I write The Roots of Progress, a blog about the history of technology and the philosophy of progress. Some of my top posts:
I am also the creator of Progress Studies for Young Scholars, an online learning program for high schoolers; and a part-time adviser and technical consultant to Our World in Data, an Oxford-based non-profit for research and data on global development.
My work is funded by grants from Emergent Ventures, Open Philanthropy, the Long-Term Future Fund, and Jaan Tallinn (via the Survival and Flourishing Fund).
Previously, I spent 18 years as a software engineer, engineering manager, and startup founder.
Ask me anything!
UPDATE: I'm pausing for now but will come back and I will try to get to everyone, thanks for all the questions!
I think your blog and work is great, and I'm keen to see what comes out of Progress Studies.
I wanted to ask a question, and also to comment on your response to another question, that I think this has been incorrect after about 2017:
More figures here.
The following is more accurate:
(Though even then, Open Philanthropy has allocated $100m+ to scientific research, which would make it a significant fraction of the portfolio. They've also funded several areas of US policy research aimed at growth.)
However, the reason for less emphasis on economic growth is because the community members who are not focused on global health, are mostly focused on longtermism, and have argued it's not the top priority from that perspective. I'm going to try to give a (rather direct) summary of why, and would be interested in your response.
Those focused on longtermism have argued that influencing the trajectory of civilization is far higher value than speeding up progress (e.g. one example of that argument h... (read more)
Are you aware of the research on the questionable, and perhaps non-existent, relationship between economic growth and measures of subjective well-being (e.g. lif satisfaction and happiness) over the long run, aka the Easterlin Paradox? I assume you are if you work with OurWorldInData. If so, does this worry you about 'progress' as I think(?) you're understanding it? If not, why not?
I suppose I'm pretty sceptical that (further) technological progress will do that much to improve our quality of life. There this related, not-so-well-known worry that rising rates of mental health are because of, not despite, modern living: we now live in ways quite far from our environment of evolutionary adaptation. I recognise my scepticism here is counterintuitive, but I think it's the most plausible reading of the well-being data. I could say a bit more about this and plan to write up my thoughts some time.
I run the Happier Lives Institute and have been itching to talk to advocates of progress studies about this concern for some time.
In brief, I think: (1) subjective measures of well-being don't tell us the full story about whether progress is real, and (2) the measures we have are actually inconsistent, with some showing positive benefits of progress, others flat, and a few slightly negative (but most of them not epidemics).
To elaborate, on the second point first:
The Easterlin Paradox, to my understanding, dissolved over time with more and better data. Steven Pinker addresses this pretty well in Enlightenment Now, which I reviewed here: https://rootsofprogress.org/enlightenment-now
Our World in Data has a section on this, showing that happiness is correlated with income both within and between countries, and over time: https://ourworldindata.org/happiness-and-life-satisfaction#the-link-between-happiness-and-income
Regarding rates of mental illness, the data don't show a consistent increasing trend, and certainly nothing like the “epidemic” we sometimes hear about:
... (read more)
- Mental health and substance abuse disorders, flat since 1990 in many regions: https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/share-with-mental-and-substance-disorders?tab=chart
- Global suicide rates are significantly down since 1990: https://ourworldindata.org/graphe
Along what dimensions, if any, have we not progressed or even regressed in the past 100 years?
Off the top of my head:
If you said 50 years instead of 100, there's a longer and more obvious list. There really hasn't been any major breakthrough in manufacturing, agriculture, energy, or transportation in that time, and some things (like passenger flight speeds and airport convenience) have clearly regressed.
What do you think EA could learn from the 'Progress Studies' movement ?
My perception of EA is that a lot of it is focused on saving lives and relieving suffering. I don't see as much focus on general economic growth and scientific and technological progress.
There are two things to consider here. First, there is value in positives above and beyond merely living without suffering. Entertainment, travel, personal fitness and beauty, luxury—all of these are worth pursuing. Second, over the long run, more lives have been saved and suffering relieved by efforts to pursue general growth and progress than direct charitable efforts. So we should consider the balance between the two.
