Steve Jobs' medical leave, riches and longevity

by sfb1 min read20th Jan 201131 comments

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Heinlein imagined the Howard Foundation as a group founded by a millionaire dying of "old age" in mid-life; founded to encourage long lived people to have children together using financial incentives with the goal of breeding extra long-lived humans.

Our world has many billionaires, typically older rather than younger people ( Forbes list - few under 50 ); middle aged Bill Gates has donated his fortune to normal kinds of charity, elder Warren Buffett has as well, youthful Mark Zuckerberg has pledged his too, all healthy. Steve Jobs is worth over a billion dollars and has been criticised for his lack of public philanthropy, he's also CEO of a company with $60 billion in reserve, and suffering serious health problems.

In short, we live in a world where there are rich people, and where you hear the idea of "rich old white men spending a lot on medical treatments to benefit rich old white men" but at the same time, Aubrey De Gray style serious discussion of longevity is rare  and much medical spending goes on alleviating and curing the problems of old age rather than avoiding them.

Sergey Brin has donated $50 million towards Parkinson's research based on DNA tests showing he has a 50% chance of getting it, yet at the moment he has a much higher probability of getting old-age and a net worth of $10-15 billion.

Is our world one where something analagous to the Howard Foundation will appear? Let's pull some numbers from thin air and say that means someone dying and leaving pretty much all of their estate of more than $200 million to fund longevity research/treatment in some way. If so, it might be something done in private that we would not hear of, so what would be indicators that it might be about to happen, or might have happened already? And if an ill middle aged technology billionaire with change-the-world drive doesn't do it, then who?

 

(I consider significant increases in lifespan (100 healthy years, 150 total years, or more) nearly inevitable at some nonspecific time in the future, given a world where humans continue to develop technology improvements, remain primarily biological, and avert or avoid existential risks and government restrictions on it. I also consider that dying and leaving money to The Gates Foundation is a good cause arguably much better than longevity research, wheras dying and leaving hundreds of millions to heirs / dogs homes / art / etc. is not).

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From the perspective of a biomedical scientist-in-training here. I think you may be underestimating the role that other types of biology research, that's not specifically labeled "longevity" will play in attaining 'immortality.'

For example, it may be necessary to cure cancer before we can safely switch off the cellular aging process. The fact that cancer has such an impact on society makes cancer one of the best funded areas of research, but I don't think you can accurately say that this comes at the opportunity cost of longevity knowledge, because they are really compliments. Most of our knowledge of human cell biology comes from studying cell lines isolated from cancer.

Meanwhile, specialized research increases our general knowledge that, purposeful or not, is leading to longevity if not immortality outright.

I am pretty sure that SENS and de Grey are not underestimating the role of other types of biology research. Part of their strategy for getting research done is to identify research that could apply to the problem of longevity (even where the researcher may not have had that application in mind) and to provide grants for relevant follow up research.

Regarding the example of curing cancer, the maintenance approach endorsed by SENS may prevent a lot of cancer, and keep healthy the body's natural immune response to stop cancer early. It seems to me that it would make more sense, to achieve the goal of healthy longevity, to put more resources into longevity research now, and then see what cancers and other diseases still threaten us, so we can focus our efforts on those specifically.

Aubrey de Grey has proposed comprehensively preventing cancer by eliminating genes that code for lengthening of telomeres altogether and supplementing with stem cells on a periodic basis. The periodic stem cell infusions would also act as a delivery mechanism for his proposed solution to the mitochondria problem, i.e. moving certain critical mitochondrial genes to the nucleus.

I think aging will take too long to cure for most of us to benefit from it, so I generally emphasize cryonics. But it is certainly fascinating to read de Grey's proposals, and seems plausible enough that it could work soon if there is big money behind it, i.e. to be a good gamble. It has a high payout in total human lives saved, since (assuming rapid global distribution) developing it a day sooner would effectively save 100,000 people; thus even if one does not anticipate being alive to benefit, that is a significant charitable accomplishment.

