Time for an AMA (Ask Me Anything)!

I write The Roots of Progress, a blog about the history of technology and the philosophy of progress. It's also a nonprofit organization that sponsors this forum and will soon support other progress writers.

I've written about historical topics including iron and steel, cement, the Haber-Bosch process, smallpox, and the bicycle. My philosophical writing has included the importance of progress studies, “solutionism” (for MIT Tech Review), why we need a new philosophy of progress, and the concept of “industrial literacy.” I've been interviewed as a spokesman for the progress movement for Vox and BBC.

Ask me anything! Use the comments below to add questions, and upvote any questions you'd like to see me answer. I'll try to keep answering at least until Thanksgiving.

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Two Questions :

  1. Have you read Ada Palmers Terra Ignota series? If so what do you think? If not then consider giving it a try, the setting and philosophy are relevant to this movement!
  2.  What do you think about the idea that declining construction of new housing (especially in cities), deurbanization during the late 20th century, and the general trend in the US toward sprawling and expensive car-centric suburbs are core parts explanation for the present stagnation of progress?  

1. I started reading Too Like the Lightning but haven't finished. Love the flying cars though!

2. I see declining housing construction as primarily a symptom rather than a cause of an economic slowdown, although there are reciprocal effects and housing shortages can exacerbate stagnation.

I am not against sprawling suburbs, I think they are actually where a lot of people want to be (especially families with young children). Similarly, I am not against cars. I do suspect that something went wrong with city design when it comes to cars. One example is how we mix up streets and roads.

I'm interested in the role of education in progress, particularly childhood education. I believe that accelerating education and promoting early graduation of students is key for progress in many different domains chiefly by counteracting the burden of knowledge (https://www.frbsf.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2_BurdenOfKnowledge.pdf). I also believe that many people discount how much more efficient education could be made.

What are your thoughts on childhood (birth to around age 18) education as it relates to progress and do you know people involved with progress studies that are working on education?

I'm hoping to publish more of my thoughts on education as it relates to progress in the future. Do you personally have questions or thoughts on the relation between progress and education that you would like to see people explore?

Great topic. A few thoughts on the relationship between progress and education.

Historically, the most notable thing about education is that children now get a lot more of it. Global literacy rates were 12% in 1800 and 86% in 2016. Average years of schooling was 3.7 in the US in 1870, and is 13.4 years in 2017. A lot of this was driven by rising incomes: when families get wealthier, children don't have to work, and the family can afford to send them to school.

This directly represents progress: it is better for individual well-being to be literate and have at least a basic education. It also drove progress: a more educated workforce can be more productive, and has more human capital for R&D.

However, this trend is largely tapped out. Now that most people go to school, and most are literate, there isn't more much more progress to made on those dimensions. (You could even argue that we've gone a bit too far: too many people going to college, and spending too much money / taking on too much debt for it.)

Further, another notable thing about education is that we haven't made much progress in how we teach or (as far as I can tell) in the quality of outcomes. (If anything, my impression is that outcomes have slipped.) Except for teaching more math and science, today's public education is not that far from the one-room schoolhouses of the 19th century. Many more radical and innovative ideas have been proposed (e.g., Montessori), and have gotten some traction, but are still niches.

 I think there is a lot of room for innovation in pedagogy, but very few are focused on this. My friends at Higher Ground Education / Montessorium are working on this (their private high school, the Academy of Thought and Industry, commissioned me to create a progress course). I'll invite them to comment!

I'd love to hear from Montessorium/ Higher Ground Education. I have been following some of what they post online with great interest. I've also talked to Simone Collins a bit about The Collins' Institute a while back and saw that Malcolm Collins spoke at the most recent Great Rethink in Education conference that Montessorium and Joe Connor put on.

I'll also add that probably more people are focused on innovation in pedagogy than you may believe. Some of them end up fighting for clear, systematic explicit instruction in phonics which doesn't feel very innovative because it's an old, effective idea that was crowded out by some newer bad ideas. There are similar battles in mathematics pedagogy, music pedagogy, and more. 

That said, we seem to agree there is need for more focus. And perhaps we agree that there needs to be more radical innovation.
 

What does progress mean to you; what does your ideal progress-driven future look like? What are our daily lives like in that future?

No one can predict the future, but here are a few lines I wrote in a recent article:

Above all, we need a renewed vision of the future: a bold, ambitious, technological future, one that we want to live in and are inspired to create. A future of cheap, abundant, reliable, clean energy from nuclear fusion. A future where we return to space and create permanent settlements, both for recreation and for industry. A future where we cure diseases through genetic engineering. A future where we cure aging itself, giving everyone as many years of healthy life as they choose. A future where we don’t just end poverty, but create new levels of wealth so fantastic that they make today’s wealth look like poverty in comparison—just as was done over the last two hundred years.

