Near Concerns About Life Extension

by Bart119 7y8th Jun 20122 min read24 comments


There's near thinking and far thinking. While LWers debate far questions, near questions remain. To take a few examples, we in the US still spend large sums on special interests through subsidies and tax breaks, and jockeying for partisan advantage makes pursuit of sound policies very difficult.

Cryonic revival, FAIs, UFAIs colonizing other star systems -- they all seem pretty far out in the future to me and a lot of other people. So a tiny band of LWers and like-minded people work on what they have a passion for, which is as it should be.

But there is one area where progress really seems feasible within a few years: radical life extension. The right combination of drugs affecting gene expression just might do it.

Eliezer, in The Moral Void and elsewhere, makes clear a passionate if not fanatical commitment to longer life, and it seems the common LW view. Yet surely economics must come into play. If we can give a 60-year-old another day of high-quality life for $10, no one would question that we should. But suppose the cost of each extra day doubles. At 20 days the cost is on the order of $10,000,000 a day. Although we might try to couch it in kinder terms, at some point we end up saying to this person, "Sorry, you die today because we can't afford what it costs to keep you alive until tomorrow." Harsh, but inevitable.

I assume exponential costs get through to thinkers even in far mode. I see economics downplayed throughout LW thinking, on the assumption that radical improvements are possible. They might happen in the longer term, but not within the course of a few years. In the next few years, mere linear increases in costs are very relevant.

The LW thinking on life extension assumes that (1) it is vigorous, healthy life we will extend, not decrepit, depressed old age, and (2) it will be affordable to all. When thinking to a far future, it's easy to assume such conditions will be met. But when a technology is right in front of us, timing issues can be extremely important.

It is a good guess that if life-extension technology comes to the market, the demand will be intense and immediate. It's a good guess that it will be expensive (the cheaper it is, the less drug companies will be motivated to develop it). And it's also a good guess that the first people to sign up in the face of risks and side effects will be the old, who have little to lose.

We face the prospect of sucking up larger and larger portions of our economy extending the lives of decrepit, demoralized old people. (We already face this trend, but the life-extension technologies that are in the offing would make it much worse).

From a distance, thinkers will see an unsustainable pattern. Yet faced with the prospect of immediate extinction, these old people and their loved ones will demand the therapies. They would be upset to think that the drugs are in the closet right down the hall but they aren't eligible to get them. They'd be less upset to know that the drugs are not approved yet, and still less upset to know that there is no clear evidence that they work in humans, and so on.

My plea is to keep life-extension therapies far from the market until all the conditions are in place to solve the problems of cost and making sure that the path is clear to extending healthy life, not decrepitude. This should include an enthusiastic, positive attitude towards life instead of weariness and depression.

There are other reasons why we should be wary of such new technologies, but these short-term, practical ones seem like a clear case that is largely independent of one's utility function.