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.
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?