Talking About the Aubrey de Grey Interview at Tech Central Station

A number of folks have commented on Genn Reynold's interview with Aubrey de Grey at Tech Central Station today. You should go read it. Randall Parker of FuturePundit notes:

By "escape velocity" Aubrey means the point at which we will be able to repair the damage of aging faster than it accumulates so that the odds of dying decrease rather than increase each year. As it stands now a 50 year old has a higher chance of dying than a 49 year old in the course of a year and a 51 year old has a higher chance of dying in a year's time than a 50 year old. As our bodies get older the odds go up of anything going wrong badly enough to kill us in the space of a year. Aubrey thinks we may reach the "escape velocity" point of aging reversal treatments in the 2020s or 2030s. I share this view and one reason I share it is that the rate of advance of biologicals sciences and biotechnology is accelerating. In fact, the reason I have a category archive entitled Biotech Advance Rates is to demonstrate that we can not use past rates of advance as an indicator of how fast we will advance in the future.

Aubrey recommends reading a fable written by Nick Bostrom, a British Academy Research Fellow at Oxford University, about aging called The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant which is about to be published in The Journal of Medical Ethics.

I second the recommendation for the Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant, and it's a pity that the interview doesn't contain a direct link. It's an enlightening look at the way in which we all delude ourselves about aging, death, terrible events and the possibilities of change. If you haven't read Nick Bostrom's fairytale already, you should certainly do so now.

It's also worth repeating - in light of the bioethical claptrap that various parties are trying to feed us these days - that aging, suffering and death are not noble, beautiful things.

Here's a point I emphatically agree with: Glenn Reynolds thinks there is nothing beautiful about aging and dying.
I've watched people I love age and die, and it wasn't "beautiful and natural." It sucked. Aging is a disease. Cataracts and liver spots don't bring moral enlightenment or spiritual transcendence. Death may be natural -- but so are smallpox, rape, and athlete's foot. "Natural" isn't the same as "good."

As far as I'm concerned, I'd rather see my tax dollars spent on longevity research than, well, most of the other things they're spent on. I wonder how many other people feel that way.

A commenter on the post about the interview has this to say:

That interview with Aubrey de Grey is excellent. One has to wonder what group will pop up to oppose such a technology though. He doesn't think anyone will, but it seems as if there is always some group that is against seemingly beneficial technology.

I have to agree with this sentiment - I do think that Aubrey de Grey is a touch too optimistic on this item. As I have discussed in past posts, I see in the most vocal proponents of present day bioethics the seeds of what could become serious (and government-backed) opposition to healthy life extension and serious anti-aging science. If we don't pay attention now, we could be kicking ourselves in years to come.

Speaking of which, a long post at Mystery Achievement demonstrates that there are still many people who are strongly opposed to radical life extension - to the point of digging for objections where there are none:

The first half of the email Q&A is devoted to scientific research which I'm not competent to judge. But I know my way around English well enough, so if you have time, try this experiment: Do a page search of the words & phrases "pretty sure," "feasible," "could," and "look for," and read them in their respective contexts. Then tell me what impression you get. The impenetrable (for me) jargon aside, this is the sound of a man who wants to be more sure of something than he actually is. Your mileage may vary.

This is, frankly, a silly insinuation. All responsible scientists hedge in this way when talking about the future. The science is good, the path forward for new research in this field is as just about as clear as it gets, and these terms are absolutely the correct ones to be using in this case.

After that, the post degenerates into a series of poorly cast objections and assertions. A few minutes of research would have demonstrated them to have been comprehensively answered already - and to have been the subject of a great many essays and publications over the past few decades. In fact, reading the introductory articles at the Longevity Meme would find answers to most of them.

I think the ridiculous notion that irks me the most is that anti-aging technologies would be forced on people or withheld by scientists. This poster has clearly failed to read about the topic, and doesn't seem to understand how the world actually works.

The only sentiment that I come remotely close to agreeing with relates to the role of government in the transition from aging to ageless society. As I (and many others) have pointed out, there is great potential for economic (and thus social) upheaval. Far from being something that governments should be involved in, these problems will be largely caused by government. If economic upheaval does occur, it will be due to the spectacular failure of wealth transfer schemes (social security, retirement benefits, and so forth) that were put in place by greedy, shortsighted politicians and greedy, shortsighted voters.

Aubrey de Grey expresses concern about inequalities in the availability of real anti-aging medicine when it arrives:

Q: What is your response to concerns that life extension therapies might be too expensive for anyone but the rich?

A: This is a very legitimate concern, which society will have to fix as soon as possible. Since 9/11 we all know how bad an idea it is to make a lot of people really angry for a long time -- if the tip of that anger iceberg is willing to sacrifice everything, lots of other people lose everything, too. Since rich people will be paying for rejuvenation therapies as a way to live longer, not as a way to get blown up by poor people, everyone will work really hard to make these treatments as cheap as possible as soon as possible. That'll be a lot easier with a bit of forward-planning, though -- e.g., an investment in training a currently unnecessary-looking number of medical professionals. But one way or another these treatments will definitely become universally available in the end, probably only a few years after they become available at all, even though the cost of doing this will be staggering. The only way to have a sense of proportion about this period is to remember that it'll be the last chapter in what we can definitely call the War On Aging -- people worldwide will readily make the same sort of sacrifices that they make in wartime, in order to end the slaughter as soon as possible.

As with all new technologies, real anti-aging therapies will initially be expensive, of poor quality and largely unavailable. The first customers will essentially play the parts of testers who pay for the research and development needed to produce a better, cheaper product. I agree that inequality is a concern - as for any medical technology - but I don't see inequalities in access to real anti-aging medicine leading to any greater level of social unrest than existing inequalities in access to treatment for life-threatening illnesses. I think that we can deal with the future commercialization and development of healthy life extension therapies using the same strategies we would like to use for present day medicines.

The way to increase reliability, availability and lower the cost of desirable medical technologies is to let the free market alone and reduce the size of government. Government interference always, always slows down progress, when what is needed is a dynamic growth economy. You don't make new technologies available to the poor any faster through government intervention, and a large government (with accompanying large tax and regulatory burden) greatly increases the cost of progress in the future.

In any case, Aubrey de Grey - like most people - is not at all libertarian and sees a real role for government in the world. You can castigate that if you like, but he's out there doing real, effective work aimed at extending the healthy human life span while you (and I) are writing blog entries.


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