2023 was another big year for me and The Roots of Progress.

It was a year when ROP as an organization really started to take off. Even though the org itself was formed in 2021, at first it was just a vehicle for my own intellectual work, plus a few side projects. Last year we announced our strategy and launched a search for an exec who could run it. This year she started and we launched our first program. (Note, Heike originally joined in the CEO role, but for personal and health reasons she decided to move to a VP of Programs role in June.)

As the org grows into something more than me, our communications are evolving, and probably my own personal updates will be separated from the org updates. But for now, I am going to keep doing my traditional annual review. (See past reviews: 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017)

The fellowship

This was a huge part of the year, so let me start with it.

We’re building a cultural movement to establish a new philosophy of progress. To do this, progress ideas need to be everywhere: in books and blogs, in YouTube and podcasts, in new media and old media, in newspapers and magazines, in textbooks and curricula, in art and entertainment. And for that, we need an army of writers and creatives to produce it all. The purpose of the fellowship is to develop that talent: to accelerate the careers of those intellectuals.

We launched our first program, the Blog-Building Intensive, in July, and got almost 500 applications. It was tough to choose, and we had to turn down a lot of qualified folks (so if you didn’t make it, don’t take it personally… in any case, these processes are always somewhat subjective and prone to error).

In the end, 19 fellows participated in the program, which involved writing instruction, editorial feedback, training in audience-building, and a peer group for brainstorming and feedback. They are experienced writers, many of them with bylines in mainstream media outlets. Some work for relevant think tanks, some are in academia, some have industry experience. All are writing on fascinating topics: from housing policy to nuclear power to longevity technology to the meaning of utopia.

The energy generated by getting so many great and like-minded people together was palpable, especially during the in-person closing event in San Francisco. The fellows said that the program “raised my ambition,” helped them “envision a career as a public intellectual,” and made them feel “empowered to take writing (and what it can achieve) seriously.” Several of them launched Substacks under their own name and brand for the first time, having previously written only for other publications or for their employers. And on average, they wrote more than twice as much during the intensive as they had earlier in the year. By popular demand, we’re keeping the weekly peer group call going indefinitely.

Huge thanks and congrats to Heike Larson for designing, launching, and running this program! It would never have happened without her. And a huge thanks as well to all the fellows for their enthusiastic participation.

This program greatly deserves to be continued and expanded next year, and we’re fundraising now to do that. View our full pitch and then see how to support us.


I wrote 35 essays for the blog this year (including this one), totalling over 65k words—a new record (which surprised me, since it feels like I’ve been so distracted away from research and writing this year by the fellowship and fundraising).

My longest, most in-depth pieces were:

Other than that, my most popular pieces (by views on the blog and upvotes on other forums) were:

One of my favorite underrated pieces from this year:

Several of this year’s essays were “what I’ve been reading,” which I made into a quasi-monthly feature; see the reading update below.

I also put out 35 issues of the “links digest”, on a schedule which varied from weekly to monthly. In total I recommended well over 1,000 links and included 139 charts and images.

Overall I had 134k visitors to rootsofprogress.org, and my email newsletter grew more than 2.4x, to over 18k subscribers.

Book project

My biggest disappointment of 2023 has been getting very little time to work on my book. The process of finding the right publisher has taken much longer than I expected. I may simply begin serializing the book via my newsletter in 2024. In any case, devoting serious time to the book is going to be a top goal for next year.

In what little time I did devote to the manuscript itself, I’ve been working on the chapter on agriculture. I wrote up some of what I’ve learned on that topic in the July–August, September, and October reading updates.

Talks and interviews

I de-prioritized speaking in 2023, but I still gave about a dozen published talks and interviews. A couple of my favorites were:

See all my published talks and interviews here.

I also spoke in several private venues, including:

  • The Santa Fe Institute, at a workshop on “accelerating science.” I wrote up the talk as an essay here
  • The Takshashila Institute in Bangalore. I spoke first in person to a group of a couple dozen of their scholars, and later addressed over 200 students taking their Graduate Certificate in Public Policy via Zoom
  • Stripe, where I gave an internal tech talk. I gave a condensed version of the talk at Foresight Vision Weekend 2023, and hope to write it up soon as an essay
  • An Astral Codex Ten / LessWrong meetup in Bangalore, where I discussed progress with some 30 or 40 attendees

Finally, I was briefly quoted in this year-end review in the Christian Science Monitor.


