Cryonics As Charity

Products and services (i.e., “goods”) can be divided into two types: those that on net suffer from congestion effects, and those that instead benefit from scale effects. For congestion goods, the more that one person consumes of the good, the harder it gets for others to consume it. For scale goods, in contrast, the more that some consume, the easier it gets for others to consume.

Creating a new person with a demand for some good, or raising an existing person’s demand for that good, has very different effects on others, depending on whether it is a congestion or scale good. Adding new demand for congestion goods hurts others, while adding new demand for scale goods helps others.

For example, an increase in your demand for limited beachfront property, or for food prepared personally by today’s most famous chef, hurts others who also demand those goods. Your increased demand for certain computer chips could also hurt others, if such chips required a special metal in limited supply.

Chips, however, are usually net scale goods: bigger chip plants make chips cheaper, and larger demand justifies higher fixed costs such as in chip design, and induces faster innovation in chip design, manufacture, use, etc. Larger communities of users for a good can also benefit from network externalities, such as when a phone or IM system becomes more valuable because more other folks can be contacted via them. Note, however, that apparent “network” gains via more folks following a new fashion are usually negated by the harm to those following older fashions.

Tyler recently said the world would be better if tech nerds donated to charity instead of buying cryonics (he didn’t explain why this isn’t just as true for most consumption.) But while many dislike cryonics because they see it as especially selfish, in fact cryonics has such huge scale effects that buying cryonics seems to me a pretty good charity in its own right. Consider:

  1. The main risk for cryonics failure, and the reason I usually only give it a >5% chance of success, is social — it will be hard for small disliked marginal organizations with only thousands of scattered customers to survive for a century or two. With millions or more supporting customers, however, such survival would be far more likely. Reputation, regulation, and reinsurance would more effectively ensure that cryo orgs kept their commitments.
  2. Cryonics cost is now dominated by fixed costs, such has to maintain skilled teams ready to do procedures. With millions of customers, the cost to freeze could fall to a few thousand dollars.
  3. The marginal cost to store another frozen person in liquid nitrogen is dominated by the cost of liquid nitrogen, which goes as the surface area of the containers used. Larger containers have a smaller surface area relative to enclosed volume, and so cost less per person.
  4. Millions of customers would induce a better adapted regulatory treatment, making it legally easier to freeze folks, and especially for frozen folks to save and grow assets to use decades later for revival and reintegration into society. With enough customers who cared enough, interest rates could even fall.
  5. Another major cryonics risk is that a rich powerful future able to revive frozen folks may never arrive. But the more folks hope to use cryonics to live in such a future, the more folks will care more about that future and try harder to make sure it happens.  Which will of course could greatly benefit innumerable future generations.
  6. One possible cryonics congestion effect is that the future may have a limited capacity to absorb workers not trained in then-current techniques. But this effect seems minor relative to the others here; enough savings can pay for retraining.
  7. New fashionable goods, that gain users status, hurt others by making them look less fashionable.  Cryonics is not only not in fashion, it tends to make users worse.  This effect adds to its status as a charity.

OK, even if consuming cryonics helps others, could it really help as much as direct charity donations? Well it might be hard to compete with cash directly handed to those most in need, but remember that most real charities suffer great inefficiencies and waste from administration costs, agency failures, and the inattention of donors.

If cryonics does ever succeed, the failure of humanity to actually use it much until many decades after it was possible will seem like one of humanities greatest failures, and those the who opposed it as some of histories greatest villains.

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  • David C

    “the reason I usually only give it a >5% chance of success”


  • Roko

    I agree wholeheartedly with this post.

    I wonder how much of an extra incentive for rational political decisionmaking mass cryo would be.

    If the whole nation had cryo contracts, would we spend more time making sensible long-term policies? Or would people not think about it in that way?

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  • Aron

    Would be a joy to see the status effects kick in with mass adoption. Cryonics will not be about living forever*.

    Who wants the steel tank when the gold tank features a rotating current that gently massages the scalp and forehead and includes an Aloe infusion assuring that the skin also survives your time-voyage? And don’t you want your head to intermingle with the heads of other VIPs or family who may have died in different areas of the world (select our dynamic re-positioning package)? Also, do not hesitate to sign up for our ‘awakening ringtone’ option that assures that the first sensory input you will receive in the future will be your favorite selected musical track!**

    * Forever defined as a few decades.

