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In the year 2041, scientists have come up with a genetic modification that obviates the need for sleep in humans. The procedure is harmless, cheap, and has no harmful side effects. The result: you get back the third of your life that you waste sleeping.

Let's say we give away this genetic treatment to all of humanity at around the same time. (I know, I know...I'm asking a lot of you to suspend your disbelief that pharmaceutical companies wouldn't put on a stranglehold and exploit this miracle treatment.)

What would be some of the economic impacts if humans never needed to sleep?

Note: While sleep becomes unnecessary, humans would still feel mental and physical exhaustion, and would need some downtime to recharge. Thus, someone probably couldn't move bricks for days straight, or drive from Chengdu to Cape Town in one sitting.

Edit for Clarification: By recharge, I mean that you'd still need to take breaks. Have weekends, vacation time, etc. Think of your current work/life schedule. Now extrapolate that to include 8 more hours a day.

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    $\begingroup$ You've apparently never heard of New York, New York. ;) $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Jul 28 '15 at 17:47
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    $\begingroup$ I would be interested in a second question, "We clearly sleep for a purpose... what did we lose when we stopped sleeping?" Your question intentionally cuts out the side effects, but those side effects may be substantially more interesting than the mere economic impact. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jul 28 '15 at 18:19
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    $\begingroup$ @CortAmmon I actually intend to ask some more questions following this subject, but I thought it best to stick to just one aspect of the consequences for now, the one that is most relevant to what I'm working on currently :) $\endgroup$ – Seth Jul 28 '15 at 18:40
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    $\begingroup$ I wonder if anyone would still go to sleep, just for fun. Like, sleeping as a hobby. Some people think you're lazy, other people talk about the benefits for your imagination and how it's good for you. Just imagine talking about your sleeping hobby to someone who has never slept before... $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Jul 28 '15 at 18:49
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with @CortAmmon. What would be the economic implications of everyone slowly going insane? $\endgroup$ – Avon Jul 28 '15 at 19:19
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All right, so let's say the work day increases by four hours once no one has to sleep. Most people now spend around twelve hours working, and twelve hours off.

Surprisingly, I don't expect too many changes to occur here, so long as people re flexible (so, basically, it'll be really bad for a few years, but I'll get to that). The first change that must occur is that salaries must be dropped, across the board. If people are getting paid the same amount but working 50% more, layoffs are going to happen, everywhere. Some industries will be worse than others (for instance, software developers will be hit hard since their software will be the same, while waiters might get saved with more nighttime shifts), but overall you've essentially got two people doing as much work as three people before this change, so there's no reason to keep all three people on the payroll. Not only that, but the people who get to keep their jobs are going to get more money, while the people who lose them get less, eventually leading to an even larger divide between the rich and the poor.

So everyone is now getting paid less hourly, but the same overall. There is a slight problem that comes from the fact that people will want more money when they don't need to sleep: keeping the lights on all night, every night will eventually outstrip the cost of a bed, as will the extra cost of food to offset the calories you burn walking around when you used to be sleeping. The effect of this will probably be that everyone seems poorer, which, again, shouldn't be a problem. After all, most people tend to spend the money they're given; you buy more stuff when you get a raise, and you buy less stuff when you get a demotion. There may be an adjustment period, when people go bankrupt because they're spending more than they can afford, but after a while people will get used to it.

So, like I said, as long as people change with the times, there shouldn't be much economic impact. The initial change is going to be the worst, and if things don't adapt there's likely to be a depression, but hopefully the transition is gradual or controlled enough to avoid that.

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  • $\begingroup$ Your economics are off. If you produce more in that extra time, you pay for the extra salary you get (and more). You can then use that to buy more stuff that others make. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Jul 28 '15 at 22:06
  • $\begingroup$ @Oldcat Yeah, you may be right. I'll have to think about it though, a change like this throws all the variables off-balance, it's hard to keep track of them all. I just assumed that there are jobs that don't scale up for increased demand, such as my example of software development. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Jul 28 '15 at 22:51
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    $\begingroup$ For brain focused industries such as software or writing, you only get four good focus hours a day. Being at work for 12 hours doesn't make you more productive, just more burnt out. $\endgroup$ – Green Jul 28 '15 at 22:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Green Then either they work less than that and thus don't get enough money to support their current lifestyle, or they get paid less per hour because of the quality of their work, and the same thing happens. Either way, they don't get as much money as they want to. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Jul 28 '15 at 23:06
  • $\begingroup$ @DaaaahWhoosh I'm in a brain focused software engineering position. I often stay 10 hours instead of 8 to make up for lost hours, and I notice that the total hours spent is not at all representative of work done. Give me 4 more hours I will do more work, but not as much more as you may think. I'll just spend more time here lol. Besides, software engineering can use more developers, in this industry people with little training or skill are hired due to lack of developers, We can skill up to more work hours quite well. $\endgroup$ – dsollen Jul 29 '15 at 16:38
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There are already drugs in use today (eugenic drugs) which were developed to help people with narcolepsy, but experiments have been done with normal people and the primary effect of the drug seems to be to allow you to go without sleep as long as you continue to take the drug.

In the short term, these drugs also seem to focus concentration (or perhaps this is a side effect of being able to stay focused on a problem for much longer, this is not clear as far as I have been able to determine). In the longer term, one of the known negative effects is the immune system tends to weaken. Relatively preliminary results would seem to indicate that ill effects are minimized if you limit the use of eugenic drugs to 72hr at a time. Once again, I have not seen anything definitive about ideal on and off cycles for the use of the drugs.

So unless there are parallel developments, sleeping certainly seems to play a role in the proper functioning of the immune system. It is also thought that sleep provides time for the brain to integrate memories, associations and learning patterns, so perhaps one of the modifications should be to emulate a Dolphin brain, which can shut down one hemisphere at a time for sleeping, while the other half keeps watch for predators and provides the control needed to stay afloat and breathing.

As for society, there will be an uptick in productivity, as people can continue to work longer hours, or (using the example of the eugeroic drugs), be able to finish projects faster by pulling 72 hour long "all nighters". Heightened productivity leads to economic growth, and if it can be sustained there is a virtuous circle effect where incomes and benefits can rise as well. OTOH, being awake all the time will also lead to people needing to get away from each other, since constant close proximity will become stressful. We will probably see more things like clubs, all night movie theatres, games rooms and a galaxy of on line entertainment as people move to different physical and social spaces to get some space from each other. You might also develop several overlapping (or non overlapping) circles of friends and acquaintances who you interact with at different hours of the day.

The entertainment industry will certainly get a boost, as will the demand for creative people who can fill the time. That may be the biggest sticking point of al; without time to dream and process new information in the unconscious, will people still be able to be creative?

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