You Only Live Twice

by Eliezer Yudkowsky5 min read12th Dec 2008179 comments



"It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead.  There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead."
        -- The Princess Bride

My co-blogger Robin and I may disagree on how fast an AI can improve itself, but we agree on an issue that seems much simpler to us than that:  At the point where the current legal and medical system gives up on a patient, they aren't really dead.

Robin has already said much of what needs saying, but a few more points:

Ben Best's Cryonics FAQ, Alcor's FAQ, Alcor FAQ for scientists, Scientists' Open Letter on Cryonics

• I know more people who are planning to sign up for cryonics Real Soon Now than people who have actually signed up.  I expect that more people have died while cryocrastinating than have actually been cryopreserved.  If you've already decided this is a good idea, but you "haven't gotten around to it", sign up for cryonics NOW.  I mean RIGHT NOW.  Go to the website of Alcor or the Cryonics Institute and follow the instructions.

• Cryonics is usually funded through life insurance.  The following conversation from an Overcoming Bias meetup is worth quoting:

Him:  I've been thinking about signing up for cryonics when I've got enough money.

Me:  Um... it doesn't take all that much money.

Him:  It doesn't?

Me:  Alcor is the high-priced high-quality organization, which is something like $500-$1000 in annual fees for the organization, I'm not sure how much.  I'm young, so I'm signed up with the Cryonics Institute, which is $120/year for the membership.  I pay $180/year for more insurance than I need - it'd be enough for Alcor too.

Him:  That's ridiculous.

Me:  Yes.

Him:  No, really, that's ridiculous.  If that's true then my decision isn't just determined, it's overdetermined.

Me:  Yes.  And there's around a thousand people worldwide [actually 1400] who are signed up for cryonics.  Figure that at most a quarter of those did it for systematically rational reasons.  That's a high upper bound on the number of people on Earth who can reliably reach the right conclusion on massively overdetermined issues.

• Cryonics is not marketed well - or at all, really.  There's no salespeople who get commissions.  There is no one to hold your hand through signing up, so you're going to have to get the papers signed and notarized yourself.  The closest thing out there might be Rudi Hoffman, who sells life insurance with cryonics-friendly insurance providers (I went through him).

• If you want to securely erase a hard drive, it's not as easy as writing it over with zeroes.  Sure, an "erased" hard drive like this won't boot up your computer if you just plug it in again.  But if the drive falls into the hands of a specialist with a scanning tunneling microscope, they can tell the difference between "this was a 0, overwritten by a 0" and "this was a 1, overwritten by a 0".

There are programs advertised to "securely erase" hard drives using many overwrites of 0s, 1s, and random data.  But if you want to keep the secret on your hard drive secure against all possible future technologies that might ever be developed, then cover it with thermite and set it on fire.  It's the only way to be sure.

Pumping someone full of cryoprotectant and gradually lowering their temperature until they can be stored in liquid nitrogen is not a secure way to erase a person.

See also the information-theoretic criterion of death.

• You don't have to buy what's usually called the "patternist" philosophy of identity, to sign up for cryonics.  After reading all the information off the brain, you could put the "same atoms" back into their old places.

• "Same atoms" is in scare quotes because our current physics prohibits particles from possessing individual identities.  It's a much stronger statement than "we can't tell the particles apart with current measurements" and has to do with the notion of configuration spaces in quantum mechanics.  This is a standard idea in QM, not an unusual woo-woo one - see this sequence on Overcoming Bias for a gentle introduction.  Although patternism is not necessary to the cryonics thesis, we happen to live in a universe where "the same atoms" is physical nonsense.

There's a number of intuitions we have in our brains for processing a world of distinct physical objects, built in from a very young age.  These intuitions, which may say things like "If an object disappears, and then comes back, it isn't the same object", are tuned to our macroscopic world and generally don't match up well with fundamental physics.  Your identity is not like a little billiard ball that follows you around - there aren't actually any billiard balls down there.