    ** Certain restrictions apply. Music licensing far in the future may be subject to change. Some research indicates tinnitus might be the default, but this research is subject to change.

    Coming soon: Don’t forget to ask about our option to install your head facing Mecca.

    • Luke

      I feel like 100 IQ points smarter after reading your comment, Aron. Thank you very much. I am suddenly brimming with insights into cryonics that I had never thought of before. I also appreciate how respectful and also well-researched this idea of yours was.

  • candy

    Yeah, but it’s “charity” to other inherently selfish, wishful thinking popsickle people! Boo, hiss.

    • Luke

      Yeah, and also AIDS victims.

  • Whatever your arguments for cryonics helping people, I doubt you will convince many that it is legitimately charity, or even not terribly selfish. Charity has to be a sacrifice. It doesn’t apparently matter much if it helps other people, as long as you maintain no reason to think otherwise. It just has to cost you something. Doing what you wanted to do anyway and saying it also helps lots of people will just mark you as manipulative as well as selfish.

    • Luke

      Cryophobia is pure evil. It makes people choose death instead of cryonics. It makes cryonics more of a struggle for those who are not wealthy; it deprives the poor of the scaling effects that would make it affordable. It deprives those who are courageous enough to try it of their dignity and attacks their character unjustly and without evidence. It splits up families. It diminishes the chance of the technology working to 5% of its potential. It is unfair to AIDS and cancer victims who must die an early death *permanently* because of this. It misrepresents facts, repeatedly, while masquarading as skepticism. It has no shame, no decency, and no honor.

      • NullSet

        What if instead of signing up for cryonics, one paid for the cryonics of an interested AIDS or cancer victim? This has the same effect of driving down the price of cryonics for future generations, and is an indisputable act of charity.

      • Well said.

      • Aron

        Nope. Negative framing is useless.

      • Luke

        Negative framing is useful for letting arrogant phobes see themselves in a mirror. It is not a substitute for useful argument, but can be an effective counter to useless ones.

      • Cryonics for AIDS patients seems like an *awful* way to donate. Regardless of whether charitable donations are for altruistic or signalling purposes, people should pick effective charities. Dud charities are a bane on humanity – since they channel resources away from the greater good. This post tries to explain why cryonics is better than some dud charities – but there seems to be no case that cryonics is a worthy cause compared to things of genuine importance. I would encourage people to step back from the cryonics advocacy here – and get things in perspective.

    • I guess a key question is: does “selfish” mean not sacrificing, or not helpful?

    • You are a terrible self-promoter. You failed to link to your blog post making that point.

    • PJF

      Note we don’t even require charity to be a sacrifice in any deep sense so long as it is agreed that the intentions are pure (e.g. “bake sales” or equivalent).

    • Roko

      This seems to be an accurate assessment of how many people will react.

      However, to get from 10^3 cryopatients to 10^4 and then 10^5, you don’t have to convince the average person. You just have to convince people who are one increment of rationality away from already signing up.

    • Dave

      It is selfish.To avoid this advocates should first freeze Grandma,then Mom and Dad ,then if there were enough money left over, the wife, any kids who predeceased you,then you. A family plan would be more efficient and help meet Robin’s goal.

      • Luke

        This is an excellent strategy. Suppose you had an employment benefit which allowed you to pay for the cryopreservation of one other person per year. What would that signal about your employer?

      • Roko

        But in many cases (including mine) no-one else wants to be frozen, even if I pay, citing “selfishness” as the reason.


  • The “female Kryptonite” aspects of cryonics have me worried about its sustainability as a new social movement. I draw an analogy to 19th Century Mormonism as a new social movement in a hostile environment. Joseph Smith’s sect somehow beat the odds by attracting a critical mass of female early adopters, who not only defied their society’s taboos against leaving their families’ mainstream churches to join a strange new cult, but also defied their society’s mores and laws by entering into “plural marriages” with Mormon men, bearing their children and turning the new church into a demographic success.

    In other words, cryonics has yet to find someone or something analogous to Joseph Smith to bring in the women willing to challenge their society’s current beliefs, especially ones interested in forming cryonics-oriented marriages and families.

