AI Impacts: Historic trends in technological progress

by Aaron Gertler3 min read12th Feb 20205 comments

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AI Impacts just released a collection of posts showing historical progress in a variety of technologies. Rather than cross-posting all of these articles individually, I've collected them in this post.

The speed of delivering a short message across the Atlantic Ocean saw at least three discontinuities of more than ten years before 1929, all of which also were more than one thousand years: a 1465-year discontinuity from Columbus’ second voyage in 1493, a 2085-year discontinuity from the first telegraph cable in 1858, and then a 1335-year discontinuity from the second telegraph cable in 1866.

The speed at which a military payload could cross the Atlantic ocean contained six greater than 10-year discontinuities in 1493 and between 1841 and 1957.

We measure eight discontinuities of over ten years in the history of longest bridge spans, four of them of over one hundred years, five of them robusts to slight changes in trend extrapolation.

The annual average increase in bridge span length increased by over a factor of one hundred between the period before 1826 and the period after (0.25 feet/year to 35 feet/year), though there was not a clear turning point in it.

Maximum light intensity of artificial light sources has discontinuously increased once that we know of: argon flashes represented roughly 1000 years of progress at past rates.

Annual growth in light intensity increased from an average of roughly 0.4% per year between 424BC and 1943 to an average of roughly 190% per year between 1943 and the end of our data in 2008.

The number of books produced in the previous hundred years, sampled every hundred or fifty years between 600AD to 1800AD contains five greater than 10-year discontinuities, four of them greater than 100 years. The last two follow the invention of the printing press in 1492.

The real price of books dropped precipitously following the invention of the printing press, but the longer term trend is sufficiently ambiguous that this may not represent a substantial discontinuity.

The rate of progress of book production changed shortly after the invention of the printing press, from a doubling time of 104 years to 43 years.

There do not appear to have been any greater than 10-year discontinuities in telecommunications performance, measured as:

  • bandwidth-distance product for all technologies 1840-2015
  • bandwidth-distance product for optical fiber 1975-2000
  • total bandwidth across the Atlantic 1956-2018

Radio does not seem likely to have represented a discontinuity in message speed.

Group index of light appears to have seen discontinuities of 22 years in 1995 from Coherent Population Trapping (CPT) and 37 years in 1999 from EIT (condensate). Pulse delay of light over a short distance may have had a large discontinuity in 1994 but our data is not good enough to judge. After 1994, pulse delay does not appear to have seen discontinuities of more than ten years.

Penicillin did not precipitate a discontinuity of more than ten years in deaths from syphilis in the US. Nor were there other discontinuities in that trend between 1916 and 2015.

The number of syphilis cases in the US also saw steep decline but no substantial discontinuity between 1941 and 2008.

On brief investigation, the effectiveness of syphilis treatment and inclusive costs of syphilis treatment do not appear to have seen large discontinuities with penicillin, but we have not investigated either thoroughly enough to be confident.

The maximum superconducting temperature of any material up to 1993 contained four greater than 10-year discontinuities: A 14-year discontinuity with NbN in 1941, a 26-year discontinuity with LaBaCuO4 in 1986, a 140-year discontinuity with YBa2Cu3O7 in 1987, and a 10-year discontinuity with BiCaSrCu2O9 in 1987.

YBa2Cu3O7 superconductors seem to correspond to a marked change in the rate of progress of maximum superconducting temperature, from a rate of progress of .41 Kelvin per year to a rate of 5.7 Kelvin per year.

The Elo rating of the best chess program measured by the Swedish Chess Computer Association did not contain any greater than 10-year discontinuities between 1984 and 2018. A four year discontinuity in 2008 was notable in the context of otherwise regular progress.

We estimate that Eli Whitney’s cotton gin represented a 10 to 25 year discontinuity in pounds of cotton ginned per person per day, in 1793. Two innovations in 1747 and 1788 look like discontinuities of over a thousand years each on this metric, but these could easily stem from our ignorance of such early developments. We tentatively doubt that Whitney’s gin represented a large discontinuity in the cost per value of cotton ginned, though it may have represented a moderate one.

Flight airspeed records between 1903 and 1976 contained one greater than 10-year discontinuity: a 19-year discontinuity corresponding to the Fairey Delta 2 flight in 1956.

The average annual growth in flight airspeed markedly increased with the Fairey Delta 2, from 16mph/year to 129mph/year.

We do not know if breech loading rifles represented a discontinuity in military strength. They probably did not represent a discontinuity in fire rate.

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I've been following this with interest.

Re: Telecommunications performance, the red telephone might also be a a discontinuity in practical terms.

The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis made the hotline a priority. During the standoff, official diplomatic messages typically took six hours to deliver; unofficial channels, such as via television network correspondents, had to be used too as they were quicker

That is, even though faster systems existed, they hadn't been implemented in the area of communications between the Soviet Union and the USA (pretty huge blindspot), but could be implemented more or less immediately, once both regimes actually bothered.

Also of interest to readers might be: some other discontinuities, one in passenger ship length and the other one on time needed to circumnavigate the Earth. AI impacts also has a couple of other discontinuities on their webpage, not mentioned/linked above:

What about the cost of a painting/photograph? You would have to deal with issues of resolution and color, but it seems like there could be a significant discontinuity going to digital.

This is fascinating work! Small comment: you mentioned that the practical lens concentration limit is about 50% of the intensity at the surface of the sun and that we likely achieved that 1000 years ago. But then you say that magnesium combustion reaches 3370 Kelvin. Since the sun is about 5800 Kelvin and the total radiation goes with the fourth power of the absolute temperature, that would mean magnesium would only be 1/9 the intensity of the sun. So that would mean that magnesium combustion would not have surpassed a good magnifying glass.

Thanks for sharing this!

For other readers, here's the context AI Impacts gives for these investigations:

We are collecting cases of discontinuous technological progress, to inform our understanding of whether artificial intelligence research is likely to undergo such a discontinuity. This page details our investigation.
We found that 17 technological trends that underwent at least one discontinuous jump in improvement equivalent to more than a decade at previous rates, 13 of which underwent more than a century of progress. All together we found 68 discontinuities of over ten years, 37 of them of over 100 years.

(I hadn't read that before reading this, which made it a little harder to interpret or see the significance of the summaries here.)

Thanks for summarizing these and sharing them in one place! It might be helpful to add https://aiimpacts.org/effect-of-alexnet-on-historic-trends-in-image-recognition/ which I think was released with the others and seems particularly relevant to AI forecasting.