity. Saving a single additional life now might result in multiple additional people, each of which might experience an extreme number of QALYs. If we are sympathetic to small probabilities of huge returns, we must include this possibility in the utilitarian calculation. Thus we see that individual cryonic preservation will most likely not be the most effective use of marginal resources.

Fortunately, we are not limited to calculations made on an individual basis. The very existence of GiveWell indicates that the most effective thing to do may be to influence the behavior of others. Whose behavior might we care about and why? The first group are people who are working on basic research in brain preservation and scanning. Outside of cryonics focused organizations, little to no work is being done in this area. This is important as the results of this research potentially move the date at which humans experience extreme longevity forward. The expected gains from this can be quite large, as some percentage of the human populace will die each day. Moving extreme longevity forward by even a single day could thus result in a huge reduction of lost QALYs. While it is plausible that one could contribute to such research without contributing to cryonics, this is unlikely for the vast majority of people. If we are devoting our own resources towards convincing others, we care most about the marginal case, the person with significant resources who would not otherwise have contributed. The case in which one convinces a wealthy person to sign up for cryonics and thus becomes invested in advances in basic cryonic research is one in which the date for extreme human longevity could potentially be moved forward by years. One might argue that the same effort would be better spent convincing such people to contribute to longevity promoting technologies in general, but elderly people are less likely to be interested in far-off technological improvements unless they have some chance of gaining their benefits.

Convincing such people has several knock-on effects. A person who believes they will live longer has a lower time preference and thus will likely make other decisions that positively impact the future. It makes it somewhat more likely that other wealthy people in their peer group will also become interested in longevity. If longevity promoting technologies become accepted among high status people, that will channel even more interest and resources into the field that would not otherwise have been there. The potentially largest side effect of moving the date of extreme longevity forward is that it also reduces existential risk. We are at risk for extinction largely because we are so fragile. Tech that makes humans more robust will alleviate some of these risks partially or entirely. Experiencing this enhanced robustness earlier in time exposes us to less overall risk.

Lastly, why might an individual sign up for cryonics anyway rather than contribute to longevity promoting technology in spite of our previous analysis? They might do so if it allows them to help or remain more motivated about altruist goals. Convincing someone else to sign up for cryonics will be easier if one is signed up oneself and one is happy and motivated about this decision. Determining whether or not this is true is a highly individual decision. It is worth noting that signing up significantly decreases stress for some which, coupled with low cost, could easily cause it to pay for itself. On the other hand, a young person with a low probability of dying in the near future is probably better off overall contributing to longevity tech in general rather than signing up for cryonics. Organizations such as the Brain Preservation Foundation for instance are potentially effective targets in that they are underfunded relative to other longevity promoting organizations such as SENS. While analysis of which particular branches of research needs more inquiry, the potential gains are large in that most research in this area is so poorly funded that an individual donor can actually fund projects that would simply not have happened without them.

As cryonic research efforts continue and other low hanging-fruit in increasing QALYs are exhausted, cryonics could well reach a crossover point where preserving the individual does become the best possible use of resources. When that point is reached will be somewhat subjective based on the perceived probability of success in cryonic revivification. The perceived chance of success will increase due to the efforts of cryonics research in things like the successful revivification of a mouse for instance. As this happens much of the increased potential QALYs will be “free” in that cryonics will be able to replace existing expensive medical treatment with a lower cost alternative. This threshold will move over time. If euthanasia laws continue to improve, cryonics might be a cheaper alternative for some terminally ill people in the immediate future. But this calculation would have to be made when actually ill rather than funding cryonics through life insurance as is usually the case currently.

Cryonics seems like low-hanging fruit for humanity in the interim between now and when we achieve extreme longevity. Those trying to do the most good should investigate whether or not they personally can persuade additional resources to contribute towards cryonics research. While some may argue that all resources should go towards convincing people to donate towards more guaranteed QALYs now, they should recognize that self-interest is a powerful motivator for most people.

Nice!

What do you think of the argument that cryonics doesn't create many additional QALYs because by revival time we've probably hit Malthusian limits? So any revived cryonics patients would be traded off against other future lives?

This depends on your flavor of utilitarianism. Some are indifferent to trading between two equally good lives. I regard killing someone who currently has preferences and replacing them with a new person to be lost QALYs.

