A Happier World just published a video on technological stagnation, broadly summarizing the chapter from Will MacAskill's book What We Owe The Future.
Would love to hear what you think. Feel free to use it for your EA events!
Thanks to Sarah Emminghaus for helping write the script!
Sources are marked with an asterisk. Text might differ slightly in wording from the final video.
Imagine you’re an 1870s rural farmer…
Imagine you’re a typical person in the 1870s USA. You’d probably be a rural farmer. For light you use candles, for transport the horse, for communication an unreliable postal service. You have very little time for leisure. Around 1 in 5 of your children die in their first year.*
Now you wake up 50 years later in the roaring 20’s. You finally have electricity. You’re one of the lucky people with a car. You communicate using a telephone. Less than a tenth of all children die before the age of 5.*
Another 50 years later and you find yourself in the 1970’s. You’ve got refrigerators, central heating and flush toilets. Your household owns two cars and you watch a man land on the moon on television. You get to enjoy a 40 hour workweek and vacations, for which you can use the airplane.
And now you’re back in the 2020’s. Comparatively speaking, not much has changed. You have a microwave now. Sure, the internet and smartphones are massive achievements. But aside that domain there isn’t much difference. Progress seems to have slowed.
Why is progress slowing down?
It now takes a lot more effort to make as much progress as we did a century ago. Take physics: In 1905 Einstein revolutionised the discipline, it’s the year he came up with the theory of special relativity and the famous e=mc². Today progress in the field is much harder. The Large Hadron Collider cost around 5 billion dollars and needed thousands of people to operate it. It helped us discover the Higgs Boson, which is great but nothing in comparison to Einstein’s contribution.
According to a conservative estimate by Stanford and LSE economists, if we want to double our level of technological advancement, we need four times as much research effort compared to our previous doubling. Imagine it takes 10 years of research to double our technological advancement once, it would take 40 years to double again, then 160 years, then 640 years, then 2560 years and so on. Progress is getting exponentially harder.
This means we require more and more people doing research to continue progressing. But even if we get a larger fraction of our population to do research, even if we grow our population, at some point we’ll reach a practical limit. We’re already having less children than we used to, the amount of births per woman is dropping all over the world. The UN estimates we’ll plateau around 11 billion people by the end of the century.*
Historical examples of stagnation
The eleventh century saw a great flourishing of science and technology in the Islamic world, an era known as the Islamic Golden Age. This era saw a number of important discoveries and innovations, including the development of magnifying lenses and the first programmable machine. The words “algorithm” and “algebra” both have their origins in Arabic. We still use the Hindu-Arabic number system today. However, from the twelfth century onward, the rate of scientific progress slowed considerably. Some blame this on Mongol invasions, others on the crusades, and others to the cultural shift that encouraged theology rather than science.
We have a similar story with Ancient Greece. Living standards and life expectancy improved greatly between 800 and 300 BC. Houses became larger and better built. Philosophy flourished, everyone has heard of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. But after 300 BC, the Greek city states got taken over by Macedonia and then the Romans and their growth plateaued for the next couple of centuries.
The past two hundred years we’ve made some impressive progress. Will this progress continue, or will we stagnate like the Islamic world and ancient Greece did?
Why is progress important?
Progress is important. We need it to fix all the problems we’re facing today: From climate change to fighting diseases to ending global poverty. Stagnation is an unsustainable situation. Imagine if we forever stayed at 1920’s technology. We would’ve run out of fossil fuels, and society would have collapsed. But we’re not safe now either. Engineered pandemics and nuclear war are real threats facing us today and in the near future. They could lead to a collapse of civilization, or even worse, extinction. And the longer we are in this situation the higher the odds are that an extinction-level event will happen. So we have still to progress as a species to make sure these threats become a thing of the past.
A solution might be Artificial Intelligence. If we can just get a bunch of smarter-than-human robots to do all the research for us, we might still be able to progress at the same rate we did over the past 2 centuries, or maybe even faster… Super-intelligent AI comes with a big risk however, as we covered in our video on existential risks.
Both that video and this one are part of a series of videos on the long-term future, where we summarize chapters from Oxford philosopher Will MacAskill’s book What We Owe The Future. The book makes the case for caring about our long-term future and explores what we can do. I loved reading it which is why we’re making this video series. We sometimes add our own stuff too so it isn’t always an exact summary. We visit Chinese history, the roman empire, the possible end of humanity and more. So subscribe and ring that notification bell to get notified when more episodes come out!