I hosted several private dinner/reception events this year in cities including San Francisco, New York, Boston, and DC, mostly for fundraising. If you have the potential to donate $10k or more and are interested in (free, invite-only) events in your area, let me know who you are and what area you’re in.

The origins of steam power

A very fun and cool project I got to be involved in this year was an essay on the pre-history of the steam engine, with interactive animated diagrams. Anton Howes did the research and wrote the text, Matt Brown (Extraordinary Facility) created the diagrams, and I played editor and publisher. This project was generously sponsored by The Institute (where I am a fellow).

Here are some animated previews, read the full essay for the complete interactive experience:

Social media

2023 has been, er, quite a year for social media platforms. Twitter (I refuse to call it “X”) is still where I have the biggest audience—over 31k, up more than 20% this year—and so it’s still my primary platform. But it is being challenged by up-and-coming platforms, where I am also investing. Follow me on Facebook’s Threads and the blockchain-based Farcaster (and, if you like, on LinkedIn, Bluesky, and Substack Notes).

My top tweets/threads of the year:

The Progress Forum

The Progress Forum went through a quiet period in the middle of the year, but has become much more active in recent months, especially with the ROP fellows cross-posting their essays and drafts. Some of the year’s top posts:

We also did some AMAs earlier in the year, including:

Subscribe to the Progress Forum Digest to get semi-regular updates with top posts.


This year I started writing up my reading on a quasi-monthly basis (check out the updates for November, October, September, July–August, June, May, April, March). So I’ll make this a briefer summary of the highlights, looking back on the year. Starting with books:

One of my goals is to read basically every major book about the Industrial Revolution, the origins of modern economic growth, the rise of the West, or similar themes. Contributions to that this year included:

A random book I appreciated this year was Ester Boserup, The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change Under Population Pressure (1965), see the July–August update.

Another theme through my reading this year was historical fears about technology. Some highlights:

Samuel Butler, “Darwin Among the Machines (1863):

… we are ourselves creating our own successors… we are daily giving them greater power and supplying by all sorts of ingenious contrivances that self-regulating, self-acting power which will be to them what intellect has been to the human race. In the course of ages we shall find ourselves the inferior race…. that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question…. Our opinion is that war to the death should be instantly proclaimed against them.

See also Butler’s novel Erewhon, mentioned below under fiction.

J. B. S. Haldane, “Daedalus: or, Science and the Future (1923):

Has mankind released from the womb of matter a Demogorgon which is already beginning to turn against him, and may at any moment hurl him into the bottomless void?

A reply to Haldane by Bertrand Russell, “Icarus: or, the Future of Science (1924):

Science has increased man’s control over nature, and might therefore be supposed likely to increase his happiness and well-being. This would be the case if men were rational, but in fact they are bundles of passions and instincts…. The human instincts of power and rivalry, like the dog’s wolfish appetite, will need to be artificially curbed, if industrialism is to succeed.

Alan Turing, “Intelligent Machinery, A Heretical Theory (1951) is mostly about the possibility of AI, but echoes Butler’s fears:

… it seems probable that once the machine thinking method had started, it would not take long to outstrip our feeble powers…. At some stage therefore we should have to expect the machines to take control, in the way that is mentioned in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon.

Vernor Vinge, “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era (1993). Vinge speculates that when greater-than-human intelligence is created, it will cause “change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth,” and he sees no hope for us to control it or to confine it:

Any intelligent machine of the sort he describes would not be humankind’s “tool”—any more than humans are the tools of rabbits, robins, or chimpanzees.

