Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Hopeful Science, Doubtful Economics: Reading Zhavoronkov's "The Ageless Generation"

The Author of this work, Alex Zhavoronkov  is highly optimistic about the eventual success of biological technology in vastly increasing human lifespans.  He is also pessimistic about the state of the economy.  These two threads come together in this book,  “The Ageless Generation”.  In it, he argues that the government should simultaneously ramp up research and development in these areas  ( for example, we should make a much more concerted effort to cure cancer) while also rolling back the welfare state that covers seniors (social security and Medicare in the US).

I don’t want to go through a point-by-point rebuttal, mainly because the premise is so interesting.  So many people look to the future as either a utopia or a dystopia, but unless the political ideal of the futurist in question covers economics specifically, the projections feel like they assume the everyday economy as continuing to exist as is.  I think that this book falls into that trap.  How is it that we live in a world where we may cure death, but we haven’t cured work?  I like my job, but I’m not so scared of my own mortality that I want to keep doing it for another couple of decades to comfortably live into my 120s.  I think that is a major blind spot here, not considering the nature of work excepting computer-mediated knowledge work.  Add to that the idea that people not exiting jobs disrupts the current schema where people retire out and get promoted up and graduates enter the labor market – curing death will lock young people into either entry-level  jobs or unemployment for a very long time.  

The second issue that got me was that he is very focused on both of his fixes.  The singularity that we will reach is a biological one, where the life expectancy increases faster than the calendar year as prophesized by Aubrey De Grey (Both referenced in the book and a writer of a blurb). As far as I remember, there is no mention of a technological singularity more associated with the work of Ray Kurzweil which could be a rival or a symbiotic vision of the future.  The other focus is on rolling back “entitlements” which would be hard because people have paid into those programs and people have real expectations for when they can leave the labor force.  I don’t know why extending the working life is important here.  If you solve for death, you can maybe reimagine a world where there is more art, and more leisure time (I know Marx and Keynes were able to imagine it).  There are other places in the budget where savings can be had. 

I just worry that the book may be overselling the idea that we can even achieve what he’s saying can be met biologically.  He marvels at the increase in life expectancy in the 20th century, but were those achievements just the low-hanging fruit of life-extension?  I’m not sure about that, but I worry about nature fighting back.   One thing I kept thinking about was the evolution of anti-bacterial-resistant  bugs.  There aren’t many new penicillins in the pipeline, and we have to keep at it just to keep where we are (and that’s just one example of what can happen to the organism, and ignoring any systemic issues).  We have also to struggle with people taking for granted now simple things like vaccines.  People have been worrying about their safety, even though it is hard to prove absence: anecdotes beat statistical evidence and probabilities.  I suppose if you could cure cancer, you’d have a pretty high-take up, but it is harder to sell prevention as opposed to intervention.

I am sure that Zhavoronkov has heard many of these criticisms before.  This book is more for a popular audience, so it is more of an introduction.  I hope he is right on the science.  That’s where I feel his domain lays.  The economics need more work, and I think he is largely incorrect mainly because of a lack of imagination.  If the science works, the cultural change will refigure economics and art and the nature of work.  I’m interested in seeing what’s next.
I received a copy of this book in exchange for review.