Effective Altruists Want to Engineer People to Sleep Less So They Can Work More

"Consider the value of 1 extra waking hour per day, times 365 days per year. Imagine that 100 million people ended up taking the drug; if we say each hour is worth at least $1 (a lowball), then that's $36 billion per year."

“Sleep is for the weak.”

This expression is often tossed around jokingly. However, some effective altruists believe there is a moral imperative to get the human race to sleep less, in part to increase economic output. This idea has gained some traction in EA circles, and there’s even been some funding to explore the idea more. 

"We know the genes for ‘short sleepers’ (5 hours instead of 8, no bad side effects); using embryo gene editing, newborns could have these as default setting. Would increase effective human lifespan by ~20%. Seems like a clear EA cause area," Nabeel Qureshi, a former AI scientist at Palantir, tweeted earlier this year. "Of course, I’m sure 'bioethicists' will rationally consider the costs and benefits here. Certainly they won’t be too risk-averse, can’t imagine that happening."


Qureshi's tweet, which he later said was "somewhat tongue in cheek," went viral, with more than 2 million people viewing it. But effective altruists are indeed interested in the idea, and the economic implications of making people sleep less.The idea . "Short sleeper genes" was identified as a possible research area in the effective altruism forums last year.

"Consider the value of 1 extra waking hour per day, times 365 days per year," John Boyle, a user in the effective altruism forums wrote, "and imagine that 100 million people ended up taking the drug; if we say each hour is worth at least $1 (a lowball), then that's $36 billion per year.”

Effective altruism is a philosophical and social movement that advocates for various actions or behaviors that would benefit the common good. Over the past couple of years, it’s been in the news in various forms. (For one, Sam Bankman-Fried was a strong adherent of a form of it, which argues that a person should amass power and wealth so they can then donate it and create social change).


Boyle's post goes something like this: by hardwiring humans to sleep less, it will increase our waking hours and thus effective life span. Increasing the amount of time humans are awake, Boyle argues, will allow us to be more productive––after all, if we have more waking hours in the day, we can get more done. 

Boyle’s rationale is somewhat based on a few studies on “short sleeper genes,” and “familiar natural short sleepers (FNSS)––people who sleep four to six hours a day and still lead a healthy life. In his post, he proposes the idea of developing a drug that could mimic some of these genes. 

“Such a drug would be enormously valuable.  If it worked, presumably it would give people at least one extra waking hour per day, and maybe the '"higher resilience and productivity'" side effects would be real too,” he writes.

Boyle submitted this idea to Open Philanthropy—a research and grantmaking foundation devoted to effective altruism—and won a $500 honorable mention prize to explore it further.

Boyle’s post has gotten a fair bit of feedback on the EA forums, and others in the community have also analyzed this possibility. A blog called Harsimony, for example, explored this through an economic lens in a post called “Let’s Eliminate Sleep”: “Imagine being offered 30% more lifespan, leisure time, or time to create. Imagine if everyone could get more out of every single day of their life. An invention which made this possible would naturally be one of the most important near-term goals of humanity,” they wrote. “Immediately, the economy would grow significantly because there is more demand for leisure combined with more labor supply.”


Harsimony did, however, admit people may have an averse reaction to this: “Unlike other innovations I have discussed, I can imagine people strongly objecting to getting rid of sleep.”

The possibility has also been discussed on other EA-centric websites and other EA forum posts.

In terms of what the science actually says, geneticist Michael Weedon explained to me that there are genes that have some associations with sleep duration and sleep timing (Weedon wrote about some of these genes in a paper he coauthored, published in PLOS last September). However, most of the research on these “short sleeper genes” has only been conducted in mice–so it’s unclear what the long term effects of manipulating humans would be.  Not to mention, sleep is a complex trait, and influenced by a lot of different factors.

“Sleep is much more environmental,” he said. “You have lots of different reasons for poor sleep.”

And while “familiar natural short sleepers” do exist, the genetic mechanisms are still pretty unclear.

“We know it’s possible for humans to do that, these people shown us that,”  Ying-Hui Fu, a professor at University of California San-Francisco who studies familiar natural short sleepers, explained. “But we have to understand how and what makes it that way and then we could correctly figure out a way to help everybody else get a good sleep and sleep as efficient as these sleepers. But I don’t think we are there yet.” 

Fu also reiterated the point that sleep is governed by many different factors. 

“We don’t want to start messing around our genes before we have a decent understanding of how and why this happens. The fact that so many different gene mutations can lead to the same thing indicate it’s a pretty complex system.”

Both Weedon and Fu acknowledged that the idea of improving sleep for a better society has some merit. But they both cautioned against using genetic engineering to improve sleep, citing various concerns around ethicality and also sheer lack of knowledge. (It’s also illegal to do any sort of human germ-line editing).

“It would be nice to sleep for two hours a night and feel fine, you get a much longer wake time. I understand the argument, it’s an interesting idea,” Weedon added. “But whether it’s actually possible and should be done on a population wide level, I doubt is a good idea.”