All of jasoncrawford's Comments + Replies

Draft for comment: Ideas getting harder to find does not imply stagnation

Thanks. I generally agree with all these points, but do they change any of the conclusions? These complexities aren't represented in the models because, well, they would make the models more complex, and it's not clear we need them. But if it made a crucial difference, then I'm sure this would get worked into the models. (It's actually not uncommon to see models that break out different variables for each invention or product, it's just that those details don't end up being important for high-level summaries like this.)

Nature of progress in Deep Learning

I think you're right about “dark matter,” and precision machining is exactly the first example of it that leapt to mind. E.g., Watt was having a hard time getting his improved steam engine to work reliably, because without a very good fit between the piston and cylinder, steam pressure would be lost. The problem was solved by Wilkinson, who had developed a special technique for boring canons that could be applied to cylinders for engines. This story is told toward the beginning of Simon Winchester's book The Perfectionists (sold in the UK under the title E... (read more)

Draft for comment: Ideas getting harder to find does not imply stagnation

Thanks Gale! In a nutshell, what are the most important takeaways from those pieces?

Where is “Progress Studies” Going?

What's a good example of slowing a technology that is likely to be harmful?

1Chris Leong17hNuclear non-proliferation has slowed the distribution of nukes; I acknowledge that this is slowing distribution rather than development. There are conventions against the use of or development of biological weapons. These don't appear to have been completely successful, but they've had some effect. There has been a successful effort to prevent genetic enhancement - this may be net-positive or net-negative - but it shows the possibility of preventing development of a tech, even in China which was assumed to be the wild West. But going further, progress studies wouldn't exist if we didn't think we could accelerate technologies. And as a matter if logic if we have the option to accelerate something we also have the option to not accelerate it, otherwise it was never an option. So even if we can't slow a harmful technology relative to a baseline, we can at least not accelerate it.
Progress studies as an (incomplete) “idea machine”

Re “It's Time to Build”; I was also a bit surprised to see that here as a separate item, for the same reason. But, I was also surprised to see Schmidt Futures as a separate item—it's a bit hard for me to understand how a single entity can be an idea machine unto itself? Nadia is coming at these things at a very granular level, and I find that interesting in itself.

jasoncrawford's Shortform

Eli Dourado:

Exciting geothermal news today!

I’m pleased to advise and help unveil Project Innerspace, a new nonprofit focused on removing the technical obstacles to Geothermal Anywhere by 2030. Check out the site, and follow @innerspace2030.

About the Progress Forum

Hmm, I think it is supposed to tick up by 2. Are you sure you're getting a strong vote in? You have to click and hold for a while until it takes.

Progress studies as an (incomplete) “idea machine”

A single commissioner would be too constrained I think. It's not just the NRC holding back nuclear: it's also state-level restrictions, the Yucca Mountain problem, environmental review, community opposition, etc.

jasoncrawford's Shortform

Kwasi Kwarteng, UK Business & Energy Secretary and MP for Spelthorne:

We need more nuclear! Today I'm launching our £120m Future Nuclear Fund to entice more developers to invest £billions in new power stations. More nuclear developers = greater competition = lower costs. After 30 years of delay, we're cracking on! 

Draft for comment: Ideas getting harder to find does not imply stagnation

Well, the point of a lot of this is to look at outputs as a function of inputs. That is what Bloom 2020 is looking at. You need some measure of inputs (they basically use R&D spending, deflated by the wage rate) and some measure of output (GDP, transistor density, crop yields, etc.) and then you figure out the quantitative relationship.

If solar panels or genome sequencing don't look like this, that would be very interesting! My guess would be that they do.

