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What to make of Aubrey de Grey's prediction?

by Rafael Harth 1 min read28th Feb 202018 comments

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Aubrey de Grey (head of SENS) just had an appearance on Joe Rogan's podcast. At some point during the interview, he made a fairly specific and extremely bold prediction about the near future.

See 56:40 - 58:45+. The short version is: sometime in the near future ("could easily happen in the next 3 to 5 years"), there will be an extremely sudden shift in the public perception on aging through which the alleged fact that it can be reversed becomes common knowledge. At that point, there will be enormous pressure towards funding the field, and you won't get elected without promising to throw money at the problem.

A relevant reference class here could be something like "expert in a field predicting a massive near-term shift of awareness about something related to their field." Predictions in this class probably come true about 0% of the time. On the other hand, there are some reasons to think Aubrey is unusually credible.

My questions are

  • How seriously do you take this claim? Aubrey didn't specify a testable criterion in this conversation, but a reasonable one could be something like "a candidate in the 2024 presidential general election lists fighting aging as a campaign issue on their official website."
  • Suppose Aubrey is correct, and there is a massive shift within the next five years. Is there a way for a normal person to benefit financially out of knowing this now?
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As someone who works in biological science, I give the claim very little credence. I am someone who is very interested in Aubrey's anti-aging ideas and when I bring up aging with colleagues, it is considered to be a problem that will not be solved for a long time. Public opinion usually takes 3 to 5 years to catch up to scientific consensus, and there is no kind of scientific consensus about this. That said, the idea of not having to get old does excite people a lot more than many other scientific discoveries so it might percolate into mainstream much faster than other ideas. Still my sense is that the overwhelming majority of scientists are not on board, which will make it very unlikely for this shift in public perception to happen.

Further, I do not know why he would expect the public to care this much about the issue that it would be impossible to be elected without it. It's not like there's huge electoral pressure to increase spending on cancer or heart disease research, which are diseases that essentially everyone is impacted by (directly or indirectly). The idea that there will be huge pressure for aging research seems absurdly over-optimistic.

So I would give this claim very little credence personally despite the fact that I do think we can at least make major strides into treating age-related pathology within the coming decades if it receives sufficient funding.

Aubrey didn't specify a testable criterion in this conversation, but a reasonable one could be something like "a candidate in the 2024 presidential general election lists fighting aging as a campaign issue on their official website."

You can check out my attempt on Metaculus to capture the essence of his claim, though it's debatable whether I succeeded. Right now Metaculus says there's a 75% chance of something culturally significant happening in anti-aging research in the 2020s.

My own guess is that something big might happen, but it would not cause public opinion to change as rapidly as what Aubrey has claimed. When the first mouse is demonstrated to have been rejuvenated, there will still be people who doubt it will scale to humans. I expect people to continue to doubt it until there is a very successful trial in humans, at which point opinion will probably have only gradually shifted in that direction beforehand.

I also expect people's resistance to anti-aging to have quite a bit of inertia. My impression is that most people strongly oppose the research, or are indifferent, so it's hard to imagine why this would change due to some development in mice.

Well, seems like one way, if you think the prediction highly likely, would be to become that politician. Seems like it might be a pathway for a new politician to party leadership -- or at least huge side payments if you became the primary figure in allocation of those public funds.