Confessions of a quantum suicidal

From: Christopher Maloney <>
Date: Fri, 18 Jun 1999 20:55:26 -0400

I'd be surprised if an idea similar to quantum suicide hadn't occured
to most of the members of this list before you read Tegmark's paper.
I first started thinking about it about ten years ago, I think.

Being prone to depression most of my life, it seemed like an obvious
plan: a way to force God's hand, in a way. Who says my arms are too
short to box with God? Quantum suicide offers a way to choose which
environments are acceptable to us. We can truly become masters of
our destiny.

I'm an electical engineer, so I have (had) the means to carry out the
experiment. As I mentioned, I was prone to depression. I can't
remember if a specific incident triggered the desire to carry out the
plan, or if the desire just built in me over time. It seems like an
awfully long time ago, now. Things weren't going my way. At least,
not the way I thought I wanted them to go. So I made the decision to
go through with it.

The whole time, I knew that only one thing would be certain: that I
would survive. But I didn't know by which avenue I would escape. So
the whole time I was planning and designing and plotting, I tried to
figure out which would be the most likely. The answer is obvious:
the most likely scenario for my survival would be that would change
my mind, and not go through with it.

But I was unhappy, and a part of me desperately wanted to go through
with it, so I tried to make a firm resolve, whenever I could, that I
would complete the plan, and step through the device. This of course
had an undesired affect: I was selecting out those versions of me
that had a weak resolve. For, as you've probably guessed by now, the
avenue that my survival did take was that I changed my mind.

On the other hand, my life has gotten dramatically better.
Coincidence? I'm not sure.

Let me explain "the project". Again, the only thing I knew for sure
was that I would survive. Well, I wanted to get something in those
worlds in which I did survive, and I figured out a way that I could.
I could set it up so that I would be killed if and only if I didn't
win the lottery on a particular day. It was a sort of Russian
roulette with one player.

Doing a rough estimate, I figured that I could find a game that would
offer a reasonable jackpot and that would have odds of winning at
about a million to one. I could, of course, buy extra tickets to
reduce the odds. I wanted to minimize the chances of surviving and
*not* winning the lottery, so that meant that I had to design an
extremely reliable killing device. I shot for there to be odds of
device failure on the order of a billion to one - so that if I
survived, chances would be roughly one in a thousand that I *didn't*
win the lottery.

To recap: from the bird perspective, for every billion copies of me
that went through the experiment, one thousand would have a winning
lottery ticket. So the device would "attempt" to kill 999,999,000
copies. But it would fail about once with this number of kills, So
that one of those copies, that didn't win the lottery, would survive.

How to design a device with that kind of reliability? Satellite
engineers know the answer to that one: redundancy. If you have a
single device that will fail about once in a thousand operations,
then three such devices, operating in parallel, will fail only about
once every billion. That assumes that *everything* in the system is
in parallel, which is impossible. There will be "weak spots" in the
design - single points of failure.

But I also figured that I could make the device more reliable by the
following technique: if anything went wrong, the default behavior of
any of the mechanisms should be "kill", instead of switching off.
Remember, I wanted to minimize the chances that I survive and don't
win the lottery. If there's a small chance of something in an
individual mechanism malfunctioning, then that won't affect the
overall odds much, as long as the default behavior is to kill.

There are two basic failure modes of the system: A, the device kills
when I do win the lottery; and B, it doesn't kill when I don't win
the lottery. I figured that I wanted to reduce the likelihood of B
as much as possible, and that I didn't care that much about A, as
long as it was reasonably low (say one in a hundred). Again, from
the bird perspective of the ensemble of one billion copies of me:
   Out of 1,000,000,000:
       1,000 win the lottery, of which:
           10 get killed anyway, 990 survive.
       999,999,000 don't win the lottery, of which:
           999,998,999 get killed, 1 survives.
So a total of 991 "me"s survive, of which 990 have won the lottery.
Good odds, I think.