Depending on your flavor of utilitarianism that could be lost utility, but it's strange to call it lost QALYs. A QALY is just a length of time in years weighted by how good it is. Two people leading happy lives for 1000 years is the same number of QALYs as twenty people leading happy lives for 100. (Death does bring suffering to both the person dying and the people they leave behind, thus decreasing QALYs, but this is a relatively small fraction of the suffering someone has over the course of their life.)

karma sink: since voting is being handled by upvotes rather than a poll downvote this if you upvoted my essay.

Upvoting essays you think are good is close enough to the normal way things work that you don't need a karma sink.

[-][anonymous]7y 5

1) Why might a utilitarian seeking to do the most good consider contributing time and/or money towards cryonics (as opposed to other causes)?

This essay will concentrate on the possibility that cryonics becomes commonly accepted and used within a few decades.

I) What are the effects of common acceptance of cryonics?

1) Many people will be willing to do it

2) It will become much cheaper, even more so if brain-only conversations become widely accepted. Most people in the developed countries will be able to afford cryonis.

3) The technology will improve, and therefore become much more reliable.

4) Once cryonics has "taken off", it will need no more altruistic funding. It will pay for itself and free up money for other charitable causes

Therefore, common, or at least wide-spread acceptance of cryonics will save hundreds of millions of lives ( or carry them over the singularity threshhold).

II) Cryonics as an alternative to end-life intensive care (see this essay by Yvain for an elaboration of the conditions under which people delay death )

For people who are terminally ill, cryonics offers the solution to the dillemma < " I don't want to die" vs "I don't want to undergo a series of intensive- medical treatments" >.

Cryonics has the potential to prevent a lot of costs and suffering from end-life intensive medical care. (And free up money for other uses) Noone really wants to do end-life-intensive care. The Person subjected to it does not really want to undergo this torture, the relatives don't want their beloved to suffer, and burn lots of money in the process; the state does not want to blow billions and billions on it. It is just that they all feel they have no other choice. As soon as there is an ethically accepted alternative that means less pain and lower costs, there is a strong incentive to go for it.

Cryonics offers 3 major advantages over intensive care:

(1) No suffering

(2) A good chance of survival

(3) It saves lots of money, some of which will be spent on charitable causes (once the technology is sufficiently widespread)

Traditionally, cryonics propaganda concentrates on point (2). But for many people or institutions who might be won over for cryonics, points (1) and (3) are fare more crucial.

III) What are the chances that cryonics become widely accepted in large parts of the world?

I think the chances are pretty good, given sufficient funding and competent propaganda. There are strong interest in cryonics, both personal and institutional. They just need to be adressed properly. It is imperative that cryonics propaganda adresses problems that people and institutions actually feel they have. (I have mentioned some examples in chapter II) . Most people seem to have made their peace with the fact that someday in the future, they will die and go to some afterlife, so this is NOT an effective point for propaganda to adress.

Also, note that cryonics might stand better chances in countries that do not have such a strong religious right like the US.

IV) Time is essential

Every year, that cryonics are not commonly accepted, millions will die who could otherwise have been saved.

V) Leverage

Investing Time and Money into cryonics has a high leverage. Investments, especially in propaganda, will probably snowball.

VI) Comparison to other charitable causes

There is a major difference between "traditionall" charities ( like helping people in africa) and transhumanist charities: From the perspective of mainstream society, transhumanist causes are "low-hanging poop" . Society will not consider it because it is weird, no matter the benefit. For this reason, traditionall charities are overfunded in comparison with transhumanist ones. Case in point: According to givewell, the most efficient charities are sufficiently funded.

VII) Conclusion

Spreading cryonics has the potential to save hundreds of millions of lives, and presents alternatives to useless suffering from life-prolonging treatments. The chances of accomplishing this goal are at least decent, there is lots of leverage, and the most efficient traditionall charities are already sufficiently funded. Therefore, cryonics has a much higher expected return on investments than its more traditionall alternatives.

[-][anonymous]7y 3

just to avoid misunderstandings : "deleted" is my username. (I thought that was funny when I created it some time ago. Trivia fact: It seems new accounts cannot post for a day or so.)

Therefore, common, or at least wide-spread acceptance of cryonics will save hundreds of millions of lives

You're missing a step here where you would argue that cryonics is likely to be successful.

According to givewell, the most efficient charities are sufficiently funded.

Kind of. You can't cheaply keep people from dying by spreading the meme that oral rehydration therapy works for cholera anymore because that's no longer the limiting factor, though at one point spreading the idea was one of the most effective things to do. Similarly the "eliminate smallpox" intervention was far more efficient than anything we have now, and was fully funded a while ago. The bound of what's "efficient" keeps rising. This doesn't mean that a GiveWell would say an additional donation to one of their top charities does little good. We're still talking about very large benefits.

