What to make of Aubrey de Grey's prediction?

post by Rafael Harth (sil-ver) · 2020-02-28T19:25:18.027Z · score: 24 (9 votes) · LW · GW · 10 comments

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  Answers
    19 Rossin
    8 Matthew Barnett
    1 jmh
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10 comments

Aubrey de Grey (head of SENS) just had an appearance on Joe Rogan's podcast. At some point during the interview, he made a fairly specific and extremely bold prediction about the near future.

See 56:40 - 58:45+. The short version is: sometime in the near future ("could easily happen in the next 3 to 5 years"), there will be an extremely sudden shift in the public perception on aging through which the alleged fact that it can be reversed becomes common knowledge. At that point, there will be enormous pressure towards funding the field, and you won't get elected without promising to throw money at the problem.

A relevant reference class here could be something like "expert in a field predicting a massive near-term shift of awareness about something related to their field." Predictions in this class probably come true about 0% of the time. On the other hand, there are some reasons to think Aubrey is unusually credible.

My questions are

Answers

answer by Rossin · 2020-02-28T22:21:42.436Z · score: 19 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

As someone who works in biological science, I give the claim very little credence. I am someone who is very interested in Aubrey's anti-aging ideas and when I bring up aging with colleagues, it is considered to be a problem that will not be solved for a long time. Public opinion usually takes 3 to 5 years to catch up to scientific consensus, and there is no kind of scientific consensus about this. That said, the idea of not having to get old does excite people a lot more than many other scientific discoveries so it might percolate into mainstream much faster than other ideas. Still my sense is that the overwhelming majority of scientists are not on board, which will make it very unlikely for this shift in public perception to happen.

Further, I do not know why he would expect the public to care this much about the issue that it would be impossible to be elected without it. It's not like there's huge electoral pressure to increase spending on cancer or heart disease research, which are diseases that essentially everyone is impacted by (directly or indirectly). The idea that there will be huge pressure for aging research seems absurdly over-optimistic.

So I would give this claim very little credence personally despite the fact that I do think we can at least make major strides into treating age-related pathology within the coming decades if it receives sufficient funding.

comment by Matthew Barnett (matthew-barnett) · 2020-02-28T23:01:50.525Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
That said, the idea of not having to get old does excite people a lot more than many other scientific discoveries so it might percolate into mainstream much faster than other ideas.

This is the opposite of my own impression, as people seemed way more interested in eg. the image of a black hole than any biological discovery I can recall.

I do think we can at least make major strides into treating age-related pathology within the coming decades if it receives sufficient funding.

Since you said that you are very interested in Aubrey's ideas, do you have any thoughts on his framework that treating the pathologies of old age is an incorrect paradigm of medicine?

comment by Rossin · 2020-02-29T21:22:17.132Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

So to clarify, I think there is merit in his approach of trying to engineer solutions to age related pathology. However, I do not think it will work for all aspects of aging right now. Aubrey believes that all the damage caused by aging are problems that we can begin solving right now. I would suspect that some are hard problems that will require a better understanding of the biological mechanisms involved before we can treat them.

So my position is that aging, like many fields, should be investigated both at the basic biology level and the from the perspective of trying to design therapeutics, because you don’t know if you can fix problems with current knowledge unless you try. However, if you fail to adequately treat the condition you want basic research to be ongoing.

comment by jmh · 2020-02-29T18:49:10.931Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wonder how much your first point might be due to the view getting excited about fountain of youth type things is a bit of a taboo, too vain and semi sinful. But if you look at behavior its a bit different. Several multi-billion dollar industries about looking and feeling young. But few are really ready to discuss that with just anyone they meet.

In some cases the model is for delivering the results is all about doing so gradually so its not quite as noticeable to those one interacts with on a daily/frequent basis.

answer by Matthew Barnett · 2020-02-28T20:54:31.943Z · score: 8 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
Aubrey didn't specify a testable criterion in this conversation, but a reasonable one could be something like "a candidate in the 2024 presidential general election lists fighting aging as a campaign issue on their official website."

You can check out my attempt on Metaculus to capture the essence of his claim, though it's debatable whether I succeeded. Right now Metaculus says there's a 75% chance of something culturally significant happening in anti-aging research in the 2020s.