Another failure scenario is that I only get maimed instead of killed
when the device goes off. This is a grisly outcome, so I wanted to
design the likelihood of this to be as small as possible. I decided
to use high-caliber pistols aimed at the base of my brain. I needed
to ensure that when the time came, my head was restrained so that
there was no chance of the bullet missing the critical target. I
didn't finish this portion of the investigation, but I'm pretty sure
that there's an optimal aim at close range which would ensure a very
low probability of a bullet doing damage, but not killing me.

So I designed a system with three independent electronic kill
devices. Each device consisted of a timer which, when it counted
down to zero, would discharge a capacitor through a solenoid, which
would pull the trigger of a .45 caliber pistol, which would shoot
through my head. The counter would only be stopped by a signal from
a computer, indicating that I had won the lottery. That signal would
come from one of three trusty helpers that I had hired (who had no
idea of what they were really doing, of course), to type in the
winning lottery number and send it to my computer by modem. My
computers already knew the numbers of the tickets that I had bought,
so it could check to see if any of them matched.

Nearly everything would be redundant - the timers, the guns, the
computers, and the helpers. I had to shoot for (excuse the
expression) a one in a thousand failure rate or less for any one of
those individual systems. Difficult, but possible.

Leading up to the day of the actual lottery, I would do several trial
runs to verify the reliability. The weakest link is probably the
people who are hired to type in the lottery number. So I would hire
them to do that for several days in a row, and on the days leading up
to the target date, I would verify that they were performing

Also, prior to the target date, I would allow a long window of time
for each of the electronic mechanisms to charge up from the wall
sockets. After they are charged, they can be disconnected and will
operate independently, thus eliminating a power outage as a source of
failure. Then I would set the timers, verify that each is working,
and secure myself into the chair. The probability would be high that
something would go wrong at this point. These preparatory steps are,
in effect, a single point of failure. Nothing can be done to
eliminate this completely, though.

The chair would have a simple electronic locking mechanism that would
secure my head and arms. When the counters got to zero, each gun
would either go off or not. It's designed in such a way that if any
one of the three guns goes off, I would almost certainly be killed
instantly. If none of the three guns goes off, then the electronic
lock would be released, and, hopefully, I'd be somewhat richer.

When you're talking about odds like one in a million, it's ridiculous
to think that the avenue of my survival would be to actually go
through with this plan. I knew that it was much more likely that I
would change my mind. Another possibility also occured to me: that
someone would find out and would stop me. I thought that most people
would think that this plan of mine was insane, and would probably
have me commited as a hazard to myself, if they knew how serious I
was. So I took precautions to prevent anyone from finding out. I
kept it a secret. This is actually the first time I've told anyone
about the details of my plan.

I called it "the project", so that no one would see something written
by me that would give away what it was really about. Later, I changed
the name to "the Lathe", after an Ursula K. LeGuin story called "The
Lathe of Heaven". It seems to me that this device is a little bit
like that story - where we can choose what worlds we will live in.
Of course, we can't ever actually change the past, but we can select
our future.

I never went through with it, obviously. My life just inexplicably
got better, and I ceased being depressed. As I mentioned above, I'm
not sure this was a coincidence. Perhaps I did select my future,
just by planning and having that firm resolve to go through with it.
Perhaps I can continue to select my future, by "threatening God" that
I'll go through with it unless I get my way. But now I doubt it.
Now I actually care too much about somebody else -- my wife. I
couldn't kill myself now, knowing how much it would hurt her.

So now I take my lumps as they come. That sounds like maturity, and
when I write about the Lathe, it sure does sound pretty immature.
But lots of people kill themselves. I'm certainly not in a position
to judge any of them. We're all just shooting arrows in the dark,
after all. I just thought I could deflect my arrow by purpose.

Chris Maloney
"Knowledge is good"
-- Emil Faber
Received on Fri Jun 18 1999 - 17:57:30 PDT

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.3.0 : Fri Feb 16 2018 - 13:20:06 PST