(This would also be easier to read as an essay if you expanded your outline into prose.)

A perfect utilitarian living a well-off life would devote themselves to altruism, finding the most effective charitable options and putting their full work towards them. In a utilitarianism for human beings, however, we have to reserve some of our time and money for ourselves, for things we will enjoy, that will revitalize us, and that will keep us going. Instead of considering every single choice in terms of whether it would make you happy enough to justify the expenditure when the opportunity cost is so high, it works well to set a budget. You should give yourself some amount of money to spend on yourself, in whatever way you like best.

Out of your self-spending budget you might buy housing, food, clothes, ice cream, or games. For each of these, you consider how much money you have available, weigh whether the purchase would be worth it, and decide to buy or not. This is the standard approach that is used all over, by utilitarians and not, and it generally works well.

Considering cryonics, which category should we put it in? Is signing up for cryonics spending money as effectively as possible to make the world better, or is it spending to make yourself happier? Could buying cryonics for yourself have enough altruistic benefit to be up there with the most cost-effective charities, or at least be in that range? To get some very rough numbers, GiveWell estimates that the AMF averts a death for each $2500 donated, or under $100 per additional year of life. This may not be the best altruistic option, but it sets a baseline cryonics would need to beat. Neuropreservation costs around $80k, so for it to be more cost effective than giving to the AMF you would need to think it's at least 10% likely give you 8,000 years of additional life. Those numbers are both very high, and keep in mind that we're comparing something very speculative to something much more heavily studied and we should expect less-studied interventions to look worse the more into the details we get.

Cryonics should, however, benefit from being more widely adopted. Both the freezing process and the long-term storage have many inefficiencies that come from being run at very small-scales. Cryonics organizations would be less likely to collapse over time if they were more central to our culture. If more people cared about freezing brains it would be higher status to research it and the technology would likely improve. This would bring down the costs and raise the probability of success. The question is, how much does your signing up do to improve these?

Perhaps if cryonics got up to 10% of the US population then the chances of success would be significantly higher. Linearity seems roughly right here, and the population is 300M, so your signup would bring us one 30 millionth of the way to 10%. This doesn't seem big enough to be a major factor. Similarly, while it's possible existential risks would be taken much more seriously if a substantial fraction of the population expected to live extremely long lives barring catastrophe, your signing up doesn't bring us very far in that direction. Funding for the Future of Humanity institute probably goes much farther.

Even if you do think the benefit of a marginal person signing up is large enough to compete with top charities, it's not clear that marginal person should be you. You should consider whether you could get these same benefits more efficiently through an organization that advocated people sign up for cryonics. With $80k to spend you should be able to get multiple signups, perhaps through running essay contests.

It's also useful to step back, however, and consider how valuable it is to preserve and revive people. If you're a total hedonistic utilitarian, caring about there being as many good lives over all time as possible, deaths averted isn't the real metric. Instead the question is how many lives will there be and how good are they? In a future society with the technology to revive cryonics patients there would still be some kind of resource limits bounding the number of people living or being emulated. Their higher technology would probably allow them to have as many people alive as they chose, within those bounds. If they decided to revive people, this would probably come in place of using those resources to create additional people or run more copies of existing people. This suggests cryonics doesn't actually make there be more people, just changes which people there are. If you're funding cryonics for the most intelligent, conscientious, or creative people then this might be somewhat useful, but the chances that any of us are the best candidate here are low.

(This applies less if you're more of a preference utilitarian, trying to have as many satisfied preferences as possible. Death is generally a major preference violation, and fewer longer lives via cryonics would mean many fewer deaths.)

Even if signing up for cryonics isn't the best thing you can do altruistically, though, that doesn't mean you can't do it. It just should be considered in the self-spending category, compared against things like a nicer house, tastier food, or more travel. In deciding whether to purchase cryonics for yourself the main consideration is how likely it is to work. If you think it has a 20% chance, all things considered, you could probably find $1000/year in your budget for it. At a 0.01% chance, however, it's pretty likely that there's something else which would give you more enjoyment for the money. The cost is high enough that if you're considering cryonics it's definitely worth it for you to put time into getting a good handle on how likely it is. Breaking cryonics down might be helpful here, to help overcome the planning fallacy.

You should sign up for cryonics if you think it is likely to work.

The question is, how much does your signing up do to improve these? Even then, I would expect you could get these same benefits more efficiently through an organization that advocated people sign up for cryonics.