Elaborating on that a bit, and extrapolating from some of the trends of the past, here are some thing I envision in a technologically and industrially advanced future:

  • Much higher labor productivity, so that we all earn more rewards for a given effort.
  • As a consequence, much higher levels of average wealth, to the point where the average person can afford what today are considered luxuries: a large home with high-quality furnishings, a private jet (or flying car), a butler and a nanny (robotic of course), meals without cooking (maybe through nanotech synthesizers), tailored clothing (ditto), etc.
  • Further, there will be benefits to the average person that are unavailable today even to the super-wealthy: the elimination of cancer and heart disease, vacations to the Moon and Mars, personalized entertainment on demand via AI, etc.
  • As another consequence, leisure time will increase. The work week will shorten, vacations and holidays will increase, retirement will begin earlier, more people will take a gap year between school and work, more people will take “funemployment” time off in between jobs, etc.
  • There will be more opportunities for people to find meaningful, engaging, fulfilling work, rather than manual or routine jobs. Or, if we don't really need to work anymore, people will find engaging and fulfilling hobby projects to occupy their time.
  • As population grows and people become more and more connected, there will be more opportunities for people to self-organize into niche communities. There will be more opportunities to find friends, colleagues, and romantic partners who share your values and worldview. More generally, there will be more opportunities for individuality and self-expression.

This month total human population crossed 8 billion!

Do you think the world needs more people? (Context)

“Needs” might be too strong, but I think more people would be a good thing. More people means more ideas, more art, more science, more inventions, more innovations, more pushing the boundaries of knowledge and practice. If you define “genius” as 99.9999th percentile intelligence, then for every million people born, we get one new genius.

Indeed, there is an argument that we need continued population growth in order to keep up economic growth. The intuition for this, in brief, is that the more we advance, the broader and more challenging the technological frontier gets, and the more specialists we need working in R&D to push it forward. (See here for a take on this)

What concrete steps would you recommend someone do, if they're interested in Progress Studies in general terms, and would like to contribute in some way, but don't necessarily know how or have a directly relevant background? Other than the obvious steps of writing blog posts and posting here :)

I think more people have a relevant background than may be obvious at first:

  • Scientists, inventors, and founders can directly make material progress
  • Historians, economists, and philosophers can study progress and incorporate it into their work
  • Educators and journalists can communicate about progress to their audiences
  • Writers and artists can inspire people with an ambitious vision of the future
  • Policy makers can remove obstructions and roadblocks to progress
  • Parents can educate their children about progress

What everyone can do: educate yourself, spread the world, donate to the cause.

Given recent events, are you concerned about progress studies being too closely associated with the Bay Area-centric Rationalist and Effective Altruism communities (even down to using the LessWrong software for this forum)? 

I think the progress community has its own identity that is distinct from (if partially overlapping with) adjacent communities such as rationalism. For instance, I got interested in progress when I knew very little about rationalism and nothing about EA. The article that coined the term “progress studies” was published in The Atlantic, not on LessWrong.

Along the way, the communities discovered each other and found we had a lot of interesting things to talk about. But there is a set of motivations animating the progress effort that is original and not derivative of any contemporaneous movement.

I think the most important thing for us to do here is to focus first and foremost on the facts of reality that we think are most interesting, the goals and values that we think are most important, and the premises or principles that we think are most deeply true, and follow all that where it leads—with our relationship to any other intellectual communities or movements being a distant second.

But there is a set of motivations animating the progress effort that is original and not derivative of any contemporaneous movement. 

Note that "smart, rich, and free" roughly tracks David Pearce's three supers: superintelligence, superlongevity, and superhappiness. 

I have a very technical question about the history of semiconductors.
I've read long ago, that in the 20s Germanium conductance was a mystery, because of parasitic PN junctions caused by contamination and various metallurgical uncontrolled differences...

It seems that some researchers had observed PN diode effects, but also, unable to explain it, have kept the measurement in their drawer... Is there any serious report about that dark age of germanium PN junction ?

More generally, I would like to understand the really underground story of early semiconductors research, when it was an anomaly, impossible to repeat reliably because of missing theory and technology, not the final phase when theory and experiments had connected in the 40s.

 

Best regards.