Other fun historical pieces:

I notice a few bloggers whose essays recurred often in my reading updates and links digests. I especially appreciated discovering Jacob Steinhardt, who has written some very sensible things on AI risk:

  • More Is Different for AI: “When thinking about safety risks from ML, there are two common approaches, which I’ll call the Engineering approach and the Philosophy approach… people who strongly subscribe to the Engineering worldview tend to think of Philosophy as fundamentally confused and ungrounded, while those who strongly subscribe to Philosophy think of most Engineering work as misguided and orthogonal (at best) to the long-term safety of ML”
  • Complex Systems are Hard to Control: “deep neural networks are complex adaptive systems, which raises new control difficulties that are not addressed by the standard engineering ideas of reliability, modularity, and redundancy”
  • Emergent Deception and Emergent Optimization: “it seems reasonably likely … that both emergent deception and emergent optimization will lead to reward hacking in future models. To contend with this, we should be on the lookout for deception and planning in models today, as well as pursuing fixes such as making language models more honest … and better understanding learned optimizers”
  • Thought Experiments Provide a Third Anchor, on the value of philosophical thought experiments for understanding AI risk
  • What will GPT-2030 look like? It “will likely be superhuman at various specific tasks, including coding, hacking, and math, and potentially protein design” and “will be trained on additional modalities beyond text and images, possibly including counterintuitive modalities such as molecular structures, network traffic, low-level machine code, astronomical images, and brain scans”

Earlier, Steinhardt also wrote Beyond Bayesians and Frequentists (2012) and A Fervent Defense of Frequentist Statistics (2014).

Another blogger I cited often was Kevin Kelly:

  • The Unabomber Was Right (2009), kind of a clickbait title but very worth reading
  • Protopia (2011): “I have not met a utopia I would even want to live in…. I think our destination is neither utopia nor dystopia nor status quo, but protopia. Protopia is a state that is better than today than yesterday, although it might be only a little better”
  • Construction is a sign of life (2022): “when I encounter cranes shooting up from a street, I feel reassured that this place is alive and in good health”
  • The Shirky Principle (2010): “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution”

And then there was Arnold Kling:

Finally, I’ll briefly mention a few novels, mostly on themes of AI and/or x-risk:

  • Ian Tregillis, The Alchemy Wars trilogy. My clear favorite of the year, recommended. An alternate history where Huygens invents intelligent robots in the late 1600s; centuries later, the Dutch rule the world on the backs of robot slaves
  • Samuel Butler, Erewhon (1872). A satire covering many topics, but most famous for its predictions that machines would eventually take over the world; see the quote from Butler above
  • Voltaire, Candide (1759), a famous satirical novel. On its own it is simply bizarre; but it makes more sense in the context of 18th-century theodicy debates (c.f. Leibniz and the Lisbon earthquake). Thanks to Alan Charles Kors for his exegesis and to Lisa VanDamme for orgazining those discussions
  • Robert Heinlein, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966). In 2076, the Moon is a penal colony, and the inhabitants stage a libertarian revolt with the help of an AI. Fun read, but I frankly don’t get why Heinlein is so famous, maybe I should read something else of his?
  • Dennis Taylor, We Are Legion (We Are Bob) (2017). A guy named Bob gets turned into a sentient von Neumann probe and sent out to colonize the galaxy. Cool concept and fun read, not super-well written, I finished the first book but not super-motivated to finish the series
  • Lots of other sci-fi I sampled, had a hard time getting into, might or might not return to: Iain Banks’s Culture series, The Dispossessed, Diaspora
  • Over the holiday, I read Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle (1963). A scientist develops a technology that has the potential to destroy the world: a form of ice that is stable at high temperatures and that crystallizes any water it touches into the same form. An interesting cultural touchpoint for issues of existential risk, but the novel itself is philosophically and aesthetically nihilistic, and I hated it

By the way, I have updated my biblography, bringing the total to 100 books, now organized into categories, starting with “top picks” if you just want a handful of highlights. I’m still very behind in updating it and need to add dozens of books… maybe in 2024.

Thank you

As always, I want to end the year on a note of gratitude. The last four years have been some of the most fulfilling and meaningful of my life, and I can only do what I do because I have an audience who cares. Thanks for reading, for sharing, for commenting, even for criticizing. Happy New Year, and here’s to progress in 2024.


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