The Distribution of Post-Humanity

H+: Can you give our readers a brief synopsis of your view of why posthumanity will be more distributed and less likely to create population problems than many people suspect?

NAAM: Sure. There are really two specific questions that come up frequently: “Who will be able to afford these technologies?” and “Won’t the population explode if we lengthen human life?”

On the population question, it turns out that the major driver of population growth is really fertility rather than the death rate. If you look around the world, the countries with the longest life expectancies — Japan, Sweden — are actually shrinking in population. As these countries have gotten rich, people — particularly women — have decided that they want fewer children. On the other hand, the countries where population is rapidly growing — Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan — have relatively low life expectancies.

People die early there, but those who survive have big families. On the other hand, over the next 50 years, the UN projects that 3.7 billion people are going to die on this planet, while another 6.6 billion will be born. That’ll take global population to about 9 billion people. Of the 3.7 billion who are projected to die in the next 50 years, less than 2 billion of them will die of age-related causes. So even if we cured aging completely tomorrow, and magically delivered the cure to the entire world, the largest possible impact would be about 2 billion lives over 50 years. That would increase global population in 2050 from about 9 billion to about 11 billion — a big change, but not as radical as the more than doubling that happened between 1950 and 2000.

In any case, aging isn’t going to be cured tomorrow. I walk through some calculations that if you could raise global life expectancy to 120 years by 2050 — almost twice what it is today — you would raise the 2050 population from the current projection of 8.9 billion people to 9.4 billion people. That’s a good-sized increase, but as a percentage of population, it’s actually smaller than the change that occurred between 1970 and 1973.

The takeaway, for me, is that life extension isn’t going to have any radical effect on population for some time.

…even if we cured aging… tomorrow, and… delivered the cure to the entire world, the largest possible impact would be about 2 billion lives over 50 years.

The question of economic access is a little more complex. People do worry that when these enhancement technologies come out, only the rich will have access to them. And they’re right — at the very beginning, only the rich will be able to afford some of these techniques. It helps to realize, though, that most of these enhancement techniques are really information goods. They cost a huge amount to develop, but almost nothing to manufacture. The same thing is generally true of pharmaceuticals today. Viagra costs about $15 per pill, but only a few cents of that is production cost. Mostly it’s Pfizer bringing in profit or paying off the $1 billion price tag of developing a new drug. Pfizer can charge that much because the drug is patented. By law, no one else can manufacture it without Pfizer’s consent. But in 2012, the patent expires. At that point, any generic manufacturer can make the drug. The more suppliers you have, the more price competition sets in. The more consumers you have, the more incentive there is for suppliers to enter the market. The net effect is that, the more desired any information good is, the cheaper it will be to acquire.

You can see this when you look at drugs that are commonly used today. Penicillin was absolutely priceless when first introduced to the market. But now it costs less than one cent per dose to manufacture, and twenty cents a dose to buy online. The same inverted supply and demand even applies to non-drug techniques. LASIK cost $5,000 per eye when it first came out — now you can get it for $299. As more and more people wanted LASIK, more doctors started offering it. And the more doctors there are offering it, the more they have to compete with each other on price.

The absolute worst thing you can do — if you want these technologies equally available to poor and rich — is to ban them. Prohibition would create a black market with worse safety, higher prices, and no scientific tracking of what’s going on. Viagra and cocaine cost roughly the same per gram at the moment. In a decade, Viagra will be much cheaper but cocaine will be around the same price it is now. I think we’d rather have our enhancements follow prescription drug economics rather than illegal drug economics.

And even if governments could implement perfect bans, that wouldn’t stop people from using these technologies. Asia is much more receptive to biotech than the US and Europe. If a rich couple can’t get the genetic treatments they want here, they can absolutely fly to Singapore or Thailand and have it done there. The poor or middle class couple doesn’t have the same options.


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