This aspect needs to be given more focus, I think, as it shows how a person might possibly attempt to achieve cryonics-related goals more efficiently by abstaining from signing up and instead donating to a charity which advertises cryonics.

for it to be more cost effective than giving to the AMF you would need to think it's at least 10% likely give you 8,000 years of additional life.

This does not apply quite so straightforwardly to more general cryonics goals like achieving reversible vitrification and thus preventing death from a broad spectrum of diseases (including aging). If such a goal were achieved, it would dramatically increase the odds of cryonics being useful for the patient, which would increase adoption rates and also decrease use of heroic measures that prolong suffering.

Someone might hope to achieve such goals more effectively by donating to a research facility directly instead of signing up, but then again signing up does probably have a positive effect overall.

Also, the idea that there might be significant x-risk reduction in people anticipating extended life is another source of utility to factor in. Another notion to consider is that a utilitarian might join a cryonics organization for the chance to network with a group of relatively wealthy individuals, with the goal of attracting donations to proven causes like AMF.

If you're a total utilitarian, caring about there being as many good lives over all time as possible, deaths averted isn't a real metric. Instead the question is how many lives will there be and how good are they?

You lost me there. As I understand it, a total utilitarian cares about utility for all lives over all time, but that doesn't indicate that they don't disvalue death in and of itself. I could perhaps be a total utilitarian, but I think death is a negative event that isn't fully negated, utility-wise, by the creation of new people. So a world where more deaths occurred is one that I would prefer less than one where fewer deaths occurred, even if the same number of people exist in the end.

This aspect needs to be given more focus

Makes sense. I should like to expand that some.

more general cryonics goals like achieving reversible vitrification

Do people have the impression that signing up for cryonics makes reversible vitrification much more likely? My understanding was that the current vitrification process as used for cryonics is extremely toxic, but that's fine because the most likely revival process would be scanning. I would expect future brain preservation research to be focused on issues like getting the cryoprotectant through the whole brain as quickly as possible, test scans of cryogenically preserved brains to see what level of detail is being kept currently, and alternative methods like plastination. While reversible vitrification would clearly be valuable for both cryonics and medicine in general, I think if you want more research into it you would need to explicitly fund it and you're not going to get much of it as a spillover from signing up for the current version.

signing up does probably have a positive effect overall

It's not just "is the effect positive" but "is the effect in the same range as the current best options". If you think it's 1/100th as much good for your money as donating to the best charity then you could count 1% of the spending as altruistic and the rest as self-spending, but I think you need to get up to at least 1/10th before this bookkeeping becomes worth it.

the idea that there might be significant x-risk reduction in people anticipating extended life

This effect is roughly proportional to the number of people signed up, and you could probably convince multiple people to sign up with $80k worth of promotion. Even then, I'm not sure the x-risk reduction benefits here are large, especially compared with simply going around explaining the idea of x-risk.

a utilitarian might join a cryonics organization for the chance to network with a group of relatively wealthy individuals, with the goal of attracting donations to proven causes like AMF.

If you're going to spend your time networking with wealthy people trying to get them to donate to better causes, is the pool of cryonics subscribers atypically good? How much time do you get to spend with other cryonics enthusiasts? How open to suggestions are they about donations? I would be surprised if this worked well.

a total utilitarian cares about utility for all lives over all time

What kind of utility are you thinking about? I was writing for someone with a vaguely hedonistic view, where death is bad because of the effect it has on those that remain and because it removes the possibility for future joy on the part of the deceased (if you're not at malthusian limits). A preference utilitarian will see death differently, though, as a massive violation of preferences.

Thanks for the feedback; several things I want to go back and edit now. Is that ok, or are submissions one-time?

Feel free to make edits.

Do people have the impression that signing up for cryonics makes reversible vitrification much more likely?

I certainly assign it high probability (although not necessarily that it is the best way to accomplish this specific goal). The only scientists that I'm aware of pursuing the goal of whole organ vitrification are Greg Fahy and Brian Wowk of 21st Century Medicine, who are also cryonicists and whose main source of funding seems to be cryonics. Chana and Aschwin de Wolf are also cryonicists, and do neural cryobiology experiments -- a topic that is basically unheard of outside of cryonics.

My understanding was that the current vitrification process as used for cryonics is extremely toxic, but that's fine because the most likely revival process would be scanning.

I would describe it as somewhat toxic, but not on par with say fixatives. Effective toxicity is dependent on exposure time, so faster cooling is a factor there. In any case, vitrification is something we can expect incremental improvements to result in higher viability in larger organs over time.

