Scientific Sense Podcast

Friday, November 22, 2013

The value of time

A recent study from the Mayo clinic that shows extremely high mortality in patients who are over 75 years old who have elected to undergo dialysis is sobering. With over 40% of the sample population passing within six months and a high percentage unable to return home, one has to wonder if decision-making could be improved. This is indeed a difficult question, one that may not have a clear answer, but it is worthwhile to think about it.

If human life cannot be infinitely sustained, then, there is an optimal decision point to extinguish it. If the objective function is a combination of individual and societal utility, maximization of value would require a mutual decision. If human life is standardizable, allowing high substitutability, life would appear to be a wasting asset. In such a situation, life will unambiguously lose value with time and the option held by the individual and society mutually to terminate would be optimally exercised earlier than what current norms allow. Thus, modern societies need to postulate better exits for its members.

On the other hand, if science and technology slopes indicate a step-function change to improve the life span of humans by orders of magnitude, then, exercising the option to exit early is suboptimal – both for the individual and possibly for society. In a world of declining aggregate number of humans, such an exit is extremely expensive. Assuming substitutability, the value of a human life, then, is a function of stock and flow of humans as well as the forecasted lifespan of an individual.

Thus, the value of remaining time for an individual can be reliably forecasted using a few attributes such as total population, net rate of growth and the probability of extension of human lifespan in the near future.

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