To EA's credit, I think the community does understand this much better than other proponents of altruism and charity! And some EA organizations put resources into long-term scientific progress, which is great.
One thing I'm puzzled by is why there doesn't seem to be a strong focus within EA on institutional reform (or not as strong as I would expect). A root-cause analysis on most human suffering, if it went deep enough, would blame government and cultures that don't foster science, invention, industry, and business. It seems that the most high-leverage long-term plan to reduce human suffering would be to spread global rationality and capitalism.
Do you wish you had started The Roots of Progress earlier, and then switched full-time to it earlier as well? If so, how many years earlier?
As discussed in other comments, it seems that progress studies focuses mostly on economic and scientific progress, and these seem to come with risks as well as rewards. At the same time, particular aspects of progress seem more safe; the progress of epistemics or morality for example. Toby Ord wrote about the Long Reflection, as a method of making a lot of very specific progress before focusing on other kinds. These things are more difficult to study but might be more valuable.
So my question is, have you spent much time considering epistemic and moral progress (and other abstract but safe aspects) as a thing to study? Do you have any thoughts on its viability?
(I've written a bit more here, but it's still relatively short).
Re my own focus:
The irony is that my original motivation for studying progress was to better ground and validate my epistemic and moral ideas!
One challenge with epistemic, moral, and (I'll throw in) political ideas is that we've literally been debating them for 2,500 years and we still don't agree. We've probably come up with many good ideas already, but they haven't gotten wide enough adoption. So I think figuring out how to spread best practices is more high-leverage than making progress in these fields as such.
Before I got into what would come to be called “progress studies”, I spent a quarter-century discussing and debating philosophic ideas with many different people, who had many different viewpoints. One thing that became clear to me was that, not only do people not agree on how to solve our problems, they don't even agree on what the problems are. A left-wing environmentalist focuses on climate change, while a right-wing deficit hawk focuses on the national debt. Each thinks that even the problem the other one is so worried about is overblown, while their own problem is neglected. So of course they call for different policies.
I realized that a lot of the issues I care about... (read more)
How would you know if The Roots of Progress and Progress Studies for Young Scholars are successful? What concrete actions would you like to see from people who take the online course or read your blog?
Or another way to phrase the question - how would you measure or track the impact of your work on The Roots of Progress and Progress Studies for Young Scholars?
Alan Kay suggested that progress in education should be measured in “Sistine Chapel ceilings per lifetime.” Ultimately my goal is something similar, but maybe substitute “Nobel-worthy scientific discoveries”, “Watt-level inventions” or “trillion-dollar businesses” for the artistic goal. I'll know if I'm successful if in twenty years, or fifty, people who did those things are telling me they were given inspiration and courage from my work.
The problem with Sistine Chapel ceilings is that it's a lagging metric. We all need leading metrics to steer ourselves by. So on a much shorter timescale, I look at my audience size—over 12k on Twitter now and ~2,700 on my email list. I also look at the quality of the audience and the feedback I'm getting. With Progress Studies for Young Scholars, we gave the students an end-of-program feedback survey (two-thirds rated it 9 or 10 out of 10). When I write a book, of course, I'll look at how well it sells. Etc.
Re actions I want people to take: right now I'm just happy if they listen and learn and find what I have to say interesting. And, especially for young people, I hope they will consider devoting their careers to ambitious goals that drive forward human progress.
Many areas of science currently appear to have reproducibility problems with published research (some call it a crisis). Do you think that poor reproducibility of recent (approx. the last 30 years) scientific work has been a significant contributor to the current stagnation?
On the margin, do you think that funding is better spent on improving reproducibility (or more generally, the areas covered by Metascience) or on pursuing promising scientific research directly?
What has been most surprising to you about running an online course for high school students?
Related: If someone were creating a course about effective altruism aimed at high school students, what advice would you have for them? So far, attempts to teach EA concepts to this audience haven't been very successful, but people are still interested in trying new methods.
How do you prioritise between the various projects you are working on? What other projects, if any, do you consider working on to advance progress studies in future?