Draft for comment: Ideas getting harder to find does not imply stagnation

That would make a good topic for a separate post/debate somewhere! In any case, the models discussed here don't have terms for institutions, so clearly there is something important they're not yet capturing…

Draft for comment: Ideas getting harder to find does not imply stagnation

I think that story fits, too. And Romer/Jones would seem to be sympathetic as well. From the “New Kaldor Facts” paper mentioned above (emphasis added):

There is very broad agreement that differences in institutions must be the fundamental source of the wide differences in growth rates observed for countries at low levels of income, and for the low income and TFP levels themselves. In any model, bad institutions will distort the usage of rival inputs like labor and capital (Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo 2005; Diego Restuccia and Richard Rogerson 2008;

... (read more)
2elidourado6dNot to be a double contrarian, but I am also skeptical of a lot of econ research on institutions. Ha!
jasoncrawford's Shortform

Steve Hsu:

Veil of Ignorance (Rawls) construction of social justice ignores technological change. Perhaps individual incentives, and consequent inequality, are necessary for economic growth and tech innovation.. an empirical question! 

jasoncrawford's Shortform

Hypothesis Fund launches today:

The Hypothesis Fund advances scientific knowledge by supporting early stage, innovative research that increases our adaptability against systemic risks to the health of people and the planet.

We make seed grants to fund research projects at their earliest stages, typically before there is any preliminary data. Our funding is intended to be catalytic — a fast path to enable a scientist to ‘turn over the card’ and see what’s there. And we focus on bold new ideas in basic research, not continuations of existing research.


... (read more)
Draft for comment: Ideas getting harder to find does not imply stagnation

I agree in general about the measurement challenge. However, one strength of Bloom (2020) is that they look at a variety of areas using different metrics: Moore's law, agricultural productivity, etc. (They don't really look at patents, in part because it's hard to know what patents mean/represent.) In any case, it's not just GDP. The fact that there are similar patterns across different metrics is evidence that there's something real going on.

Holden Karnofsky and Scott Alexander go further, albeit with less solid quantitative support, and extend the patter... (read more)

1ejz6dGood point, though I don't find looking at a selection of areas as too convincing. I could just as easily choose areas with consistent exponential growth that I would guess don't look like this, like solar panels or genome sequencing. Even if things were getting better on average you would expect some things to get less efficient over time too. (for example, think about that inflation components chart people share all the time) One last thing: we would probably want to look at output and not inputs. Robert Gordon's sort-of nemesis, Chad Syverson, has done work on how some big super-trends take a long time to develop and even have an impact on the world, like steam rail and electricity. Might be worth looking into as a counterpoint to the Gordon thesis.
The Two Most Tragic Moments in History

I was once asked, if I could take a time machine and make one change to the course of history, what would I do? And my immediate response was: I would go back to ancient Greece and try to stop the Peloponnesian Wars.

3etiennefd6dBasically the exact same thing I said a few days ago []! Possibly the thing to do would have been to convince the Athenians to listen to Alcibiades just before the battle of Aegospotami [], when Athens lost most of its fleet.
Wait, Environmentalists Are Anti-Technology?

More seriously, I think humanism is the fundamental issue here. Are we trying to save the Earth for humans or from them?

Wait, Environmentalists Are Anti-Technology?

The first time I heard about IPAT my reaction was, “well, population, affluence and technology are all good things, so… if impact is the product of them, it seems pretty great?” (Tongue in cheek.)

2jasoncrawford7dMore seriously, I think humanism is the fundamental issue here. Are we trying to save the Earth for humans or from them?
jasoncrawford's Shortform

Chad Jones, “Time Series Tests of Endogenous Growth Models” (1995):

Consider the following simple exercise. An economist living in the year 1929 (who has miraculous access to historical per capita GDP data) fits a simple linear trend to the natural log of per capita GDP for the United States from 1880 to 1929 in an attempt to forecast per capita GDP today, say in 1987. How far off would the prediction be? We can use the prediction error from this constant growth rate path as a rough indicator of the importance of the positive permanent movements in growth r

... (read more)
jasoncrawford's Shortform

Virginia Postrel:

The dynamist coalition that I imagined 25 years ago finally seems to be coalescing, thanks in part to our broken politics. 

jasoncrawford's Shortform

Elon Musk:

I have to say the this this notion of induced demand is one of the single dumbest notions I've ever heard in my entire life.… If adding roads just increases traffic, why don't we delete them and decrease traffic? I think you'd have an uproar if you did that.

