Video and Transcript of Aubrey de Grey Presenting to the Effective Altruism Community

Aubrey de Grey administers the scientific programs at the SENS Research Foundation, and is a leading figure in the rejuvenation research community and newly formed longevity industry. Here find a transcript of his present commentary on the state of rejuvenation research, lightly tailored for delivery to an audience of effective altruists. Effective altruism is a useful movement, I feel, if nothing else for the pressure that advocates might bring to bear on the corruption and ineffectiveness of much of present day institutional philanthropy. Further, while it might seem self-evident to much of the Fight Aging! audience that the most efficient use of charitable donations, if one aims to reduce suffering in the world, is to fund rejuvenation research programs, the public at large is still far removed drawing this same conclusion. More persuasion is needed, and effective altruists are already engaged in exactly that sort of effort.

The effective altruism community has a culture of running the numbers and arguing from data, and this is attached to a culture of advocacy for their view on how to conduct philanthropy in a more efficient way. Once one starts to run the numbers and argue from data, it is quite hard to avoid the conclusion that aging is by far the worst problem affecting humanity, and thus working to treat aging, in an era in which this is a plausible goal, is by far the most effective form of philanthropy. Aging is the greatest cause of suffering and death in the world, far more so than even infectious disease, war, and poverty. Given this, effective altruists have the potential to become vocal advocates for the cause of human rejuvenation.

Aubrey de Grey: Rejuvenation Technology - Will "Age" Soon Cease to Mean "Aging"?

What I'm going to do today is try to explain why I believe it makes sense for effective altruists (EAs) to prioritize the issue of aging. To make that case, there are a number of questions that need to be answered in the affirmative. First, is aging a really big problem? I believe that it is, by a good distance, the world's biggest problem. But I understand that this group thinks very carefully about such statements, so I need to justify my opinion. The second argument I need to make is that we have a sufficient understanding today of what aging is, and generally how we might go about addressing it. Therefore, if we throw money at this problem, there's a good chance of having a significant impact. This is not trivial. Other times that I've spoken at EA events, I've received a lot of pushback. Many EAs believe we understand so little about aging that what we do at the SENS Research Foundation is essentially random, and therefore spending money on it is unjustified. The third argument I need to make is very new. It's really only arisen over the past few years, and it is this: philanthropy is still critical, even though private investment in the study of aging has exploded.

To address the first point - why aging is important - I'm just going to tell you why I think that is clearly true. To me, it's just a fact that aging causes far more suffering than anything else in the world today or in the foreseeable future. It's not just the death part. We're talking about effective altruism here, and altruism means worrying about other people. People dying makes other people unhappy. That's not arguable. But what might be much more important is that when people die of aging, they do it slowly. They do it as a consequence of a chronic, progressive accumulation of damage in the body, a decline in mental and physical function. So, to me, it's self-evident that aging is, by far, the source of the largest amount of suffering in the world today. You could even argue that it was true a long time ago.

Now I'm going to address the second question. In order to do that, I'm going to fill in a lot of background information. Aging is the combination of two processes, metabolism and damage, which together result in pathology. A network of processes keeps us alive - that's what metabolism means - and, over time, generates damage. Currently, the overwhelming majority of money and effort spent to prevent the pathologies of late life is spent wrongly. It is spent on trying to break the link between damage and pathology. Damage, by definition, is accumulating, which means that efforts to stop it from causing pathology are bound to become progressively less effective as someone gets older. It's obvious. What we might be able to do is separate the component processes of metabolism and damage from each other. That's the maintenance approach - it's damage repair. We might be able to periodically repair some of the damage that metabolism generates, so that even though it continues to generate it, the damage does not reach a level of abundance that causes pathology. I think it is reasonable to call this the common sense alternative.

Seventeen years ago, I described the damage of aging in only seven words, as seven types of damage: cell loss or atrophy, division-obsessed cells, death-resistant cells, mitochondrial mutations, intracellular waste products, extracellular waste products, extracellular matrix stiffening. What's most important is the fact that for each of these types of damage, we can describe a generic therapy that could potentially represent the maintenance approach - the way to repair this type of damage. However, one thing I want to emphasize is that I'm not the only one saying this anymore. Five or 10 years ago, this was an argument that still needed to be made. But now it has been made. As an illustration, the Hallmarks of Aging paper came out only six years ago, and will be by far the most highly-cited paper this decade in the whole of the biology of aging. It's simply a restatement of what I said more than a decade earlier. The important point is that a divide-and-conquer, damage-repair approach is now a completely mainstream, orthodox idea.

On the the third point, that philanthropy still matters despite the growth of a longevity industry, SENS Research Foundation views itself these days as the engine room of that industry. We work on early-stage projects for as long as it takes to establish sufficient proof of concept to spin them out into startup companies. We're not the only ones. The Longevity Research Institute (LRI) is a new organization that's working in a more narrowly defined space. But they may grow, and, of course, there are going to be other organizations like this. Philanthropy matters enormously in this. We believe that we can get all - or at least almost all - of the key technologies in rejuvenation biotechnology into clinical trials within a few years. But the key point here is that the things being funded effectively by the private sector are the low-hanging fruit. And damage repair is an inherently divide-and-conquer concept. You can't just focus on the low-hanging fruit. You've got to address all of the components. It's more important than ever to make progress on the most difficult areas, and that is still a goal for philanthropy.