I would expect future brain preservation research to be focused on issues like getting the cryoprotectant through the whole brain as quickly as possible, test scans of cryogenically preserved brains to see what level of detail is being kept currently, and alternative methods like plastination.

Yes, scanning is good, but viability assays are arguably better in some respects because something that doesn't harm viability is less likely to harm things that you can't detect with current scanning tech.

If you vitrify a small slice of brain tissue, the cryoprotectant can be washed out and the cells will resume functioning. I expect work that improves viability in larger organs and whole brains to involve the discovery of less toxic cryoprotectants and/or delivery of such past cell membranes and the blood brain barrier. Another approach is supercooling, which allows lower concentrations of cryoprotectant because it avoids ice formation below the freezing point.

While reversible vitrification would clearly be valuable for both cryonics and medicine in general, I think if you want more research into it you would need to explicitly fund it and you're not going to get much of it as a spillover from signing up for the current version.

That seems like a reasonable position, but it could be wrong due to network effects and so forth. I don't see any kind of public outreach designed to get people to donate money to focused cryonics research, rather I see private networking between wealthy cryonicists as being the major factor in the present environment. That's something that can be affected indirectly by an individual signing up (by influencing wealthy people in your social network to become interested), I think.

It's not just "is the effect positive" but "is the effect in the same range as the current best options". If you think it's 1/100th as much good for your money as donating to the best charity then you could count 1% of the spending as altruistic and the rest as self-spending, but I think you need to get up to at least 1/10th before this bookkeeping becomes worth it.

Perhaps, but note that the significance of x-risk overall is higher in a world where everyone lives a lot longer. So the percent to which this matters should be affected by your confidence in the soon discovery of life extension (even if you don't personally experience life extension).

What kind of utility are you thinking about? I was writing for someone with a vaguely hedonistic view, where death is bad because of the effect it has on those that remain and because it removes the possibility for future joy on the part of the deceased (if you're not at malthusian limits). A preference utilitarian will see death differently, though, as a massive violation of preferences.

I'm thinking that some kind of preference-based utility could still be considered as a total over time -- the more sentient beings whose preferences are met over time, the more utility there is.

I've made some edits. There's a more general point I want to make about how if you think there are lots of potential small benefits to cryonics you probably do better altruistically to pick the one you think is most important (xrisk reduction, medical benefits of vitrification tech, convincing wealthy people to donate to the AMF) and just work on that, but I'm not happy with my phrasing yet,

[-][anonymous]7y 0

Okay. Here is my interpretation of your essay in terms of the three questions (hopefully this will help clarify the gaps I am hoping to fill with the contest):

  • Why would a utilitarian contribute to cryonics? Because part of their budget as a realistic human being is for selfish needs, which includes things like cryonics and sportscars.
  • What would be an opimal way to conribute to cryonics? By signing up for it, if you happen to desire it, to satisfy selfish needs within your budget so that the rest of the budget can go to other things.
  • Would a utilitarian prefer to contribute to cryonics as a charity, or would they sign up for it directly? They would sign up for it directly, since the charitable portion of their budget should go towards other things.

I find these implicit answers... unsatisfying. They do sort of work for defusing those who would hate on cryonics because of the utilitarian costs, but I don't see them as the strongest possible presentation of its utilitarian advantages.

First of all, the chances of cryonics working for an individual who signs up for it are not necessarily the most relevant criteria when considering total utility of participation in the movement. To give some examples, it seems like it would be dwarfed by the utility of hastening the advent of reversible clinical vitrification (bringing an end to disease as we know it), or x-risk prevention due to anticipating distant future existence. Neither of those is reliant on it working for an individual who signs up today, and they aren't really the motivating factor for anyone signing up cryonics, rather they are more along the lines of spillover benefits.

Secondly, the argument from budgetary spending looks weaker to me compared to (say) the prospect of trading with wealthy cryonauts for increased funding towards proven causes like AMF. While cryonics includes many middle class people, it has a disproportionately high number of doctors and other comparatively wealthy people, who could potentially direct more resources to the causes preferred by the utilitarian if they saw it as advantageous to do so. This isn't necessarily a sign of cryonics utility, but it is something about cryonics that a utilitarian might reasonably be expected to care about (more than the selfish expenditure aspect, I would think) and look for ways to exploit in some game-theoretic manner. For a simple example of this kind of trade, see the intro to this fanfiction.