Arguably the same is the case of suspended animation research -- it could easily be that reversible cryopreservation would happen within our lifetimes if there was big money behind it. The beauty of suspended animation research is that it coincides with increasing the chances of cryonics working. Rejuvenation research is likely more applicable to the eventual reanimation phase of cryonics.

Aubrey de Grey has proposed comprehensively preventing cancer by eliminating genes that code for lengthening of telomeres altogether and supplementing with stem cells on a periodic basis.

Ah, so that's how they intend to get around that problem - lengthen telomeres externally, where it's safe.

My woo-dar is tingling a bit regarding this proposal. Can you refer me to this research?

WILT is described here.

Charles Platt wrote an interesting cryonet post on this topic: the mentality of wealth

I'm not sure he makes a very good rational defense of the wealthy who opt out of donating to cryonics infrastructure and research, but it is interesting to read the rationalizations they are likely to be using.

Also, amongst the general public "I want to live forever" is rather more controversial than amongst LWers. Probably even amongst billionaires.

Nope, probably not, for three reasons. First, and probably most practically, eugenics has negative feelings associated with it, so is probably not a target for any respectable effort. Second, anti-aging research is going to blow past any sort of eugenics effort, the same way that it's been more effective to research skin grafts than to breed fire-resistant humans. Last, and most nitpicky, it's a bit tricky to breed from people who are already old (harder to have kids, greater risk of birth defects), and it would be very low-effect anyhow because of how big a factor luck is.

Isn't the unpleasant part of eugenics the "killing "bad" people" part? In the Howard Families sense, it was more of a cross between an arranged marriage, a marriage of convenience, and surrogate mothering. A choice with a financial incentive, nobody was killed for being too short lived (!) or raped and forced into it.

Isn't the unpleasant part of eugenics the "killing "bad" people" part?

For eugenics in general (I know nothing about the fictional case in question), evaluating people as "bad" in the first place is also unpleasant, and I think there's also history of forced sterilization.

I think many people have negative reactions to the word eugenics itself, more so than to some of the realities it can refer to.

it's a bit tricky to breed from people who are already old

The Howard Foundation's method [1] was to look for people with four centenarian grandparents, and make it known to them that if they chose to marry and have children with someone else on their list, they would receive a large financial reward.

[1] The fictional organisation described in Heinlein's Methuselah's Children, not any real-world foundation, of which there is at least one, that happens to have that name.

I thought it was four living grandparents when recipients were of an age to start a family.

Anyone have an idea of how common that would have been in 1941?

I'm sure it wouldn't have been centenarian grandparents, at least for the earlier generations-- by the time it's clear that a woman has grandparents that old, she wouldn't be fertile.

I thought it was four living grandparents when recipients were of an age to start a family.

Could well be -- it's a long time since I read the book.

I don't think sfb is saying that they should do the same thing as the Howard Foundation. He does discuss doing "research" and so the Howard Foundation is simply a tag to get the reader interested.

(This brings up a separate issue: Is LW turning off potential rationalists by the large number of scifi/nerd references that we pack into things?)

[-][anonymous]10y 1

(This brings up a separate issue: Is LW turning off potential rationalists by the large number of scifi/nerd references that we pack into things?)

Possibly, but I'm willing to bet that references to the Singularity and cryonics do so to an even larger extent.

There's a distinction there. In those cases, they are arguments some people here believe are rational and have thought out consequences. That's distinct from the nerd references which aren't connected to rationality in the same way and therefore aren't necessary. Rationalists should win.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

Agreed, but I was looking solely at which is more likely to deter potential rationalists. Cryonics and the Singularity raise a lot more red flags (especially for people who already believe themselves to be rational, i.e. "skeptics") than nerd/sci-fi references.

Yes, I would consider anti-aging research as counting, but I meant to discriminate so that leaving money for nonspecific medical research would not count, and nor would leaving 1 million to longevity and 99 million to universities.

One major issue is diminishing marginal returns. It isn't at all obvious that spending a 100 million dollars now would do much. One question one needs to ask for any large scale allocation of resources is whether an area of research is saturated. It isn't obvious that longevity research's rate limiting step is money (I suspect it is, but I don't know of any strong evidence of that claim and I've never seen Aubrey De Gray or any associated with Methuselah say that explicitly.)