What are your thoughts on the desirability and feasibility of differential technological development (DTD) as a governance strategy for emerging technologies?
For instance, Toby Ord briefly touches on DTD in The Precipice, writing that "While it may be too difficult to prevent the development of a risky technology, we may be able to reduce existential risk by speeding up the development of protective technologies relative to dangerous ones."
I don't know much about it beyond that Wikipedia page, but I think that something like this is generally in the right direction.
In particular, I would say:
... (read more)
- Technology is not inherently risk-creating or safety-creating. Technology can create safety, when we set safety as a conscious goal.
- However, technology is probably risk-creating by default. That is, when our goal is anything other than safety—more power, more speed, more efficiency, more abundance, etc.—then it might create risk as a side effect.
- Historically, we have been reactive rather than proactive about technology risk. People die, then we do the root-cause analysis and fix it.
- Even when we do anticipate problems, we usually don't anticipate the right ones. When X-rays were first introduced, people had a moral panic about men seeing through women's clothing on the street, but no one worried about radiation burns or cancer.
- Even when we correctly anticipate problems, we don't necessarily heed the warnings. At the dawn of the antibiotic age, Alexander Fleming foresaw the problem of resistance, but that didn't prevent doctors from way overprescribing antibiotics for many years.
- We need to get better at all of the above in order to
Hi Jason, your blog is really interesting. I wonder if you have any medium/long term theory of change of how your work or the progress studies community (if there is such a community yet, or in the future) will have real world impact, e.g. how you or others in your community plan to engage with researchers/academics (e.g. to collaborate or build the field), policy makers, investors, scientist, technologists, entrepreneurs etc. And what some concrete changes you hope to see/affect.
(Do you just focus on research or also aim for real world impact? (And in either case, how do you measure the success of your project?)
Thanks for your work and thanks for doing this!
In your interview with Patrick Collison, he says the following:
"I think of EA as sort of like a metal detector, and they've invented a new kind of metal detector that's really good at detecting some metals that other detectors are not very good at detecting. But I actually think we need some diversity in the different metallic substances which our detectors are attuned to, and for me EA would not be the only one"
Discussion on the EA forum here, link to the interview here.
First, do you broadly agree with ... (read more)
I am broadly sympathetic to Patrick's way of looking at this, yes.
If progress studies feels like a miss on EA's part to you… I think folks within EA, especially those who have been well within it for a long time, are better placed to analyze why/how that happened. Maybe rather than give an answer, let me suggest some hypotheses that might be fruitful to explore:
As for “tuning the metal detector”, I think a root-cause analysis on progress studies or any other area you feel you “missed” would be the best way to approach it!
Well, one final thought: The question of ... (read more)
Are ideas getting harder to find?
I think ideas get progressively harder to find within any given field as it matures. However, when we create new fields or find new breakthrough technologies, it opens up whole new orchards of low-hanging fruit.
When the Web was created, there were lots of new ideas that were easy to find: “put X on the web” for many values of X. After penicillin was invented, there was a similar golden age of antibiotics: “check out X mold or Y soil sample and check it for effectiveness against Z disease”. At times like this you see very rapid progress in certain applications.
Similarly, imagine if we got atomically precise manufacturing (APM). There would be a whole set of easy-to-find ideas: “manufacture X using APM.” Or if we got an easy way to understand and manipulate genes, there would be a set of easy-to-find ideas of the form “edit X gene to cure Y disease or enhance Z trait.”
I think the Great Stagnation is not a failure to extract all the value from existing fields, but rather a failure to open up new fields, to have new breakthroughs decades ago.
Further reading: https://rootsofprogress.org/teasing-apart-the-s-curves
It seems like most progress to date has come from research in the natural/formal/applied sciences leading to technological advances (or correct me if I'm wrong?). Do you expect that trend to continue, or could you see a case for research in the social sciences/humanities (that lead to social advances) making a more prominent contribution to future progress?