I don't know! But I'm trying to recruit help on Twitter: https://twitter.com/jasoncrawford/status/1595168485004279808

Here's one reply:

Not sure about germanium specifically, but recall the dopants in silicon crystals could be identified by smell, machinists familiar with the smell of phosphorus lamps could identify n type based on this. Can't find the original source but:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/2977642_A_history_of_the_invention_of_the_transistor_and_where_it_will_lead_us

https://twitter.com/carmichaeljr/status/1595177270959800322

Many Thanks !

Let's hope it works.

Do you have any methods of analysis or threads of scholarship that you think are definitely wrong, or seriously misleading, and so should be avoided?

Not sure exactly, but there are some popular books I dislike. I read the first chapter of Dawn of Everything and was unimpressed. See Holden Karnofsky's “book non-review”. Also, I tried to read Sapiens and I could not get through two chapters of it. C. R. Hallpike's review captures my feelings about it.

Re methods of analysis, I am highly skeptical of cyclical theories of history (Turchin/cliodynamics).

But generally as long as you're looking at data and other evidence, and applying logic, you should be able to discover some nugget of truth.

What is the role of geography and place in the future of progress? 

There was the recent paper on "Why Britain? The Right Place (in the Technology Space) at the Right Time" looking at why Britain gained economic leadership during the Industrial Revolution. We have seen the agglomeration effects on innovation regions with Detroit in the 40's and 50's and Silicon Valley in the 1990s-2010s. 

On the other hand we are seeing remote work and considerably high demand for it. Recent data on LinkedIn had 14% of jobs being listed as remote, but garnering 52% of the applications. IP commercialization is not limited to where it was developed. 

There are some analysis about why democracy, modernity appeared in Europe, earlier in Greece, and there are two related analysis.

One is by  David Cosandey, "Le secret de l’Occident. Vers une théorie générale du progrès
scientifique, "

You can translate this related presentation to have a quick vision:

https://gerflint.fr/Base/MondeMed4/Demorgon_Secret.pdf

He proposes 2 concepts, one is "articulated thalassography", a measurement I've seen in fractal theory, comparing the length of the coast with surface of the country that can be reasonably defended...
Another is "Mereuporia", the capacity in a zone to have stable "realms" that compete strongly but can never win totally on the whole zone...

Both ideas push countries to stay stable, exchange much, innovate much, and prevent the  creation of a sterile centralized empire.

The second author, cited David Cosande (and Isaac Asimov, and many others, including a post-Roman historian) : Philippe Fabry

https://www.amazon.com/s?i=digital-text&rh=p_27%3APhilippe+Fabry&s=relevancerank&text=Philippe+Fabry

In English there is  only: "history of next century", and "Rome from libertarianism to socialism: Ancient lessons for our time"

He has a more comprehensive theory of history (Historionomy), proposing that there have been 3 ages, with Mycenian empire, Roman Empire, and US Empire, evolving in spiraling cycles...

What he calls Civilization A was Greece, and now is Europe (before it was Cretan "palaces"), with dynamic states that from medieval period, move to a Renaissance, with each country making a national transition from medieval to monarchy then parliamentary democracy.

However, this transition is frozen during wars when the country is troubled... Britain with 100 years war, delayed French Revolution by 100 years, while it's own process was not... it became the "thalassocracy" , having control over the commerce... WW1&WW2 (German national transition, which triggered Russian transition halted by Staline unexpected victory) propelled USA as the new Thalassocracy...

Being the Thalassocracy make you connected to many civilizations, attractive to innovators, demanding in innovation, and not afraid of innovations.

In Antiquity, Athens was the thalassocracy.

There is much more to say, but yes, geography, because of commerce and capacity to protect your land are key.

One of the reason of Russian psychology is that they were on the road of nomad warlords from Mongolia, regularly invaded... France on the opposite is a crossing but have good natural borders to hale. and England is an island. Ukraine was the door to Europe, where Polish empire installed Cossacks horsemen to block eastern invasions... guess what happened when someone attached them from the east ? (Note that the mass of fighter against nazis were Ukrainians and Belarussians)...

 

What is depressive with Fabry is that he predict the fate of US Empire is like Roman Empire, move from democracy to autoritarianism, then alone in his empire, with no competition, it will collapse like USSR, leading to a new middle age, allowing a new Renaissance, but with bigger-size civilization (guess à which scale)... risky colonization far from Civilization A... a new Thalassocracia...

The only things to do would be to store Alexandria Library in a very safe place, and promote a new Bysance
Interesting theory...

The more transportation and communication technology advance, the more we conquer time and space, and the less they matter. However, they still matter a lot, and will for the foreseeable future. We would need something faster than supersonic airplanes, or some kind of very high-fidelity VR/telepresence, for the effect of distance to be negligible.

Emphasis on “foreseeable”—maybe something will happen that makes distance obsolete.

