How big a deal was the Industrial Revolution?

by lukeprog3 min read16th Sep 2017No comments


HistoryTransformative development

Explanatory note: This page grew out of one of my investigations for Open Phil, but then I got fascinated and put a bunch of personal time into elaborating certain parts of it, and it evolved into something that I think is pretty cool, but which would take more work than it’s worth to vet and edit it such that it would be appropriate for Open Phil’s website, so we decided I should just post it here instead as a personal project. Hence, the below doesn’t represent Open Phil’s position on anything, and should be taken merely as my own personal guesses and opinions.

(Probably best to start with my companion blog post.)

One way to look for opportunities to accomplish as much good as possible is to ask “Which developments might have an extremely large impact on human civilization,[1] and is there any way we can (in expectation) nudge those developments in a positive direction?”

For example, in the context of philanthropy, the Rockefeller Foundation funded work on an improved agricultural approach that led to the Green Revolution, which some people have credited with kickstarting the development of the “Asian Tigers,” helping several countries transition from “poor” to “middle income,” transforming India from being in the middle of a famine to being a wheat exporter, and saving over a billion people from starvation.[2] Of course, the Rockefeller Foundation had no way of knowing their funding would have such incredible impact, but a rare win of that magnitude can make up for a large number of failed (and similarly uncertain) funding efforts. (See Holden Karnofsky’s hits-based giving.)

However, some future developments might have even greater impact than the Green Revolution, and be more comparable in magnitude to the changes often attributed to the industrial revolution. Here, I refer to changes of this magnitude as “transformative,”[3] and I refer to developments which might precipitate such transformative changes as potential “transformative developments” for human civilization.[4]

In the future, I hope to spend more time identifying potentially transformative developments,[5] especially those which might also be tractable and neglected. In this report, I hope to lay some groundwork by examining the magnitude of “transformative” change. In particular, I ask:

  • The industrial revolution is often considered the most transformative event in recorded history.[6] How large, exactly, were the differences in human well-being before and after the industrial revolution?
  • Have there been other transitions in recorded history of comparable magnitude, either positive or negative?
  • How catastrophic would a development need to be to plausibly result in negative transformative change?
  • What do these initial findings suggest about potential future transformative developments?

My initial tentative conclusions from this preliminary investigation can be summarized as follows:

The gains in human well-being observed since the industrial revolution are vastly larger than pre-industrial fluctuations in human well-being. No other transitions in recorded history, either positive or negative, are remotely similar in magnitude. When thinking about which future developments might be most important, we should not forget that the size of their likely impact may differ by orders of magnitude. For example, a universal cure for cancer would bring a huge benefit to human well-being, but its expected impact seems likely to be vastly smaller than (for example) the likely impact of AI systems capable of automating most human labor, or the counterfactual benefit of preventing large-scale nuclear war.

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  1. There are other ways to look for opportunities to accomplish as much good as possible, of course, and the Open Philanthropy Project pursues some of them; see the blog post on worldview diversification. For more on the potential value of the sorts of “trajectory changes” discussed in this report, see Beckstead (2013), ch. 3.

    I would also like to examine which future developments might have the largest impact on the future well-being of non-human moral patients, but for simplicity, I discuss only human well-being on this page. ↩︎

  2. I paraphrase this summary from comments made by the Open Philanthropy Project’s Managing Director Holden Karnofsky, who shared his impressions of the plausible impact of the Green Revolution at an Open Philanthropy Project research event held on June 6, 2017 (starting around 4:10 in the recording available here):

    …the Rockefeller Foundation funded [an] improved agricultural approach that [some] people have credited with kickstarting the East Asian tigers development phenomenon, getting a lot of countries to go from poor to middle income, turning India from being in the middle of famine to being a wheat exporter, saving over a billion people from starvation, and resulting in a Nobel peace prize for Norman Borlaug… [This is] maybe one of the most significant humanitarian developments of the last century — or really, ever.

    The causal impacts of the Green Revolution in general, and the Rockefeller Foundation’s funding in particular, are of course difficult to discern with any certainty, and I don’t discuss the evidence for these specific claims here. Some sources that contributed to Karnofsky’s impressions on this topic include those linked from Can the Green Revolution be repeated in Africa? ↩︎

  3. Holden Karnofsky introduced this use of the term “transformative” when he defined “transformative artificial intelligence” (transformative AI), roughly and conceptually, as “AI that precipitates a transition comparable to (or more significant than) the agricultural or industrial revolution.” ↩︎

  4. This terminology isn’t ideal, though — in part because most people use the term “transformative” to refer to much smaller changes than the changes I label “transformative” here. Perhaps someone else will suggest a better term. ↩︎

  5. Open Phil thinks transformative AI is one such potentially transformative development. See here for a summary of some earlier thinking about additional potentially transformative developments. ↩︎

  6. See this footnote. ↩︎


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