Effects of anti-aging research on the long-term future

In effec­tive al­tru­ism, anti-ag­ing re­search is usu­ally dis­cussed as an ex­clu­sively short-term hu­man-fo­cused cause area. Most ex­ist­ing dis­cus­sion about anti-ag­ing fo­cus on the di­rect effects that may re­sult if effec­tive ther­a­pies are re­leased: we get longer healthier lifes­pans.

How­ever, it seems rea­son­able to think that profound struc­tural changes would oc­cur at all lev­els of so­ciety if ag­ing were to be cured, es­pe­cially if it hap­pened be­fore some­thing else more trans­for­ma­tive such as the cre­ation of su­per­in­tel­li­gent AI. The effects would likely go be­yond those men­tioned in this prior piece, and I think that any­thing with po­ten­tial for “profound so­cial changes” mer­its some dis­cus­sion on its own in­de­pen­dent of the di­rect effects. Here I dis­cuss both nega­tive and pos­i­tive as­pects to anti-ag­ing re­search, as even if anti-ag­ing is nega­tive, this still means we should think about it.

Indi­rect effects

Many effec­tive al­tru­ists have fo­cused their at­ten­tion on elec­toral re­form, gov­er­nance, eco­nomic growth, among other broad in­ter­ven­tions to so­ciety. The usual jus­tifi­ca­tion for re­search of this kind is that there is a po­ten­tial for large flow-through effects be­yond the straight­for­ward visi­ble moral ar­gu­ments.

I think this ar­gu­ment is rea­son­able, but I think that if you buy it, you should also think that anti-ag­ing has been ne­glected. Even within short-term hu­man fo­cused cause ar­eas, it is strik­ing how lit­tle at­ten­tion I’ve seen di­rected to anti-ag­ing. For in­stance, com­par­ing the search term “ag­ing” to crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form (both con­ceived of as short-term hu­man-fo­cused cause ar­eas) in Open Philan­thropy’s grants database re­veals that ag­ing re­search has cap­tured $7,672,300 of dona­tions com­pared to $108,555,216 for crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form.

Pablo Staffor­ini has pro­posed one ex­pla­na­tion for this dis­crep­ancy,

Longevity re­search oc­cu­pies an un­sta­ble po­si­tion in the space of pos­si­ble EA cause ar­eas: it is very “hard­core” and “weird” on some di­men­sions, but not at all on oth­ers. The EAs in prin­ci­ple most re­cep­tive to the case for longevity re­search tend also to be those most will­ing to ques­tion the “com­mon-sense” views that only hu­mans, and pre­sent hu­mans, mat­ter morally. But, as you note, one needs to ex­clude an­i­mals and take a per­son-af­fect­ing view to de­rive the “ob­vi­ous corol­lary that cur­ing ag­ing is our num­ber one pri­or­ity”. As a con­se­quence, such po­ten­tial sup­port­ers of longevity re­search end up de­pri­ori­tiz­ing this cause area rel­a­tive to less hu­man-cen­tric or more long-ter­mist al­ter­na­tives.

This ex­pla­na­tion sounds right. How­ever, it does seem clear to me that the long-term in­di­rect effects of anti-ag­ing would be large if the field met suc­cess any time soon. There­fore “weird” peo­ple can and should take this se­ri­ously. A suc­cess in anti-ag­ing would likely mean

  • An end to both the cur­rent health­care sys­tem and re­tire­ment sys­tem as we cur­rently un­der­stand it, which in Amer­ica is re­spon­si­ble for at least 22% of our GDP, and prob­a­bly a lot more when you take into ac­count all the things peo­ple do to pre­pare for re­tire­ment.

  • A very differ­ent pop­u­la­tion tra­jec­tory wor­ld­wide than the one that the United Na­tions and sev­eral other in­ter­na­tional bod­ies cur­rently fore­cast.

  • Sub­stan­tially more rapid eco­nomic growth wor­ld­wide.

  • An ac­cel­er­a­tion of en­vi­ron­men­tal de­struc­tion and cli­mate change (but also prob­a­bly an ac­cel­er­a­tion of a solu­tion).

  • Faster in­tel­lec­tual progress as young peo­ple are able to work for many decades with­out men­tal de­cline.

  • A big shift in at­ti­tudes sur­round­ing the nat­u­ral life cy­cle, in­clud­ing when it’s ap­pro­pri­ate to have chil­dren, whether it is ac­cept­able when some­one dies, the value of a hu­man life etc.