On the other hand, it can only do so as long as we stay on one planet. Once we go beyond Earth, the speed of light makes distances matter again. Even between here and the Moon, a ~2.5-second round trip delay makes real-time conversations awkward. Between here and Mars, the delay is measured in minutes, making even basic web browsing basically impossible. Once we become interstellar, we're basically forking human civilization. So probably “place” will always matter.

How would you allocate $10 million to create the most positive long-term progress? 

Personally, I would put it towards the mission of The Roots of Progress, which is to to establish a new philosophy of progress for the 21st century. As I wrote in an announcement a few months ago:

The new philosophy of progress needs a movement to establish it. The pillars of this movement are:

  • Intellectual foundations: a lot of research, thinking, and writing, to better understand and communicate the lessons of progress, and to apply them to the problems of today and the opportunities for tomorrow.
  • Community-building: events, forums, meetups, and conferences for the progress community to exchange ideas, forge relationships, and start projects.
  • Cultural outreach: from school curricula, to inventor biopics, to sci-fi that paints a positive vision of the future.

I described this more in “What would a thriving progress movement look like?

Other than that, I would be inclined to fund innovative new models for R&D, such as Ben Reinhardt's Private ARPA or Convergent Research's FROs.

Sounds awesome, agree! 

Which research areas would you be most excited to support to accelerate progress (energy comes to mind, open to many more for funding via https://www.molecule.to/ and https://www.bio.xyz/), and which "applied metascience" seems most useful beyond new institutions for funding r&d such as PARPA, FROs? 

Nanotech and longevity seem underrated. A few years ago I would have said fusion but now there seems to be a lot of investment there.

What are the big questions in progress studies (and why do they matter, if it's not obvious)?

  • How can we define “progress”? How can we measure it?
  • What are the benefits of progress, and what are the costs and risks? How do they weigh out?
  • What are the root causes of progress? How can we drive it?
  • What should we as a society do about progress?

More here: What is a “philosophy of progress?”

How do you (and, separately, the Progress Studies community broadly) relate to hard takeoff risk from AI?

I can only speak for myself.

I think that AI safety is a real issue. Many (most?) new technologies create serious safety issues, and it's important to take them seriously so that we can mitigate risk. I think this is mostly a job for the technologists and founders who are actually developing and deploying the technology.

I think that “hard takeoff” scenarios are (almost by definition?) extremely difficult to reason about, and thus necessarily involve a large degree of speculation. I can't prove that it won't happen, but any such scenario seems well outside our ability to predict or control.

A more likely AI global catastrophe scenario, to my mind, is: Over the coming years or decades, we gradually deploy AI more and more as the control system for every major part of the economy. AI traders dominate financial markets; AI control systems run factories and power plants; all our vehicles are autonomous, for both passengers and cargo; etc. And then at some point we hit an OOD edge case that causes some kind of crash that ripples through the entire economy, causing trillions of dollars worth of damage. A complex system failure that makes the Great Depression look like a picnic.

In any case, I'm glad some smart people are thinking about AI safety up front and working on it now.

Without referring to other people's views or research, do you have a personal intuitive point estimate or spread on when we will have AIs that can do all economically important tasks?

I dunno… years is too short and centuries maybe too long, so I guess I'd say decades? That is a very wide spread though.

And if you really mean all, I place non-zero probability on “never” or “not for a very long time.” After all, we don't even do all economically important manual tasks using machines yet, and we've had powered machinery for 300 years.

Where is anti-aging (to the point of indefinite lifespans) land on your list of priorities and why is it not priority #1?

It is high up there! In fact, sometimes in interviews I'm asked whether there is an R&D priority that stands out, and multiple times I've named longevity. If you solve that, it gives you more time to solve all other problems.

The main reason I wouldn't want to call it “#1” is because that implies some universal total ordering over all possible R&D avenues, and I don't believe in that. Some things are more important than others, but, absent an imminent global catastrophe, I'm a pluralist about R&D priorities. People should work on whatever they have a unique vision for or are most passionate about, and far be it from me to discourage people who are working on nanotech, nuclear energy, space, AI, etc.

What do you think of sustainable progress?

What exactly do you want to sustain?

I want progress itself to be sustained, including sustained economic growth. Ultimately I want sustained, continuous increases in human well-being.

Typically today, the term “sustainable” means something else. It can mean sustaining the use of a particular technology or a particular infrastructure base, even if that means limiting growth. In this sense, usually, “sustainability” is the opposite of progress: to sustain is to stagnate.

More here:

Ultimately, as David Deutsch writes, "only progress is sustainable".