I think advances in science leading to technology is only the proximal cause of progress. I think the deeper causes are, in fact, philosophical (including epistemic, moral, and political causes). The Scientific Revolution, the shift from monarchy to republics, the development of free markets and enterprise, the growth of capitalism—all of these are social/political causes that underlie scientific, technological, industrial, and economic progress.
More generally, I think that progress in technology, science, and government are tightly intertwined in history and can't really be separated.
I think advances in the humanities are absolutely needed—more so in a certain sense than advances in the physical sciences, because our material technology today is far more advanced than our moral technology. I think moral and political causes are to blame for our incompetent response to covid; for high prices in housing, education, and medicine; and for lack of economic progress in poorer countries. I think better social “technology” is needed to avoid war, to reform policing, to end conspiracy theories, and to get everyone to vaccinate their children. And ultimately I think cultural and philosophical issues are at the root of the scientific/technological slowdown of the last ~50 years.
So, yeah, I think social advances were actually important in the past and will be in the future.
What were your goals for the Progress Studies for Young Scholars program? In particular: is there work that you are hoping (perhaps a small subset of) participants can do immediately, or were you hoping instead to lay some sort of foundation which might payoff years/decades down the line?
How could it be that ideas are progressively harder to find AND we waited so long for the bicycle? How can we know how many undiscovered bicycles, ie low hanging fruit, are out there?
Seems as progress progresses and the adjacent possible expands, the number of undiscovered bicycles within easy reach expands.
Is there an empirical method of measuring progress? How can we account for piecewise progress, for example VR had a massive interest in the 80s, went into a winter in the 90s, reinstalled in 2012 by Palmer Lucky, similarly , AI went into a 10 year winter due to Minsky's critic of Rosenblatt. It seems that progress is not linear, but stochastic and maybe a complex thing to model, it appears that it is not a monolith of which we arrive to but constantly happening in complex ways.
The perceptron was intended to be a hardware machine, first implemented on... (read more)
What are your long-term goals for The Roots of Progress? Are you pleased with how far you have come so far (e.g. quantity and quality of content produced, page-view or subscriber numbers)?
At what point will The Roots of Progress start advocating for certain "interventions" to keep human progress going? Are there interventions you're currently advocating for already?
Maybe when I have some interventions I'm more sure of! (And/or if some powerful person or agency was directly asking me for input.)
Epistemically, before I can recommend interventions I need to really understand causation, and before I can explain or hypothesize causation, I need to get clear on the specific timeline of events. And in terms of personal motivation, I'm much more interested in the detailed history of progress than in arguing policy with people.
But, yes, eventually the whole point of progress studies is to figure out how to make more (and better) progress, so it should end up in some sort of intervention at some level.
If I had to recommend something now, I would at least point to a few areas of leverage:
... (read more)
- Promote the idea of progress. Teach its history, in schools and universities. Promote it in art, especially more optimistic sci-fi. Journalists should become industrially literate, and it should be reflected in their stories. Celebrate major achievements. Etc.
- Roll back over-burdensome regulation. As just one example, there's a big spotlight shining on the FDA right now and its role in delaying the covid vaccines. For another, see Eli Dourado on environmental review.
How useful is your background in being a software engineer, engineering manager, and startup founder to your work currently? Which of those roles helped you more to prepare you for what you're currently doing?
R&D is a public good, and so we'd expect it to be systemically underfunded by the private sector and provided in some part at least by governments. Some economists, such as Mariana Mazzucato argue that government plays a key role in both funding R&D and in applying it for public benefit. Lant Pritchett argues that development comes through interlocking transformations, including the build-up of state capability.
But in your comments below, and from having read through your blog, it seems like you're not such a fan of government or even ... (read more)
Aside from the online course in Progress Studies, what are some of the best resources you could share with a high school or college student if you want them to be interested in progress?
Traditional high school/college curriculums often introduce ideas that seem likely to make people less excited about progress (e.g. degrowth as a moral imperative, population growth as net-negative, discussions of technology risk without corresponding discussions of technology's benefits). I'm interested in resources that could provide a counterpoint to this.