Thirdly, I find it plausible that (some) total utilitarians could care a lot more about deaths averted than about lives created. Death could be considered a dignificant source of total disutility whereas new lives created do not add as much utility as deaths cost. Some antinatalists cite the prospect of death as a source of extreme disutility that outweighs the utility of birth/life-creation. But the disutility of this prospect could be reduced by making sure the death occurs dramatically further in the future (or never, depending if immortality is possible). If something along these lines decribes your utility function, it should imply a very strong preference to advance the state of the art in cryonics, and/or cryonics adoption rates (unless you think another form of indefinite life extension is more likely to work sooner).

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Late. Oh well...hope deadline is not strict the judging hasn't begun yet.

Essay: Human Life Gains Value With Each Passing Year, Therefore Life Extension?

My intuition is that, given that extremely cheap interventions such as mosquito nets and deworming can significantly improve quality of life for a large number of strangers, putting lots of resources put into freezing a smaller number of strangers in hopes of radically extending their lifespan is not effective altruism and would likely not satisfy my preferences as much as other forms of altruism to strangers. This is an introspective essay which explores the basis of this intuition, and where it might be distorted by biases. I hope that other readers who may share my intuitions will find my thoughts beneficial in their own introspections.

Hypothetical scenario 1: Suppose that you had to choose between extending one doomed child's life for 100 years, or extending 100 doomed children's lives for 1 year. Which would you choose?

I expect most readers to choose to extend a single doomed child's life for 100 years. To my intuition, extending 100 children's lives for only 1 year seems much less valuable, since 1 year is insufficient time to grow, develop, and live a full life.

Hypothetical scenario 2: Suppose we could extend one individual's life for 1,000 years at the cost of being unable to extend 10 doomed children's lives for 100 years?

In some respects, these two scenarios are identical. The lengths of time are equal - in both cases, we are saving an equal number of total life-years. In both cases, we are choosing between many short lives and one long life. Yet my intuition finds the second scenario more challenging than the first scenario. My intuition is that it is wrong to deny 10 doomed children a normal lifespan in exchange for greatly prolonging a single individual's life-span to abnormally long lengths. Is this intuition a true expression of my values, or is this intuition about what my values are distorted by my biases?

The case that the objection is primarily due to human bias is presented here.

One of my objections is that life-extension seems to violate my Fairness preferences. Why should a wealthy individual use resources to radically extend life while so many other lives are cut short? However, as we saw before, I was willing to ignore fairness norms in Scenario 1. Perhaps my objection is better framed in terms of status-quo bias: I feel that humans are owed 100 years of life. Cutting this span short is a loss and a tragedy, while extending it further is a luxury. In fact, my notions of how many years are “owed” was entirely determined by the status quo of natural life expectancy.

A second intuition is that I consider 100 years to be a life "fully lived". Lifespans of 1 year or 10 years seem woefully incomplete to me. Because there is simply not enough time to do anything worthwhile with a 1 year lifespan, I am not willing to sacrifice a 100 year long life in exchange for 100 lives which last for one year in Scenario 1.

Why does this intuition not easily extend to Scenario 2? I seem to have a notion that years between 10 and 50 are more valuable than years between 100 and 1000. However, my intuition most likely arises because 10-50 represent a human’s cognitive prime. Life extension assumes extension of a human’s cognitive prime as well as their life span. Might not a single human life lived continuously for 1000 years be even richer and more fully lived than 10 human lives cut short after 100 years? Just as I prefer one human life lived continuously for 100 years to 100 human lives cut short after 1 year because the longer life is richer and more "fully lived", should I not prefer one human life lived for 1000 years to 10 human lives cut short after 100 years for the same reason? Once again, because the status quo is that humans do the types of learning and growing I consider valuable between the ages of 10-50, my intuition automatically assumed that things would remain that way when considering radical life extension.

In conclusion: Assuming a lack of cognitive decline, I already hold the intuition that a human life gains value with each passing year. The human becomes more intelligent, more experienced, and more complex. My status quo bias may play a role in preventing me from applying this intuition to radical life-extension.

0 - INTRODUCTION

There are three obvious hurdles to getting a person to sign up for cryonics:

  1. They must aware of it.
  2. They must afford it.
  3. They must want it.

We will examine each of these defeaters and determine which promises a more efficient return on intervention.