Another, thematically related area is cryonics. In this case, the relevant issue isn't research, but simple preservation. If cryonics became cheaper, more people would be willing to do it, which would likely make it more socially acceptable and create a reinforcing effect. Even a comparatively small cash injection into cryonics (say 30 or 40 million) would potentially have a large impact.

In this case, the relevant issue isn't research

The fact that it is an existing technology does increase the relative importance of infrastructure and adoption versus research. But for a certain class of scenarios, research into damage-prevention is just as relevant as any other anti-aging tech (perhaps more relevant because it has a higher chance of being a factor in one's own survival). This happens to be the class of scenarios popular among people who haven't drunk the singularity Kool-Aid, so to speak.

If you talk to a typical biologist today, someone like Andrea Andreadis or PZ Myers, they will most likely tell you stuff like:

  • Cryopreservation damages too many cells for reanimation to be likely.
  • Ischemia does enough damage during the first few minutes to be very concerned about.
  • Uploading to a computer is probably not possible because human minds are not analogous enough to computers.
  • The brain is so tied in with other body systems that you'll probably lose your identity if you only save the brain.

We folks with a computer science or engineering background tend to regard these claims with suspicion -- maybe that indicates that there's something we get that they don't. But they are there, and probably for a reason. A billionaire not specializing in any science might be more rational to take these biologists at face value even if they are wrong.

I do believe singularity style events have significant probability. We certainly may well be uploading humans, designing FAI, and/or using molecular nanotech well within the next century. But I think it bears emphasis that we might not. And even if we do, significant information loss from suboptimal preservations may still be irreversible.

I think you're underestimating how gut level / instinctive people's revulsion of cryonics is.

I suspect that weirdness is much more of an issue than revulsion.

whether an area of research is saturated

What does this mean? More groups working independently on solving a problem will not increase the probability of a solution being found in a given timeframe?

What does this mean? More groups working independently on solving a problem will not increase the probability of a solution being found in a given timeframe?

It means that it won't do so substantially. If many people are duplicating the same discoveries within a short time span then a field may be experiencing saturation. There's a related issue which is that in many fields, there's a limited set of people actually qualified to do research in an area, and so pumping in more money won't increase the number of people doing research (although it might increase the number of people who assert that their research is connected to the problem at hand). But both forms of saturation have similar end results in practice: the marginal return of throwing in more resources becomes so small that you might as well aim those resources elsewhere.

That sounds pretty sane, but if I look at it from the point of view of "making a longevity breakthrough happen sooner than it otherwise would, over a period of many years", then too few qualified people is not a show stopping problem, it only means that educating and training people so there are more qualified people in the near future is a good next step.

Lots of people making the same discoveries within a short time span is a much more interesting limit.

I expect that there are wealthy and powerful people in the world putting resources towards serious longevity research. I also expect that most of them are being very discreet about it, for PR reasons.

[-][anonymous]10y 2

I also consider that dying and leaving money to The Gates Foundation is a good cause arguably much better than longevity research, wheras dying and leaving hundreds of millions to heirs / dogs homes / art / etc. is not).

I don't know, what particularity impressed you about their foundation? Their effect on extreme poverty seems reasonable however looking at the results of their education initiatives I see few results that are too poor to not consider them a waste compared to other pursuits.

Bill Gates also hasn't had great success in the medical area: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/21/health/21gates.html

I don't know, what particularity impressed you about their foundation?

I used them as a contrast with leaving money to non-alleviating-suffering causes (Trump letting his children inherit it) or speculative-future-suffering causes (It's probably easier to convince someone to leave their money to a charity gets results today rather than one which tries to increase the chance of getting results tomorrow).

It's not really important to my point whether they are an effective charity or not, just that there aren't many single organizations with enough scale to handle Warren Buffet leaving all of several billion dollars to, and there aren't many examples of a Bill-Gates-rich person doing something quite like that.