The expected value of funding anti-aging research has probably dropped significantly

by freedomandutility1 min read5th Sep 202110 comments

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Anti-aging research
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https://twitter.com/antonioregalado/status/1434207546416549889?s=21

It seems that multiple billionaires are putting lots of money towards a DeepMind-style (somewhere in the middle of academia and industry) startup focused on anti-ageing and rejuvenation research.

I think it’s likely that putting smaller amounts of money towards this cause will mostly subsidise billionaires going forward.

Perhaps the focus of people interested in anti-ageing research should switch to exploring mechanisms that will speed up the distribution of treatments to poorer people, once the treatments have been developed.

But also, this new development is very exciting and good for everyone in my opinion!

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I think it's still under-appreciated how much people hate billionaire-funded research into areas perceived to be weird, creepy or potentially inequality-exacerbating.

Consider some of the comments on that same article from the SlateStarCodex subreddit:

I'll give a longevity startup the time of day when they show me a year old drosophila. And "slaps roof of longevity startup this bad boy can fit so much fraud in it"

Or a semi-popular reply to the tweet you shared:

Getting for longevity research from ageing billionaires is the bio equivalent of taking candy from a baby. Wish this big money was going towards solving global problems, not just making rich old people live longer.

Or some headlines from a Google search for silicon valley longevity:

  • The Guardian: Is Silicon Valley's quest for immortality a fate worse than death?
  • The Conversation: Silicon Valley's quest for immortality – and its worrying sacrifices

I don't know if public blowback will result in fewer scientists and engineers wanting to work on these companies, or will lead to reduced enthusiasm from investors. But it's possible, and would be very tragic. EA has historically not been very good at PR, but making the case that longevity research benefits everyone and is not just a toy for the rich could still be very important.

Relatedly, here's another example of the kind of headlines you mention: https://futurism.com/neoscope/aging-unstoppable-youth

The fact that it's on an online newspaper called "Futurism" is even more eye-popping.

One positive thing this might lead to is if people on the fence start to be actually more positive about weird future-related stuff given the hysteria of such headlines. But I have no idea. Might be wishful thinking.

In my opinion, the public seems to dislike the idea of rejuvenation biotechnology, but doesn't dislike it enough that public opinion would significantly hamper the progress of this field.

I think the billionaire space race may be a good example of the public disliking weird stuff that billionaires are doing, but public opinion not significantly impacting their ability to do the weird stuff.

I am also not too worried about bad PR keeping good scientists away since I think high salaries should help to overcome their fears / misunderstandings surrounding anti-ageing research.

I think the billionaire space race may be a good example of the public disliking weird stuff that billionaires are doing, but public opinion not significantly impacting their ability to do the weird stuff.

But what if they could be doing way more? If being a civilian space tourist was seen as the coolest person anyone could do, there would probably be even more of a market incentive for Branson.

I am also not too worried about bad PR keeping good scientists away since I think high salaries should help to overcome their fears / misunderstandings surrounding anti-ageing research.

I think that's true for now, but

  1. If longevity research was high-status, maybe salaries would be lower and you could have twice as many scientists
  2. Many you end up with fewer smart young people going into longevity research and the field starts to dry up

Just to be clear: is your point that because the industry is already/now getting lots of money from billionaires the marginal value of donating additional money is smaller? And/or is it (also) that donating will lead to billionaires donating less?

The first! (And not the second). I’m not 100% sure if ‘subsidising billionaires’ is the correct term but I mean that money donated towards aging is probably going to be donated by billionaires anyway.

"Subsidising billionaires" seems to imply the second interpretation.

I mean that money donated towards aging is probably going to be donated by billionaires anyway

This also seems to suggest the second interpretation.

Yes you're right, now that I think about Harrison's comment, I think both a) "the industry is already/now getting lots of money from billionaires, so the marginal value of donating additional money is smaller" and b) donating money to anti-ageing research will lead to billionaires donating less money to anti-ageing research.

It seems to me that the EV of financing cellular reprogramming research and aging clocks dropped significantly. There are many other very  neglected and promising areas. 

That said, the case that "billionaires are going to finance all this anyway" did seem to get stronger regardless, because now there's a higher chance that other neglected areas will be included in such funding.

How much higher though? This is not the first billionaire-led longevity initiative. What makes me more hopeful compared to other past initiatives is that this new company might be more focused on getting translational research done given the choice of topics and people involved. And also I wonder if the time is riper than in 2013 for other billionaires to start imitating these efforts, although it seems to be more of a PR risk for billionaires to take than in the past.  

PR risk is just perceived though, I wonder how real of a problem it is for billionaires in this case. It seems to me that billionaires are hated regardless, and longevity research is an excuse to be more vocal about it. I wonder if they are realizing this. The PR damage might be to research rather than to billionaires. See AppliedDivinityStudies' comment.

Thanks for your comment.

I'm agnostic  (EDIT) I personally do not think funding certain types of research within anti-ageing research could still have similar EV to EA priorities despite the EV being lower than it was before, but I think this is plausible.

I'm also hopeful that Altos Labs is more open and collaborative than Calico Labs.

While I'm seeing some criticism of the idea that billionaires want to live longer, I think it's unlikely to be widespread enough or draw enough attention to noticeably damage Altos Labs, or cause much further damage to anti-ageing research in general.