Modeling the Human Trajectory (Open Philanthropy)

by Aaron Gertler 1 min read16th Jun 20204 comments

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I've cross-posted the beginning of this post so people can see what it's about, but I haven't reformatted the entire post. To see the full version, visit the link above. 


In arriving at our funding priorities—including criminal justice reform, farm animal welfare, pandemic preparedness, health-related science, and artificial intelligence safety—Open Philanthropy has pondered profound questions. How much should we care about people who will live far in the future? Or about chickens today? What events could extinguish civilization? Could artificial intelligence (AI) surpass human intelligence?

One strand of analysis that has caught our attention is about the pattern of growth of human society over many millennia, as measured by number of people or value of economic production. Perhaps the mathematical shape of the past tells us about the shape of the future. I dug into that subject. A draft of my technical paper is here. (Comments welcome.) In this post, I’ll explain in less technical language what I learned.

It’s extraordinary that the larger the human economy has become—the more people and the more goods and services they produce—the faster it has grown on average. Now, especially if you’re reading quickly, you might think you know what I mean. And you might be wrong, because I’m not referring to exponential growth. That happens when, for example, the number of people carrying a virus doubles every week. Then the growth rate (100% increase per week) holds fixed. The human economy has grown super-exponentially. The bigger it has gotten, the faster it has doubled, on average. The global economy churned out $74 trillion in goods and services in 2019, twice as much as in 2000.1 Such a quick doubling was unthinkable in the Middle Ages and ancient times. Perhaps our earliest doublings took millennia.

If global economic growth keeps accelerating, the future will differ from the present to a mind-boggling degree. The question is whether there might be some plausibility in such a prospect. That is what motivated my exploration of the mathematical patterns in the human past and how they could carry forward. Having now labored long on the task, I doubt I’ve gained much perspicacity. I did come to appreciate that any system whose rate of growth rises with its size is inherently unstable. The human future might be one of explosion, perhaps an economic upwelling that eclipses the industrial revolution as thoroughly as it eclipsed the agricultural revolution. Or the future could be one of implosion, in which environmental thresholds are crossed or the creative process that drives growth runs amok, as in an AI dystopia. More likely, these impulses will mix.

I now understand more fully a view that shapes the work of Open Philanthropy. The range of possible futures is wide. So it is our task as citizens and funders, at this moment of potential leverage, to lower the odds of bad paths and raise the odds of good ones.

(Read the rest of this post.)

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