    • Roko

      The problem is, how manipulative would you have to get to attract those women? They’re not going to come through sane, rational persuasion.

      • mjgeddes

        Each man must be cocky (Dom) and demand absolute obedience from their partners or dump them. Men should be the Doms, Woman should be the Disciples, pure and loyal. They must accept Cryonics or get thrown out of the house!

  • Robert Koslover

    It seems to me that the analogy with other areas of technology as benefiting from scale effects is valid. And, to echo some of the other commenters above, I don’t think this specifically makes spending money on cryonics a “charitable” act, unless you would also assert that whenever I buy a new computer, I am likewise committing a charitable act. Indeed, I feel no need to defend my personal purchasing decisions (whether for a computer or for a cryonics service) as charitable.

    • Luke

      I think this may have more to do with the fact that your decision to purchase a computer is seldom treated as the antithesis of charity, than because such purchases are not charitable.

      Actually it is a good point that the purchasing of goods that are subject to congestion rather than scaling effects, when substitution can reasonably be made, is relatively uncharitable. (For example, fossil fuels are ultimately less scalable than solar or wind power due to supply limitations and pollution absorption capacity limitations on the part of the ecosphere.)

  • Your feeling of need to defend your acts has little to do with whether they are actually helpful to others.

  • Re: “Another major cryonics risk is that a rich powerful future able to revive frozen folks may never arrive. But the more folks hope to use cryonics to live in such a future, the more folks will care more about that future and try harder to make sure it happens.”

    Today, many people care about the future after they are gone – because their relatives and offspring will persist into it. This is why they bother with writing wills.

    The argument that cryonics makes people care more about the future carries little weight – since it apparently neglects such effects – whereas in fact, resources devoted to liquid nitrogen are frequently resources subtracted from offspring.

    • Luke

      Liquid nitrogen costs are negligible compared to graveyard costs, particularly on a large scale. So that is a red herring.

      People do care about the future, often regardless of whether their relatives persist into it. That does not mean they care in the same manner as if they were actually anticipating experiencing it.

    • Roko

      LN2 is extremely cheap.

    • Roko

      In fact, it is 50 cents per Gallon in Bulk. That’s cheaper than most brands of bottled water for god’s sake.

    • The bulk of the costs that I mentioned stem from keeping it cold and keeping it safe – and headstones are far from the cheapest option – compare with cremation. Cryonics makes *some* people care more about the futuure – those with no relatives, for example. For many others the net effect would be negative – since they would be trading in the welfare of descendants whom they care about for a long shot.

      • Luke

        Nobody accuses people who purchase headstones of depriving future generations of resources or not caring about the future. It simply isn’t that big of a deal. It isn’t enough money to worth bothering about. Why should cryonics be any different?

      • Provided the frozen dead are relatively few in number, the resources they lock-up – and their gradual waste – are indeed not a huge deal for the rest of society. The economic costs of such an extravagent tombstone are most concentrated among their loved ones though – sso they may be the ones who care enough to bring up the issue.

      • Luke

        Tombstones are a congestion good. Cryonics is a scale good. There is no comparison. On a large scale cryonics is cheaper as a whole than buying everyone tombstones, because it gets progressively cheaper whereas tombstones run out of supply. You’re totally barking up the wrong tree if you think killing dead people extra dead is saving money, even if that did make it morally ok in some way, which it doesn’t.

      • Cryonic suspension currently runs at around 40-80,000 USD. Cryonics looks as though it is going to remain a very expensive option – relative to cremation – or, for that matter tombstones.

  • Re: “OK, even if consuming cryonics helps others, could it really help as much as direct charity donations? Well it might be hard to compete with cash directly handed to those most in need, but remember that most real charities suffer great inefficiencies and waste from administration costs, agency failures, and the inattention of donors.”

    So: give well – *if* you *really* want to help others.

    Being better than a bad charity is no great feat.

    Re: “if cryonics does ever succeed, the failure of humanity to actually use it much until many decades after it was possible will seem like one of humanities greatest failures, and those the who opposed it as some of histories greatest villains.”

    Pah! We will probably lament the loss of people like Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana less when we can create dozens of clones of them from hairbrush residues.

