I have been studying the problem of slowing science/labour productivity growth rate for a few years now, before it became fashionable and a field of so called "progress studies" emerged. One of my first public talks on this topic was a lecture for Rosatom top management in 2015.

Slide 2: The fall in labour productivity growth

The problem is very complex, multilayered and long reports and monographs can be written about it. But at the core is a simple problem. 

  1. There is an innovation system that produces useful new ideas. This system evolved and exists today in some form. 
  2. It may be that this form is no longer conductive to scientific and technological progress. 
  3. If that's the case, then tech improvement may slow down.
  4. Then our technosphere, economy and society may suffer due to exceeding planetary boundaries (and the general systemic crisis) and no good technological solutions.
  5. Civilization may collapse.

I believe that there are two 🐦 canaries in the coal mine - Engelbart's project to augment human intelligence was not funded and Drexler's nanotech project was not funded. In both cases huge amounts of money (tens of trillions and half a trillion dollars) were diverted from productive technological projects into money making schemes.

I further think that failure to implement Engelbart's vision was one of direct causes for innovation system degradation (for obvious reasons).

I think that fixing the innovation system may be the most important task facing us today, because many others depend on it functioning well.

In order to fix the innovation system we need:

  1. An actor with sufficient power and leverage.
  2. A study to describe how the innovation system actually works (let's forget the VC/startup myths and study actual systems, including Soviet R&D, corporate research labs, ARPA, etc.). There is some research on these topics, but it hasn't been integrated into a coherent framework (existing innovation theory, science of science and other areas of knowledge all suck).
  3. A strategy to fix the innovation system (or parts of it).
  4. A systemic intervention designed according to modern approaches to system change.

I am interested in carrying out this project and will be happy to collaborate with others. I would be just as happy to join an existing project, but so far there is none. There are many good initiatives and ideas, such as the FRO idea, many groups that attempt to improve various aspects of science, but no system change projects. I think that one may be absolutely needed.

Let's discuss and hopefully fix this problem.

Danila Medvedev

P.S. There is much more information on this (on both the innovation system in general and the problems with it) that I collected, but I don't think I should wait until I manage to actually organize and understand it all and come up with a good solution. Let's work on this together.


Appendix: a recent email that reminded me to actually go public with this and post


Subject: Today is (sadly) not anymore the best day to be alive!
From: Didier Coeurnelle
Date: 29 Apr 2022, 21:15
To: euro-transhumanists

Since more than 15 years, especially each new year, I remind to pessimists that this year is the best year of the history of Humanity. We live longer, healthier, more peacefully, with more access to knowledge than ever in the history. One example in this text (in French) of the Association Française Transhuamniste (I was the main
author): https://transhumanistes.com/premier-mai-technoprogressiste-2019/.

To temperate this optimism, I say also often that this year is probably also one of the most dangerous years of the history.

Progress was globally beautiful during the last 70 years. Each year, without any exception, was better than the year before. But since 2020, for the first time in our lifetime (except if you are older than 75 years), this is not anymore the case. The life expectancy is (very probably) globally decreasing in the world. Worst, this not only happened during one year, but during two consecutive years. Worst, we are back at the level of life expectancy, we had about 10 years ago! So, for the first time in our lifetime, the last year is not anymore a better year to be alive than all years before.

I'm surprised that this observation is not a big point of discussion around longevists and transhumanists.

Of course, they are conjectural aspects (the Covid). Of course, we can hope that things will go better. But the questions of how to have useful technological progress is for me a fundamental question. Actually, I think, we need among other things:

Less discussions, more concrete work for research, especially related to health, resilience and longevity.
Less bureaucracy, bull shit jobs, advertisement, more work for public good. 
Less obscurity, less patents, more sharing of knowledge, more transparency,
Less "gadgets" and conspicuous consumption, more priority for health, resilience and longevity.

I'm sure, some transhumanists will tell that I'm wrong and that useful technological progress is not at risk. Of course, technological progress is not stopped. But what we need is technological progress able to make us live better, healthier, more resilient. It could come back, but it is in my opinion not sure at all.

Opinions and suggestions welcome.

My response was:

Hello! Thanks for the insightful provocation, Didier.

I see that there is currently a crisis of futurist narratives. The present transhumanist narratives were created in the 1990s, during the dot-com boom. There was excitement and the Moore's law was sufficient justification for Ray Kurzweil to promote his exponential graphs. All was good. Then we got two "lost decades" when we were hit with climate change, with war/terrorism, with more economic crises, with the slowdown of growth (GDP and labour productivity), then finally with COVID. At the same time there were no major technological inventions, except social networks and smartphones, which turned out not to be such a great inventions after all.

Yes, there was progress in deep learning and yes, AI and AGI research is POTENTIALLY leading to intelligence takeoff and the Singularity. But that's not guaranteed and there has been little progress in nanotech, in brain simulation, in genetic engineering, robotics, etc. There was space renaissance thanks to Musk, but that was just a return to our 1970s visions (though no rotating space stations yet).

And yet we don't have a good story of our future. It's clear that a Singularity by 2030 is unlikely, there is no NBIC convergence to speak of, so unless we got lucky (or unlucky) with AGI, we are stuck. Climate, depletion of resources, energy crises, etc.

I think a key part of the story is that our INNOVATION SYSTEM failed us. Few people actually understand how the rules for creating new ideas and new knowledge work. The system that exists now is a hodge podge of random actions and some lucky accidents. Vannevar Bush wrote about the need for Memex in 1930s, which we failed to create (my project NeyroKod is aiming to fix that), then in 1940s he wrote "The Endless Frontier" and birthed NSF and other institutions that fund science. Then Sputnik happened, the USA ordered everyone to get a college education to compete, mass science happened, with citations, decrease in average intelligence of researchers, bullshit jobs, managerialism in science, publish or perish, overspecialisation, etc. Science entered the time of crisis, which is admitted today. Then accidentally transistors and computers happened. That led to a venture capitalist industry and startups, their domination as the only proper innovation model. Corporate labs were closed en masse, innovation actually slowed down, except in computers, which didn't help economy much. A few more things happened, but the end result is that we don't have a functioning innovation system, where proper scientific and technological progress happens effectively.

There are some causes, but I think it's really a web of interconnected causes and we actually need a focused study to answer WTF happened and how to fix it (incidentally, the so called "progress studies" field seems to be occupied by not very competent researchers, who were attracted by this problem, but failed to produce anything of value, other than compilations and rehashes of a few good texts).

One of the causes is obviously that we ignored Engelbart and didn't invest in augmenting human intelligence. Another is that we ignored Drexler and invested in nanobullshit and nanofraud instead of a coherent vision of nanomachines that Drexler offered.

But those may be considered merely consequences and symptoms. The ultimate cause may be that the innovation system that evolved simply got old and inefficient and we need to rebuild it before people will be able to set good R&D goals, make good decision and execute good projects. If that's the case, it's an extremely urgent problem, may be the most urgent today. If we don't fix that, we will not be able to fix climate or resource depletion, we will be fucked in many ways and we are also unlikely to see AGI or at least a safe AGI.

That's my take.

I would appreciate any pointers to good people who can be recruited for a project to study, understand and fix the innovation system. May be together we can do it. But it's not for ordinary people, the problem requires some big brains.

Danila Medvedev