Why are some EAs into cryonics?

by BrianTan4 min read17th Mar 20212 comments

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Some people in the EA community are interested in cryonics, and a few have signed up for it themselves. At some point, others in the EA community will encounter one or more of these people interested in cryonics.

Maybe you’ll see a post about cryonics on LessWrong, or maybe someone references cryonics in an EA Facebook group. And if that’s the first time you hear or read about cryonics actually being taken seriously, alarm bells might be going off in your head. You might think, “Why do some of the most thoughtful, rational, and altruistic people have an interest in cryonics? Isn’t cryonics just for rich people afraid of death, who are willing to spend money on something so speculative?”

Someone who encounters one of those people might get a misleading impression of the EA community — both because cryonics is speculative (whether it’s “effective” is impossible to tell for now), and because it isn’t obviously altruistic. I want to clear up this confusion by explaining how I see the connection between the EA community and cryonics.

First off, I empathize with those who are skeptical about cryonics. I was in similar surprise when I first met another EA who was into cryonics. But if you listen to someone explain the science and arguments for cryonics well, or read up enough about the topic, you can understand more about why some EAs are into cryonics.

First, a caveat

As far as I can tell, only a small minority of people in the EA community think or care much about cryonics. I don’t mean to speak for them, or for anyone else in EA — these are my impressions from my own experience. And I think it would be very rare to find someone who believes that signing up for cryonics or donating to a cryonics non-profit is as cost-effective as other ways of saving or improving lives, such as donating to GiveWell’s top charities for helping current people or working on existential risk reduction for the longer term future.

EA community members who are into cryonics generally think of it as coming from their 'personal' budget. After all, you shouldn't feel obligated to spend all your spare money/time on EA work. It’s fine to spend money on your personal health, or causes that are close to your heart; people who spend money on cryonics generally do so for one of these reasons. 

Why some EAs are into cryonics

People in the community who care about or invest in cryonics tend to see it as a gamble so that they and others would be able to live again in the future, whether that’s 50 or 500 years from now. 

These EAs usually believe that there’s an x% chance they could save themselves from permanent death through cryopreservation at a current cost of between ~$30,000 to $200,000, through either preserving just their brain or their whole body after they die. This is in the hope or expectation that in the future, technology would have made it possible to repair the damage done to their body, and that they could be revived again. People vary though on how good they think the chances of successful revival are.

Likelihood to assign to success of cryopreservation

I think many EAs are unsure on what’s a reasonable probability to assign to the likelihood that someone cryopreserved now will be able to be revived. I’ve seen someone into cryonics say that the probability is 0.1%, and Robin Hanson usually gives it a 5% or less chance. Nevertheless, a lot of EAs would probably assign a large amount of value to being able to live again in the future, so based on the expected value calculation, I would understand why some EAs sign up for cryonics.

Other altruistic reasons to support cryonics

One altruistic reason for why someone might advocate for, donate to, or sign up for cryonics is if people know that they and their loved ones can live in the future again, it might help people care more about the long-term future, and make sure that humanity doesn’t render itself extinct or to be in a dystopia. Secondly, the more people who sign up for cryonics, the cheaper it could become, and it could become a more cost-effective way of saving lives. Many experimental technologies became widely available thanks to help from early adopters.

Helpful links on cryonics

If you are interested to learn more about cryonics, here are some links I found helpful:

  1. This short VICE Asia video features people arguing for and against the potential efficacy of cryonics.
  2. WaitButWhy’s blog post on “Why Cryonics Makes Sense” is an entertaining and well-sourced introduction to the topic (written from a “pro” perspective).

Other resources on Cryonics that I could find via the EA Forum or LessWrong:

  1. Is there a hedonistic utilitarian case for Cryonics? (Discuss)
  2. Effective Altruism and Cryonics, Contest Results - these were 5 LessWrong comments in 2013 that explore cryonics as a prospective target for effective altruism.
  3. Big List of Cause Candidates (which includes cryonics in the list)
  4. Cryonics as Charity
  5. Current cryonics impressions
  6. Cryonics tag on LessWrong
  7. How much harder is it to revive a neuro-only cryonics patient?

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I found Jeff Kaufman's comment from the 2013 compilation persuasive:

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.

I'm surprised that you find that persuasive. 

It suggests that humans are fungible: if some people die, it's no matter, because more can simply be created. This strongly goes against my intuition. 

I also think that human fungibility is flawed from a hedonistic quality of life perspective. Much, perhaps most, of human angst is due to involuntary death. There has been a lot of philosophic work on this. One famous book is Ernest Becker's: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Denial_of_Death/. 

Involuntary death is one of the great harms of life. Decreasing the probability and inevitability of involuntary death seems to have the potential to dramatically improve the quality of human lives. 

It is also not clear that future civilizations will want to create as many people as they can. It is quite plausible that the future civilizations will be reticent to do this. For one, those people have not consented to be born and the quality of their lives ay still be unpredictable. Whereas people who have opted for cryonics/biostasis are consenting to live longer lives.