    • Luke

      That we will be sad to lose beautiful celebrities is not the argument. We lament the loss of populations wiped out by (for example) plagues because we are moral and relate to them as individuals, and plagues are a generally preventable cause of death. The loss of the billions currently living due to a preventable cause will be no less of a concern to future generations.

      • Cryonics is typically used by rich geeks – who are hoping that the future might still be interested in them.

        Not freezing youself – and instead giving your resources to your offspring – is a perfectly sensible economic decision for many. I’m sure future generations will respect the wisdom of those whose who choose that option.

  • mel

    To make it seem charitable we would need to ‘preserve’ for the future that which is scarce now… certainly not humans, especially not celebrities or male tech geeks (female techy geeks on the other hand?)

    What about cryonic preservation of endangered species vital for sustaining Earth’s ecosystems, or people/cultures whose existence is threatened to vanish into extinction?

    Who decides on the worth of who should be frozen and maintained for a future which may never come? We make that choice- fine.

    My concern, is what if my body is in stasis at CryogenLife and the company goes bankrupt? Or some trainee stumbles over a cord accidentally leading to thawing? A power outage?

  • Luke

    You are safe against power outage because LN2 does not boil away for several days. In a larger container it could take weeks or years depending on the scale. The company has a mandate to use safe investments to keep their assets growing rather than shrinking. Unless that changes or some kind of economic collapse happens, the company is not going to go bankrupt. Even then, there are possible solutions (which are more likely to be implemented in a cryo-valuing culture) such as using charitable donations for another nonprofit organization to continue support.

    Preserving endangered species makes a lot of sense to me. In particular, there is no excuse not to bank their DNA, and it seems this is already being done. But individual human lives are each unique, and can be preserved on that basis alone. There are plenty of resources to preserve everyone since, as Robin has mentioned, it scales very well.

    Worst-case we might be competing for jobs on the other end. But honestly, the assumption that everyone will always need a job to survive does not match the concept of a well-developed civilization. If they can bring us back, presumably that indicates they have pretty darned decent nanotech and biotech. In that case, manufacture of things essential to survive in comfort should be cheaper in terms of labor. Jobs will probably evolve into something done for the sake of social status.

  • John Richardson

    Robin, your arguments about scale effects on keeping heads frozen are interesting, they seem right. But what about re-entry into society in the future? Is that a scale good or a congestion good?

    If I am a citizen in the future, and I am told that we now have the ability to revive the rich, geeky, dead — well, the more of them there are the less I want them around. Actual poor live Mexicans seem much more deserving to me, and our society doesn’t seem to want to sacrifice much to accomodate them.

    Also, I think you have changed your probability equation a lot. When I last read your probability tree (before Less Wrong and OB split), you had I think 8 items and gave them all the same chance of success (70% I think). Now you say the organizational problem is the primary sticking point.

    What are all the numbers in your tree now? Why did they change? And if they are an actually attempt to forecast, rather than a post-hoc justification, why does the result still anchor on 5%? And is it significant that 5% is the totemic number in scientific journal significance? Or is that a coincidence?

    • Luke

      If you want to honestly consider what a citizen of the future will think, you should consider that your impressions as to whom is geeky, rich, or dead are not likely to remain accurate.

      Geeky? Future humans in a position to revive us will have more knowledge and time to absorb it than any of us has. Manual labor jobs will be increasingly scarce, and IQ-boosting drugs commonplace.

      Rich? The ability to reanimate implies extremely good nanotech and/or biotech. That in turn means poverty as we know it can be erased. The average future citizen might consider anyone with less than a billion dollars (even adjusted for inflation) to be poor.

      Dead? Lacking a pulse or life signs is hardly an indicator of that, when you have the ability to reverse said condition. Citizens of the may have undergone cryostasis of a less damaging kind plenty of times themselves. Non-damaging suspended animation is a nearer-term technology than bringing back severely damaged patients. So is bringing back people who have undergone severe ischemia, rigor mortis, and other signs of “death” without supercooling.

      Notwithstanding, there is a definite ethical imperative to push towards making cryonics available for anyone who needs it regardless of education level or socioeconomic status. It should be viewed as a basic human right, not a privilege for a few highly dedicated elites.

  • tndal

    Well, this blog once discussed AI but possibly that was too difficult and progress too slow. Anyway, so the blog moved to singularity discussions.