At the end of the transcript , while answering questions he gives an estimate of how much money are needed to solve the aging (probably before human trials) and he gave this:

"o when I get asked that question and want to provide a headline, I say tiny amounts - a half-billion dollars over a period of 10 years would be enough. It's probably even down now to about a quarter-billion dollars. It's definitely still an order of magnitude more than what we have at the SENS Research Foundation (our budget is about $5 million per year), but it's a pitifully small amount of money compared to what's generally spent on medical research..."

Just to put it perspective. Uber has lost 5B in one quarter. And this is investors money, not a philanthropic research...

Posted by: cuberat at February 14th, 2020 6:18 AM

So on Twitter today, Longevity wunderkind Laura Deming makes the following pronouncement:

"In 2011, the major limiting constraint in longevity was capital. Today, it's literally founders. "

Is she delusional?

I see a handful of legitimate investors (Mellon, etc.), with far too little funding yet to move the needle in the big way SENS requires, not to mention hundreds of decent longevity-tech companies starving for capital.

What's with these Silicon Valley bubble kids??

Posted by: don dagle at February 14th, 2020 7:21 AM

"People dying makes other people unhappy."
There are exceptions that prove the rule.

Posted by: Tom Schaefer at February 14th, 2020 7:40 AM

@don dangle:

The complete twit is: "In 2011, the major limiting constraint in longevity was capital. Today, it's literally founders. People tell me they're going to start a software co, make $, and donate it to the field. Don't do that - start a longevity co! We need more founders, not more $."

That doesn't make much sense to me. The people that want to go that route (software co + donation) choose that because they don't have money. So they have to make money, and software is the cheapest industry to enter. The entry barrier is quite low. You can literally write a software that makes you rich in your parents' garage. OTOH, you need a lot of money to develop a new drug.

Posted by: Antonio at February 14th, 2020 10:54 AM

"We need more founders, not more $."???

What complete insanity

Tell that to some of these companies -

She needs a dose of reality

Posted by: David Permisov at February 14th, 2020 1:35 PM

@Don and David: someone who funds research is a funder not a founder. So unless she misspelt the word or there's a typo in the quote, she may be saying that we need more people who found (=create) companies in order to diversify.

Posted by: Barbara T. at February 14th, 2020 2:12 PM

To clarify: barriers of entry may be lower for a software start up if you want to go it alone. But realistically only a tiny tiny fraction of people become wealthy by writing apps. If it were an easy get-rich-quick scheme everybody would be doing it.

What she likely means is that a good biotech idea in 2020 attracts the attention of people who a decade ago wouldn't have invested their lunch money in the field. I think she is just bemoaning a lack of diversity.

There are many ideas that are good on paper but aren't moving out of academia and aren't getting picked up by the big players because any one company can't spread itself too thin.

Posted by: Barbara T. at February 14th, 2020 2:28 PM

@Barbara T.:

I didn't say it was easy. Only that, if you have a good idea and some skill, you can make hundreds of millions of dollars from your software, but, in medicine, you need a good idea, some skill AND a lot of money. Take for example Musk or Bezos. Could they start their own rocket company from scratch, instead of becoming successful entrepreneurs in the software/internet bussiness beforehand? I highly doubt so. Software provides a very cheap entry point if you are sufficiently talented.

Posted by: Antonio at February 14th, 2020 2:52 PM

@Antonio: sure, I am not disputing that. But this doesn't mean that Laura Deming's observation that there should be more biotech company founders (aka companies to invest in) is "complete insanity", as you guys are suggesting here.

All she is saying is that in 2020 there are more people willing to invest in the field (=more potential $$) than in 2011 but not enough companies to invest in. Think about glucosepane cleavers or transthyretin amyloyd clearance: how many start ups are working on it?

I think that her comments are being misinterpreted and that what she means is simply that more diversity and multiple research angles would attract more money into the field.

She is a fund manager, and as such she knows that the better (=wider, more diverse) your portfolio is, the more investors you will attract. Which is what we want, really.

Posted by: Barbara T. at February 15th, 2020 12:42 AM

He looks very old and damaged (coherence is also an issue). In comparison, Prof. George Church looks like his son, and Prof. David Sinclair like his nephew.

Posted by: m at February 18th, 2020 11:09 AM

Be careful when you say that working on aging is "by far the most effective form of philanthropy". If you believe human extinction has a decent chance of happening and there are plausible and neglected ways to avert that, it can easily trump aging-research as a cause-area if you adopt a total utilitarian view of population ethics. Moreover, even if that wasn't the case, good philanthropists need to answer the questions of how neglected and tractable aging research actually is. Judging only from the scope of a problem will not get you to the most cost-effective answer.

Nonetheless, I think aging research should be a top-priority in EA, and that promising and tractable research is currently extremely neglected. That is why I wrote a series of articles in the EA Forum to establish a theoretical framework to help evaluate the cost-effectiveness of any given project in this area. The EA Forum is probably the most "authoritative" hub where you can post your independent research in Effective Altruism. You can find all of my posts here:

My most recent post is about the cost-effectiveness of SENS specifically (which I believe is extremely high), and it includes some questions I would like to ask Aubrey de Grey for an interview with him to be published in the EA Forum. In the introduction of the post, you will also find why EAs don't finance only one, most cost-effective, cause.

Bonus: Open Philanthropy, a notorious non-profit operating under the principles of Effective Altruism, has donated large grants to aging research. Two to Irina Conboy (total: 5.3M) and one to Steve Horvath (2.3M). Search for their names in their grant database here: Open Philanthropy has also released a "medium investigation" on aging research back in 2017, which I quote (and criticize) extensively in my posts:

Posted by: Emanuele Ascani at February 23rd, 2020 9:13 AM

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