How would society change if we cured aging, and people could have as many healthy years of life as they wanted?

A common concern is that this would ossify our institutions. The old guard would never die off, and so would never be replaced by young bloods. This could threaten progress across the board, from governance to physics. If “science advances one funeral at a time,” what happens when the rate of funerals plummets?

It’s a real concern. But here are three reasons why curing aging could help progress:

  1. Population. One of the greatest threats to long-term progress may be a slowdown in global population growth. We need more brains to keep pushing science and technology forward. Yet right now, many wealthy nations have fertility rates below replacement levels. Curing aging would help temporarily by lowering the mortality rate. It could help permanently if people decide to have more children, on average. That might happen if longer lifespan means people feel they have time for both children and a career. (Remember that fully curing aging means maintaining reproductive health for all those years.)
  2. Burden of knowledge. There is a hypothesis that as knowledge grows, it takes longer to reach the frontier, and so individual researchers have less time to contribute advancements. They are also forced to specialize—but breakthroughs often come from making connections across far-flung disciplines. If individuals had much longer lifespans, it would be no problem for them to spend 30 or 40 years just learning, before making major contributions. And you could spend another 10 or 20 years picking up a couple more specialties in disparate areas.
  3. Long-term thinking. How would people’s thinking change if they felt they were going to live 150, 300, even 1,000 years or more? The very long-term becomes much more personal. Posterity is something you’re going to be around for.

I still think the “old guard” problem is real, and we’d have to come up with new mechanisms to address it. (Perhaps influential positions would institute a mandatory retirement age of 350.) But there are other factors to consider, and it’s not clear what the net impact would be.

(Not that this is an argument for or against curing aging! Ultimately, the knock-down argument for curing aging is that death is bad. In light of that, other considerations pale into insignificance.)

This essay was originally a Twitter thread, and was inspired by an online discussion about the Foresight Institute’s book-in-development, Gaming the Future.

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I wonder if another way to think about a piece of this problem is "how do we expand one's scientific/creative productivity peak." Now, don't get me wrong, I want to live 200 years as much as anybody here. So I want us to push for that also!

But it also does seem like a majority of our most progress-inducing ideas are not just coming from a severe minority of people, but happening in a severely limited age range of those people's lives. Mathematicians, physicists, chemists, etc. all have been known to be susceptible to this problem.

So, I could imagine a world where we extend lifespans without really expanding this productivity peak at all. And, there could be some good in that. But I'd also be quite interested if a piece of longevity focused on expanding our productivity peak. Under certain assumptions, I could see that doing just as much or more good for progress even if our life expectancy stayed fixed.

Thoughts?

Yeah, definitely. Some people suggested that part of curing aging is extending neuroplasticity, which could help you stay open and nimble-minded even when you're older. But I suspect that closed-mindedness is a function of both social and physiological causes, and I don't know what weight to give each.

This is fun to think about. Two thoughts popped up:

1. I wonder if it also changes researchers' appetite for risk knowing they may have time to recover in the future if their riskier projects fail.

2. Perhaps there's also a mechanism forcing science to be more robust/credible. If my career is now 100 years long rather than 30 years, there may be a longer-term penalty for engaging in shoddy science. (This probably sits under your long-term thinking bracket).

I think both points are very important. I also think they reduce the old guard risk. ,

Consider an example where a researcher is powerful in a paradigm that either is wrong or stagnant.

Currently, cognitive decline and a short horizon make it unattractive admit failure and start from scratch. Instead, you fight a rearguard action until retirement.

With longevity and 100 years to go, you would realize that defending the old paradigm is a losing battle, and you also have lots of time and cognitive ability to get back in learning mode and come back stronger. 

Yes, incredibly interesting.

Also, good seeing you here - I'm a big fan of your work!

The classic old guard problem is compelling, but seems rather hypothetical. I wonder if there have been case studies of fields that have moved fast/slow due to the longevity (or lack thereof) of their practitioners? For example, if a scientific field has been led by someone who lived into their 90s or 100s, did that field move more slowly? Can we analyze that?

There was a study that looked at what happens in a subfield when a dominant researcher dies in the middle of their career. Matt Clancy covers it here: Conservatism in Science