  • A men­tal shift among both elites and reg­u­lar cit­i­zens about the best way to pre­pare for the fu­ture. Here, I imag­ine that poli­ti­ci­ans and other elites would reg­u­larly talk about the fu­ture thou­sands of years hence be­cause it’s rea­son­able that peo­ple will be around that long

  • Slower value drift from deeply en­trenched val­ues and in­sti­tu­tions. Eg. imag­ine if the same peo­ple who run the top 50 tech com­pa­nies are pretty much all the same peo­ple as they were 30 years ago, and the older gen­er­a­tions are more cog­ni­tively ca­pa­ble than the new rather than the other way around. (I am writ­ing a post on the effects of this one. If any­one is in­ter­ested, I will try to finish).

  • An in­crease in so­cial and eco­nomic in­equal­ity, ab­sent mas­sive re­forms aimed at re­duc­ing such in­equal­ity.

But maybe there’s a good rea­son why even longter­mists don’t always seem to be in­ter­ested in anti-ag­ing? Another ex­pla­na­tion is that peo­ple have long timelines for anti-ag­ing, and have mostly con­cluded that it’s not worth re­ally think­ing se­ri­ously about it right now. I ac­tu­ally agree that timelines are prob­a­bly long, in the sense that I’m very skep­ti­cal of Aubrey de Grey’s pre­dic­tions of longevity es­cape ve­loc­ity within 17 years. If you think that anti-ag­ing timelines are long but AI timelines are short-to-medium, then I think it makes a lot of sense to fo­cus on the lat­ter.

But, it also seems that timelines for anti-ag­ing could quite eas­ily also be short if the field sud­denly gains main­stream at­ten­tion. Anti-ag­ing pro­po­nents have his­tor­i­cally given ar­gu­ments for why they ex­pect fund­ing to pick up rapidly at some point. Eg. see what hap­pens in Nick Bostrom’s fable of the dragon tyrant, or Aubrey de Grey’s pre­dic­tions I quoted in this Me­tac­u­lus ques­tion (and keep in mind the fact that at the time of writ­ing, Me­tac­u­lus thinks that there’s a 75% chance of the ques­tion be­ing re­solved pos­i­tively!). In a pos­si­ble cor­re­spon­dence of these pre­dic­tions, fund­ing has in­creased con­sid­er­ably in the last 5 years, though the prospect of cur­ing ag­ing still re­mains dis­tant in main­stream thought cir­cles.

To illus­trate one com­pletely made up sce­nario for short timelines, con­sider the fol­low­ing:

For the first few decades of the 21st cen­tury, anti-ag­ing re­mained strictly on the periph­ery of in­tel­lec­tual thought. Most peo­ple, in­clud­ing biol­o­gists, did not give much thought to the idea of de­vel­op­ing biotech­nol­ogy to re­pair molec­u­lar and cel­lu­lar dam­age from nat­u­ral ag­ing, even though they un­der­stood that ag­ing was a biolog­i­cal pro­cess that could in prin­ci­ple be re­versed. Then, in the late 2020s, an un­ex­pected suc­cess in senolyt­ics, stem cell ther­apy among other com­bined treat­ments demon­strates a lab mouse that lived for many years longer than its nat­u­ral lifes­pan. This Me­tac­u­lus ques­tion re­solves pos­i­tively. Al­most overnight the field is funded with multi-billion dol­lar grants to test the drug treat­ments on pri­mates and even­tu­ally hu­mans. While early re­sults are not promis­ing, in the mid 2030s a treat­ment is fi­nally dis­cov­ered that seems to work in hu­mans and is pre­dicted to re­li­ably ex­tend hu­man lifes­pan by 5-10 years.
Then, anti-ag­ing be­comes a poli­ti­cal is­sue. Peo­ple re­al­ize the po­ten­tial for this tech­nol­ogy and don’t want to die ei­ther by lack of ac­cess or wait­ing for it to be de­vel­oped fur­ther. Poli­ti­ci­ans promise to give the treat­ment away for free and to put gov­ern­ment money into re­search­ing bet­ter treat­ments, and economists con­cur since it would re­duce health­care costs. By the early 2040s, a com­pre­hen­sive suite of treat­ments shows fur­ther promise and main­stream aca­demics now think we are en­ter­ing a life ex­pec­tancy rev­olu­tion.

Of course, my sce­nario is ex­tremely spec­u­la­tive, but it’s meant to illus­trate the pace at which things can turn around.

Per­haps you still think that anti-ag­ing is far away and there’s not much we can do about it any­way. It’s worth not­ing that this ar­gu­ment should equally ap­ply to cli­mate change, since the biggest effects of cli­mate change are more than 50 years away and the field is nei­ther ne­glected nor par­tic­u­larly tractable. And of course, di­rect re­search on biotech­nol­ogy to defeat ag­ing is much more ne­glected than cli­mate change.

If you don’t think EAs should be talk­ing about anti-ag­ing, due to timelines or what­ever, you should at least be ex­plicit in your rea­son­ing.

Am I miss­ing some­thing?