My own guess is that something big might happen, but it would not cause public opinion to change as rapidly as what Aubrey has claimed. When the first mouse is demonstrated to have been rejuvenated, there will still be people who doubt it will scale to humans. I expect people to continue to doubt it until there is a very successful trial in humans, at which point opinion will probably have only gradually shifted in that direction beforehand.

I also expect people's resistance to anti-aging to have quite a bit of inertia. My impression is that most people strongly oppose the research, or are indifferent, so it's hard to imagine why this would change due to some development in mice.

comment by Rafael Harth (sil-ver) · 2020-02-28T21:05:57.386Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
You can check out my attempt on Metaculus to capture the essence of his claim, though it's debatable whether I succeeded. Right now Metaculus says there's a 75% chance of something culturally significant happening in anti-aging research in the 2020s.

This is good. However, you did set the bar for positive resolution a lot lower than I would have based on what he claimed this time around.

comment by Matthew Barnett (matthew-barnett) · 2020-02-28T21:33:04.607Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I expected most people to be very skeptical of his strict claim so I wanted a more realistic hypothesis.

answer by jmh · 2020-02-28T20:46:36.724Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, seems like one way, if you think the prediction highly likely, would be to become that politician. Seems like it might be a pathway for a new politician to party leadership -- or at least huge side payments if you became the primary figure in allocation of those public funds.

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comment by Mitchell_Porter · 2020-02-28T23:57:14.164Z · score: 11 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You can tell an audience that they have a chance of living a thousand years, and they will be indifferent. You cannot count on mass support for such an agenda.

comment by jmh · 2020-02-28T20:44:03.657Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Did I miss something somewhere?

" there will be an extremely sudden shift in the public perception on aging through which the fact that it can be reversed becomes common knowledge." (emphasis mine)

Really, this is a fact or is it a "fact"?

And I ask seriously, even if a bit provocatively. I do know there are theories that this can eventually be done but don't think we yet have that knowledge. So not sure if he is talking about the perception of this being a fact and that getting into the political mind and debate or really claiming we can now reverse aging.

comment by Rafael Harth (sil-ver) · 2020-02-28T20:51:15.776Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

My bad for being unclear. We're strictly talking about the perception of it being a fact. I did not intend to include any factual claim into my paraphrasing.

I added an "alleged" in there. I think it's a pretty safe bet that Aubrey considers it a fact.

comment by jmh · 2020-02-28T21:04:45.128Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

No worries - I can easily read a stronger claim that intended. Thanks for clarifying.

Perhaps he does. Didn't he make the prediction a year or so back that someone living today will live to 1000?

comment by shminux · 2020-02-29T04:53:00.326Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is this the first prediction he has made? If not, what is his track record?

comment by Matthew Barnett (matthew-barnett) · 2020-02-29T05:08:00.569Z · score: 11 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

He made a similar prediction for 2020 here, and I think most would agree that he was incorrect under a reasonable interpretation.

comment by shminux · 2020-02-29T05:17:28.787Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ah. Did he own up to being incorrect and has he changed his methodology as a result? If not, then I'd be very skeptical.

comment by Matthew Barnett (matthew-barnett) · 2020-02-29T06:12:20.857Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

He has responded to people who critiqued his incorrect predictions on Quora before. For instance, see here. His main reply is to say that his predictions were always conditioned on adequate funding (but that's not my impression from seeing a few of his older predictions).

I've been tracking him for a while and it seems he rarely changes his methodology, and usually says things that makes me think he's not doing proper Bayesianism (such as keeping a very specific prediction constant and not changing it despite years of evidence accumulating). The analogue in, for example in AI safety, would be someone who says for 5 years that there was a 50/50 chance of AGI coming by 2029 and they kept this specific prediction constant.

For these reasons, I am very skeptical of his reliability.

comment by Thomas Kwa (thomas-kwa) · 2020-04-10T03:29:41.419Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do you have examples of such stagnant predictions? That would indeed be strong evidence against his reliability if the accumulated evidence clearly points in one direction relative to his expectations.

comment by mfoley · 2020-04-10T03:43:37.894Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If there is ever going to be a cultural shift in this direction, now would be a logical time for it to happen. Boomers have had a disproportionate impact on the American zeitgeist at every phase of their lives. They are now getting to the age where their primary concern is likely to be their own mortality. Based on the way the Boomer generation is often portrayed as demanding a high quality of life for themselves, it seems possible that they will try to re-prioritize society to prevent their own deaths. I still don't take the idea seriously that this will happen but it's a point in favor of it.