1 - AWARENESS

It is obviously the case that most people have no idea cryonics exists. They may be aware of the basic concept; science fiction has often times used freezing as a plot device enabling interstellar travel[1], and we have all heard the urban legend that Walt Disney had himself frozen after his death[2]. However, there is a very big difference between being vaguely aware of something that shows up in movies, or something which eccentric millionaires make ad-hoc arrangements for, and knowing that there is a real life company existing right now which is willing to take your money in exchange for providing a very concrete service to you. Could advertising cryonics therefore be an efficient way to increase the number of preserved humans?

Signs point to yes. In January 1994, Omni Magazine ran an advertisement for Alcor which was valued at $30,000 (47,243 in modern dollars[3]). This resulted in roughly 3,000 requests for information, which turned into 20 actual members as of 9 months after the event[4]. However, each request for information also cost an average of $6 at the time ($9.45 today). Taken all together, it seems like those 20 members cost a total of $48,000 ($75,588.81), or $2,400 ($3,779.44) per member gained. Presumably, similarly expensive advertisements in magazines or websites with a similar audience to Omni could be expected to have a similar effect today.

2 - AFFORDABILITY

Still, 20 members out of 3,000 inquiries is a rate of success of less than 1%. These people were pre-selected as science and science fiction enthusiasts, with enough curiosity to contact Alcor, and yet something stopped 2,980 of them from signing up.

Perhaps that something was money. How many people are there who want to sign up for cryonics but are unable to do so?

Surprisingly few. The "Society for Venturism" is a cryonics advocacy organization[5]. Among other things, the society is notable for organizing charity campaings on behalf of people who are dying of illness but cannot afford to pay for their preservation. A grand total of five such campaigns have been undertaken by the society (with the latest one, intended for Aaron Winborn, still ongoing).

Theoretical considerations support this empirical finding. Cryonic preservation at Alcor costs $80,000 for neuropreservation and $200,000 for full body, with surcharges of up to $25,000 for preservations in foreign countries and yearly membership fees of $620[6]. This is simply not expensive enough to account for the sheer rarity of cryonics patients (270 people currently preserved, with another 2,000 signed up for future preservation[7][8]). This also implies that offering to pay for the cryopreservation of people who want to sign up for cryonics will cost you $80,000 per preservation; considerably more expensive than the publicity method.

3 - ALLURE

Eigthy thousand to two hundred fifty five thousand is a cost on the order of buying a house, not private jet. Yet, like we saw above, only 20 people out of 3,000 which we knew were aware of cryonics actually cared to sign up. What is going on?

Once the curse of obscurity has been cured, the biggest problem with cryonics is that nobody wants it.

In his article "When You Can't Even Give it Away"[9], Mike Darwin recounts the time when the Institute for Advanced Biological Studies tried to give away a free suspension to Frederik Pohl, a science-fiction author who was aware of cryonics and had written about it favorably in the past. Pohl listened politely to their proposal, asked them for some time to think about it, and they never heard from him again despite repeated attempts to re-establish contact. Anybody who has tried to seriously talked about cryonics with their family can surely relate.

Why do people who are aware of cryonics reject it? There are many possible reasons. Perhaps they are aware of it but doubt the technical feasibility. Perhaps they consider the technology sound, but fear that political, social, or environmental problems render revival unlikely. Perhaps they think it will work, but they fear leaving their friends and family behind[10], or they are effective altruist who think that money would do more good elsewhere[11], or perhaps they actually dislikes their lives, and have no desire to extend the suffering beyond what is necessary[12]. Or perhaps all these reasons save the first one are simply rationalizations, and the real reason they don't like cryonics is because it "sounds strange and not-of-our-tribe and they don't see other people doing it"[13].

For reasons that are beyond the scope of this essay but which should be familiar to any long-term lesswrong reader, I believe this last explanation is likely to be the biggest factor. This suggests that in order to change people's minds about cryonics, our dollars should be spent bringing about social change, perhaps by copying the tactics of successful social movements in the past. Unfortunately, we cannot think of a good way to predict the relative efficiency of dollars spent in this fashion.

4 - CONCLUSION

Of the three defeaters, publicity seems like the best angle of attack. By making people aware of cryonics, you can get them to spend a lot of money for their own preservation; money which would otherwise have been directed to non-cryonics purposes.

