The Effective Altruism Community on the Merits of Philanthropy to Advance Cryonics for Brain Preservation

The effective altruism community is concerned with practical utilitarianism and efficiency in the matter of philanthropy. This can range from avoidance of inefficient charities, and the infrastructure needed for more people to find out which organizations are in fact efficient in their chosen field, to comparisons between philanthropic causes with the aim of finding the greatest gain for a given donation. Since the greatest cause of human suffering, by far, is aging, it is naturally the case that effective altruists frequently discuss rejuvenation biotechnology. A related field is that of the cryonics industry and cryopreservation, low-temperature storage of at least the brain on death, to save lives that cannot otherwise be saved because rejuvenation technologies will not arrive rapidly enough.

A cryopreserved individual is only clinically dead. The data of the mind still exists, the tissue structure still exists. It is possible to envisage in great detail the future technological capabilities needed to bring a cryopreserved patient back to active life - and people have, such as in the recently published Cryostasis Revival. Given the choice between tens of millions of minds lost to oblivion every year, or taking a chance of preservation, it seems obvious that cryopreservation should be far more widespread and better supported than it is. Yet this is an argument yet to be accepted by anything more than a small, fringe community.

Today I'll point out an opinionated summary of discussions on cryopreservation from the effective altruism community. The cryonics industry is small and lacks funding for efficient progress towards the virtuous cycle of technological advances that convince people this is real, greater attention, rising membership, and thus more funding for further technological advances. This is the type of problem that philanthropy excels at solving, provided those directing the funding know what they are doing. Clear and demonstrable technological progress in reversible cryopreservation of organs, a capability that has immediate application to the transplantation industry, is an important goal that could be greatly accelerated by philanthropy, for example. Alas, many people have yet to be convinced that saving lives in this way is desirable, or that present approaches give a good enough chance of success to be funded.

Brain preservation to prevent involuntary death: a possible cause area

Note that prior effective altruism discussions primarily focus on cryonics, although I prefer the term brain preservation because it is also compatible with non-cryogenic methods and anchors the discussion around the preservation quality of the brain. I'm not discussing whether individuals should sign themselves up for brain preservation, but rather whether it is a good use of altruistic resources to preserve people and perform research about brain preservation. It seems to me that:

(a) Most current technical arguments against brain preservation, to the extent that there are any at all, don't grapple with the possibility of structural inference. Because of the correlated nature of structural information in the brain, it is likely that there are numerous topological maps of the biomolecule-annotated connectome that could retain the information needed for long-term memories. Even if many of these maps were damaged or destroyed by aspects of the brain preservation procedure, if at least one could still be inferred, then the information content would still be present.

(b) Most extant arguments in the effective altruism community against brain preservation as a cause area don't grapple with QALY improvement/extension, and for unclear reasons treat humans as replaceable units, neglecting relational and psychological factors. If people think humans are replaceable, I think they should justify this, and also consider whether they are being consistent about it.

(c) With today's methods, brain preservation may already be among the best altruistic investments available from a QALY improvement/extension perspective, given reasonable estimates about the probability of success.

(d) With more research, substantially cheaper methods for structural brain preservation could potentially be developed, which could further improve the cost/benefit calculus. With more research, our uncertainty about different aspects of the brain preservation project could also be better clarified.

As a result of the above, and given its neglectedness, I think brain preservation for the prevention of involuntary death is one of the best areas for people interested in helping others to work in. I also think it is a great place for people who are interested in helping others to donate money. If you disagree, I would love to hear from you why that is. If you agree, I would love to discuss with you practical topics of how to best improve the field. Thanks for reading!

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