Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Consequences of Some Longevity Treatments

There is much in the world to learn and experience, but relatively little time. I would therefore like to live forever. Alas, the prospects are not too good, but one never knows. Death is a gamble, because in case there is no afterlife, there will be no new things to learn (not even that there is nothing, since one will not be there to see it), and in case there is an afterlife, it is not necessarily one in which there are things to learn. It follows that I would be very keen on effective longevity treatments. With certain of them, however, I wonder if they may be associated with negative externalities such that they do no good in the end.
For instance, travelling near the speed of light makes time go by more slowly for the traveller. One potential longevity treatment is to send oneself on a journey through space at a speed close to that of light (according to our best understanding of the laws of physics, it is not possible to exceed the speed of light, only to asymptote towards it), so that upon one's return to Earth, the other humans will have made radical progress towards life extension.
But why would the other humans stay on Earth? They should want to travel almost at the speed of light, too. The obvious response is for travellers to compensate relatively stationary individuals to work towards longevity, but how does the market accomplish this? A firm could provide near-speed-of-light travel and charge a price high enough to compensate longevity researchers for their efforts, but another firm could provide only the travel and thereby charge a lower price. The result could then be that we would all be going through life far more slowly than would relatively more stationary people. Nobody gets any benefits of living longer, since research will not progress any more rapidly relative to how long we live. The mechanics of near speed-of-light travel are like those of a positional good.
Obviously this is a very scaled-down and simple approach, maybe even simplistic. There are other reasons one might wish to travel near the speed of light, and many individuals may want to spend a large fraction of their lives in relative stationarity, depending on how exactly the travelling would happen (small capsule or Starship Enterprise-style travelling? ways of communicating with other travellers, etc.). But if we imagine that near speed-of-light travel is perfectly comfortable and comparable to purchasing a bike in terms of price, then surely it should be wanted by all. If very few others are doing it, it increases one's life expectancy; if almost everyone is doing it, not travelling means ageing faster than do the travellers, who might make a breakthrough towards longevity (not travelling also means that communication with travellers will be scarce).

Those who travel will effectively lose touch with the folks in relative stationarity, since members of the latter group age so much faster than do members of the former. This is a cost of travelling, but it is one which declines the more people come with, i.e. declines in the number of other travellers with whom communication is possible. Travelling aboard the same spacecraft or in the same direction will ensure the possibility of communicating among the fast travellers.

I suppose similar reasons would apply to many other methods of life extension. Cryonics, if it turned out to work perfectly (the jury is out on that), would be individually rational but socially wasteful. What the Gelehrten usually say about cryonics is that the healthier the frozen body, the better its prospects, so all should do it as soon as possible, but then longevity will improve less quickly since such a great share of humanity is frozen.

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