The coming revolution over anti-aging research

On Bloggingheads’ Science Saturday, Methuselah Foundation chairman Aubrey de Gray argues that eternal life is within reach and attacks those who think it’d be a bad idea.

But here’s something he and interviewer Eliezer Yudkowsky don’t address: on the day eternal life becomes available, it might be a bad idea for everybody over a certain age. Those people would be locked into life at their current age indefinitely, while the rest of the world — their future friends, enemies, bosses and lovers — would become an ever-swelling group of 24-year-olds.

How would society react to this approaching possibility?

Let’s start with four assumptions.

A) Eventually, scientists will figure out how to halt, but not reverse, aging. (Note: de Gray, presumably one of the world’s top experts on this question, doesn’t share this assumption.)

B) The worst possible scenario is to be permanently locked into old age while the number of 24-year-olds in the world grows ever larger. (Or, alternatively, to commit suicide.)

C) At current rates of research, it will be slightly more than 80 years before a cure for aging becomes widely available.

D) We’re all going to die at 98 of age-related ailments.


i. If an 18-year-old assumes that the time horizon before scientists cure aging might be shortened to 80 years with a bit more anti-aging research, then he will oppose anti-aging research. Because then aging will be cured while he’s still alive, and he’ll have to be old forever.

ii. The closer scientists approach that 80-year horizon, the more opposed to research our hypothetical 18-year-old will become.

iii. Therefore longevity research is likely to face accelerating political resistance at least until it crosses the 80-year horizon.

iv. Meanwhile, a hypothetical 38-year-old will be similarly motivated by a 60-year horizon, a hypothetical 48-year-old by a 50-year horizon, and so on. As with the 18-year-old, their opposition to anti-aging research will increase as we near each of these horizons.

v. At the moment the 80-year horizon is reached, the 18-year-old’s intensifying resistance to anti-aging research will peak. Though he still opposes the research, his worst-case scenario (to be forever 98) is subsequently impossible.

vi. However, all older voters will still feel increasing pressure to lengthen the horizon. The electorate’s overall resistance to anti-aging research will continue to climb.

vii. Somewhere between each voter’s current age and 98 is an optimal target age (“A Prime,” let’s call it) after which he or she will begin to prefer death to immortality. Let’s assume, for the 18-year-old, that A Prime is 68.

viii. When scientists cross the 50-year time horizon, the 18-year-old’s opposition to age research will reverse. He now supports rapid progress in anti-aging research.

ix. After that point, a large but ever-shrinking proportion of the electorate will expect to be older than A Prime at the time aging is cured. This ever-shrinking group will become ever more intensely opposed to anti-aging research.

x. Meanwhile, a small but ever-growing group will become ever more intensely supportive of anti-aging research.


In the year 2040 there will be a massive worldwide revolution of young against old and first against the wall will be the biologists.

– posted by Mike


7 Responses to The coming revolution over anti-aging research

  1. […] See the original post here: The coming revolution over anti-aging research « Geek Buffet […]

  2. […] The coming revolution over anti-aging research « Geek Buffet […]

  3. Alex Rudnick says:

    A few more questions to consider:

    – Would permanently being 90 be the worst thing in the world? Tai chi, antioxidants, and nanobots, and eternity doesn’t seem so bad. At least, until your hip goes out.

    – You don’t have to take the immortality treatment, if you think you’re too old to enjoy things, right? You could just opt out and let your younger friends enjoy. But once the treatment becomes available, the pressure to decide ramps up more and more as you age…

    – Although I might feel differently about it if things were somehow more certain, I’ll go ahead and claim that I want my (notional) children and grandchildren to have the opportunity to live arbitrarily long lives, even if I don’t get the chance. How can we account for altruism? (or is this altruistic?)

  4. Mike says:

    Excellent points!

    I tend to think it would indeed be pretty bad to be 90 when everybody else is young — the social abnormality alone would be overwhelming! — and I simultaneously think it would be pretty psychologically hard to choose not to take an immortality treatment if one were available. That said, I can imagine somebody disagreeing with me on both of these points.

    I did think a little bit about your third question: whether we act in the interests of our children. Basically I just bracketed it here and assumed that our own interests are so overwhelming that they outweigh our children’s. But I doubt this is actually true. Obviously we care about our kids, notional and otherwise.

    In the Bloggingheads interview, the Methuselah Foundation guy claims that many people are not motivated by their children’s or grandchildren’s best interest. (His proof, I think, is that there aren’t enough people donating money to the Methuselah foundation. Hmm.) In any case, I think I’ve read that this is one of the great unresolved disputes of economics: how much do people act in the interests of their descendants? For example, why on earth did we build the Brooklyn Bridge strong enough to last until 2300?

  5. TheGnat says:

    Well see, that all depends. If you believed in an afterlife, you’d probably be much more willing to not take the treatment. Additionally, I suspect the suicide rate among “immortals” would be higher in relation to how long they had lived.

    While Western literature is more reluctant to view immortality as a bad thing, the idea of regretting living forever is not an uncommon thing both in the West and East.

    Personally, I wouldn’t mind being youthful until I killed over at 100 or something. And despite never planning to have children, if I had money, I would fund such research even I had no hope of reaping the full benefits.

    Also, there is the possibility of full cyberization – those who missed out on the Fountain of Youth or whose bodies suck from birth could become full cyborgs instead. I think being a cyborg would kind of kick ass.

  6. E. Twieg says:

    My tongue-in-cheek response is to suggest you check out Logan’s Run, the original novella for a very 60’s take on your proposed revolution. At least the first couple chapters. The movie w/ Michael York is substancially different, especially from the middle on, but there’s Peter Ustinov as ‘The Very Old Man’ with 2 dozen cats living in the ruins of the Library of Congress, as an example of someone who is 90 among a crowd of the youhful. The social dynamic is not quite the same as suggested above though, since those particular ‘youthful’ have never been exposed to age, Rather than deeming it distasteful, or creating peer pressure for someone to take an immortality potion.

  7. E. Twieg says:

    Tangentially, the regret of a mortal for eternal life that Gnat mentions, goes at least back to the classical world with the tale of Aurora and the lover she persuades Zeus to make immortal…but forgets the clause about eternal youthfulness. He keeps getting creakier and finally begs to be turned into a grasshopper or a tree, to escape his fate. Expressing this regret seems to have become fairly popular in more modern literature, especially in genres where it is a more probably fate; vampire novels, mysterious scientific accidents, etc. I wonder if an upsurge of this sentiment regret can be correlated to either/both increasing longevity and the technophillia that characterizes the 20th century?

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