    And now we realize the singularity won’t arrive anytime soon. This blog is discussing getting frozen – possibly so that we will all still be around in our frozen forms when the singularity _does_ arrive.

    I like it better when AI was the topic of discussion here (you know, the hard part of AI, the stuff we don’t know and might not know).

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  • jdm

    Suppose this became a popular choice. What would the environmental and climate cost be for keeping billions of dead bodies and severed heads in a pepetual deep freeze? Even the dead will now consume electriity, further diminishing our chances of maintaining a climate suitable for human civilization.

    • Luke

      The climate cost of keeping something cold is very minimal, when practiced on a large scale. Amount of surface area per unit volume is reduced as you increase the size of a container.

      Also consider that people planning not to die are less motivated to reproduce, so the environmental devastation is reduced considerably.

  • Abelard Lindsey

    I think the vast majority of you have never met anyone who is either signed up for cryonics or is involved in the organizations. Why would you expect to understand people in cryonics if you don’t actually get to know them?

    Its like understanding Chinese or Japanese culture and people. Go live there for a while and you get to understand these cultures and peoples. Unless you have actually lived for a while in Japan, you cannot possibly understand Japanese culture and people. Likewise, if you have never been in the cryonics “milieu” you cannot possibly understand their motivation and intent.

  • Rob

    >> The world’s wealthiest two billion people get 75 percent of all the surgery done each year, while the poorest two billion get only 4 percent and often die or live in misery as a result, according to a new study published in the medical journal Lancet. <<


  • I like opt-out of bodies being donated for organ harvesting and medical research. It’s a hard problem that so few smart, greedy people want cryonic preservation. The easy solution would be default cryonic preservation for some defined elite productive segment of the population. But I don’t have a great way to define that (the best shot would be critical military and similar federal govt. personnel, since they are elite performers worth preserving, have some sense of unusual duty/obligation, are are probably already the subjects of a variety of wildly speculative futurist but official contigency plans). Then the scaled facilities could be spun out to the (probably still tiny) interested public, like military GPS and the DARPA internet except I doubt cryonics will ever have mass appeal since it’s already relatively cheap and exceptionally well-known about and safe, but still extraordinarily unpopular.

  • These days, those days

    One thing to remember is that cryonicists are placing their lives in the hands of others. And anytime someone places his life in the hands of others, it’s in his interests that the others don’t think he’s a jerk who doesn’t deserve their help. In other words, cryonics increases the incentives to be a nice guy rather than a jerk.

    To illustrate, consider how Futurama portrays Richard Nixon as having taken advantage of cryonics. And suppose that in the cryonics lab, before they have figured out how to restore consciousness to the cryonic heads, the lab manager has to cut some of the heads off and let them die completely. He might well remember Richard Nixon’s reputation for being an evil bastard, and choose Richard Nixon to be cut off.

    And therein lies the point. Nixon was the kind of guy who didn’t seem to care that the public viewed him as an ogre. But if he had been signed up for cryonics, he’d have more reason to “be good in order to seem good,” as the saying goes. And wouldn’t that have been better for the many people who were influenced by Nixon in his own time?

    • The problem with that mindset is that most people don’t respect people who are nice to them, most of them only respect people who are jerks and who treat them badly.

      How many people don’t respect Jimmy Carter, but do respect Nixon?

      People at the bottom of the social hierarchy expect to be treated badly, and if you treat them nicely, they experience social and cognitive dissonance. They feel that if you are treating them nicely, you must be below them on the social hierarchy because only people below you treat you nicely.

      Similarly if someone treats you badly, they must be above you in the social hierarchy.

  • Why is everyone assuming cryogenic freezing of heads? There are several alternatives – plastination and chemical preservatives of various stripes. They usually only cost in the neighborhood of two thousand, as well. (Long-term cryogenic storage of such a head would be more like 20k. You save a lot on the initial suspension.)

    Doesn’t that significantly affect one’s calculations here?

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  • You mention “network” effects when discussing other scale goods, but overlook a simple way in which cryonics, too, may have such effects. A large part of what makes life worth living derives from social interaction with others we know and love. If cryonics was widely adopted, subscribers could expect to be reunited with their family and friends in the far-future. So the more people sign up for cryonics, the more others will want to sign up as well, not just because the costs will fall (as you note), but because the value for each individual will rise.