Separately and convergently, more abstract reasoning strongly suggests that "identity" should not be epiphenomenal; that is, you should not be able to change someone's identity without changing any observable fact about them.

If you go through the aforementioned Overcoming Bias sequence, you should actually be able to see intuitively that successful cryonics preserves anything about you that is preserved by going to sleep at night and waking up the next morning.

• Cryonics, to me, makes two statements.

The first statement is about systematically valuing human life.  It's bad when a pretty young white girl goes missing somewhere in America.  But when 800,000 Africans get murdered in Rwanda, that gets 1/134 the media coverage of the Michael Jackson trial.  It's sad, to be sure, but no cause for emotional alarm.  When brown people die, that's all part of the plan - as a smiling man once said.

Cryonicists are people who've decided that their deaths, and the deaths of their friends and family and the rest of the human species, are not part of the plan.

I've met one or two Randian-type "selfish" cryonicists, but they aren't a majority.  Most people who sign up for cryonics wish that everyone would sign up for cryonics.

The second statement is that you have at least a little hope in the future.  Not faith, not blind hope, not irrational hope - just, any hope at all.

I was once at a table with Ralph Merkle, talking about how to market cryonics if anyone ever gets around to marketing it, and Ralph suggested a group of people in a restaurant, having a party; and the camera pulls back, and moves outside the window, and the restaurant is on the Moon.  Tagline:  "Wouldn't you want to be there?"

If you look back at, say, the Middle Ages, things were worse then.  I'd rather live here then there.  I have hope that humanity will move forward further, and that's something that I want to see.

And I hope that the idea that people are disposable, and that their deaths are part of the plan, is something that fades out of the Future.

Once upon a time, infant deaths were part of the plan, and now they're not.  Once upon a time, slavery was part of the plan, and now it's not.  Once upon a time, dying at thirty was part of the plan, and now it's not.  That's a psychological shift, not just an increase in living standards.  Our era doesn't value human life with perfect consistency - but the value of human life is higher than it once was.

We have a concept of what a medieval peasant should have had, the dignity with which they should have been treated, that is higher than what they would have thought to ask for themselves.

If no one in the future cares enough to save people who can be saved... well.  In cryonics there is an element of taking responsibility for the Future.  You may be around to reap what your era has sown.  It is not just my hope that the Future be a better place; it is my responsibility.  If I thought that we were on track to a Future where no one cares about human life, and lives that could easily be saved are just thrown away - then I would try to change that.  Not everything worth doing is easy.

Not signing up for cryonics - what does that say?  That you've lost hope in the future.  That you've lost your will to live.  That you've stopped believing that human life, and your own life, is something of value.

This can be a painful world we live in, and the media is always telling us how much worse it will get.  If you spend enough time not looking forward to the next day, it damages you, after a while.  You lose your ability to hope.  Try telling someone already grown old to sign up for cryonics, and they'll tell you that they don't want to be old forever - that they're tired.  If you try to explain to someone already grown old, that the nanotechnology to revive a cryonics patient is sufficiently advanced that reversing aging is almost trivial by comparison... then it's not something they can imagine on an emotional level, no matter what they believe or don't believe about future technology.  They can't imagine not being tired.  I think that's true of a lot of people in this world.  If you've been hurt enough, you can no longer imagine healing.

But things really were a lot worse in the Middle Ages.  And they really are a lot better now.  Maybe humanity isn't doomed.  The Future could be something that's worth seeing, worth living in.  And it may have a concept of sentient dignity that values your life more than you dare to value yourself.

On behalf of the Future, then - please ask for a little more for yourself.  More than death.  It really... isn't being selfish.  I want you to live.  I think that the Future will want you to live.  That if you let yourself die, people who aren't even born yet will be sad for the irreplaceable thing that was lost.

So please, live.

My brother didn't.  My grandparents won't.  But everything we can hold back from the Reaper, even a single life, is precious.

If other people want you to live, then it's not just you doing something selfish and unforgivable, right?

So I'm saying it to you.

I want you to live.