5 - REFERENCES

[1]http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HumanPopsicle
[2]http://www.snopes.com/disney/info/wd-ice.htm
[3]http://www.dollartimes.com/calculators/inflation.htm
[4]http://www.alcor.org/Library/html/sellingcryonics.html
[5]http://www.venturist.info/what-we-do.html
[6]http://www.alcor.org/BecomeMember/scheduleA.html
[7]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cryonics
[8]http://www.wired.com/rawfile/2012/10/murray-ballard-cyronics/
[9]http://www.alcor.org/cryonics/cryonics8301.txt
[10]http://lesswrong.com/lw/1lf/open\_thread\_january\_2010/1e4b?context=2#comments
[11]http://lesswrong.com/lw/6vq/on\_the\_unpopularity\_of\_cryonics\_life\_sucks\_bu\t_at/4ks7
[12]http://chronopause.com/chronopause.com/index.php/2011/07/27/would-you-like-another-plate-of-this/
[13]http://lesswrong.com/lw/6vq/on\_the\_unpopularity\_of\_cryonics\_life\_sucks\_but\_at/4kzu

Would anyone like more time to complete an essay?

I am working on one under the impression that the deadline was tomorrow? (Nov 13th at 7:55pm)

That's correct. However I will move the deadline out by a few days if anyone asks. If that happens, you will be able to use the time to edit and polish your submission further if you like.

I'd like some time, please.

Does Sunday 11/17 at 8pm PST sound good?

Yes, thank you very much!

Okay, that is the new deadline. (Updated.)

Some meta notes:

  • This is an essay contest because my previous attempt (in 2011) was for a video contest, and nobody entered. (The bitcoins were later stolen from the online wallet that was hosting them and half returned. The remaining 5.5 coins are in a more secure wallet valued at around $2000, which I plan to use for cryonics charity later, no sooner than next April.)
  • I consider essays to be Lesswrong's strong point. Further, utilitarians (of various kinds) and cryonicists (of various kinds) are common here as are ideas for how the two can/should overlap. I want to see those ideas.
  • If anyone wins and does not want a bitcoin, I would be happy to paypal them the equivalent value, although I consider that a bit less convenient.
  • There have been essay contests here in the past, at least one of which has resulted in good outcomes. I don't know if the culture has changed too much since then or if the value of a whole bitcoin is so high it will drive people crazy, but I am assuming not.

I don't think that this contest will accomplish what you (lsparrish) want it to accomplish, and assign a significant probability to it being of net negative value. This seems likely for the following reasons:

  • I think that the reward is a monetary incentive for people to denigrate others contributions in favor of their own (as a tactic).
  • I think that the reward will cause people to become emotionally invested in their own proposed solutions.
  • More broadly, I think that the reward may put contestants in a 'winning' mindset and submit/argue with this in mind, and as a result fail to optimize for effective information transfer.

I also think that the implementation details of the contest could be improved iff you still plan to hold it (which I currently disapprove of):

  • I think that you have failed to sufficiently specify the value set for which contestants are to optimize. Total utilitarianism? Average utilitarianism? It is reasonable to leave this open, but contestants may fail to specify this in their essays.
  • I would not know what to do with a Bitcoin if I were awarded one, and I believe that you underestimate the fraction of the LW readership for which this is true.

Tapping out.

I would not know what to do with a Bitcoin if I were awarded one

Really? I suspect you know exactly what you would do - google. As lsparrish said, a bitcoin is worth a considerable amount in USD, and it's really not that difficult to find out how to exchange one for USD, not if you're relatively internet/Google-savvy.

(My apologies for responding to a post that was tapping out, but I suspect there is a considerable number of people like yourself who are overestimating exactly how difficult it is to use bitcoins)

[-][anonymous]7y 0

In fairness, it is easy to get flustered when presented with a technical topic with lots of money at stake. (Wait, which topic am I describing again?)

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[-][anonymous]7y 0

I don't think that this contest will accomplish what you (lsparrish) want it to accomplish, and assign a significant probability to it being of net negative value. This seems likely for the following reasons:

  • I think that the reward is a monetary incentive for people to denigrate others contributions in favor of their own (as a tactic).
  • I think that the reward will cause people to become emotionally invested in their own proposed solutions.
  • More broadly, I think that the reward may put contestants in a 'winning' mindset and submit/argue with this in mind, and as a result fail to optimize for effective information transfer.

I also think that the implementation details of the contest could be improved iff you still plan to hold it (which I currently disapprove of):

  • I think that you have failed to sufficiently specify the value set for which contestants are to optimize. Total utilitarianism? Average utilitarianism? It is reasonable to leave this open, but contestants may fail to specify this in their essays.
  • I would not know what to do with a Bitcoin if I were awarded one, and I believe that you underestimate the fraction of the LW readership for which this is true.

Tapping out.

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[-][anonymous]7y 0

Meta

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