Welcome to the (pre-launch) Progress Forum!

According to the CSS, it's “Mukta”? David Smehlik is our designer, he did a great job!

Book Review: Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything

Very interesting that the initial impetus for air conditioning was production requirements, not human comfort. Similar to how the initial motivation for railroads (and really, most transportation innovations) was cargo, not passenger transport.

Book Review: HJ Heinz Biography

Nice! The bit about selling product in clear containers is interesting. There was a similar transition when plastics, I think particularly cellophane, were first introduced. Customers could see the product they were buying—particularly with food—and be more assured of its quality, without exposing the product to air (and germs). So many little things we take for granted.

Was agricultural progress a prerequisite for the development of the mechanized textile industry?

Good question. I haven't read anything indicating this, and of course the famous breakthrough in cotton productivity, Whitney's cotton gin, was invented in 1793, well after textile mechanization was underway in Britain. So my guess is no. In fact, I've always sort of assumed that it was the other way around: efficiencies in later stages of the process created demand for higher productivity in earlier stages. Flying shuttle (1733) doubles the productivity of weavers, which creates more demand for thread; spinning machines (1760s) increase the productivity o... (read more)

The Anatomists

Thanks Laura—I've heard great things about this talk; I need to check it out!

Effective Altruism and Progress Studies

Well, maybe as a measure of “influence” absolute numbers would still make sense

2Chris Leong1dOne thing to keep in mind regarding measuring influence by numbers: Because EA started earlier, many EAs will be further into executing their plans. As an example, someone who is a student in 2020 at a top university, might be a senior manager by 2030.
Effective Altruism and Progress Studies

Hmm, they have a big head start though. Comparing absolute numbers would be unfair to us; comparing growth rates would be unfair to them!

1jasoncrawford12dWell, maybe as a measure of “influence” absolute numbers would still make sense
Effective Altruism and Progress Studies

How would you define the terms of the bet?

2krisgulati12dHaven't thought about this thoroughly but number of EAF/PSF users/views springs to mind as a crude proxy.
The Curse of Plenty

Very interesting.

Re movie franchises and cinematic universes, I see it as a branding issue analogous to food/beverage chains. If I see a Starbucks, I know what to expect, I know whether or not it's the kind of thing I like, and I can count on a certain level of quality. A boutique coffee shop might be better than Starbucks, but I'm taking a chance.

Similarly, if I go to see a Marvel movie, I know what to expect, etc. Whereas if I see some other movie, even if I know it's in the action/adventure or superhero genre, I'm taking more of a chance.

The only thing ... (read more)

2mattclancy12dAgree that franchises are fundamentally about branding! But I think it's not just that it took movie studios a long time to learn that branding was effective. I think the strategy only became very effective in the new environment where there were lots of choices for consumers. One way to think of it is to assume that consumers rely on two pieces of information when making a judgment about which movie they will most enjoy: word-of-mouth and similarity to other movies they've seen and enjoyed. When the number of movies is small, enough people see every movie that word-of-mouth is a very reliable guide to the quality of a movie. Here, I'm thinking word-of-mouth is from people you already know well, and so you can judge their taste. Like in a small town, everyone knows the artisanal coffee shop, and so Starbucks isn't desirable. But when the number of movies is really large, word-of-mouth is not very reliable. You never know more than one or two people who have seen any movie, and even fewer who have seen more than one that you're choosing between. In the latter environment, you start to give more weight to the similarity of a movie to other movies you've seen. And that creates a feedback loop, because if more people start choosing to go to movies based on their similarity to other movies, then you can only get accurate word-of-mouth information about those kinds of movies (franchises). In the second environment, it starts to pay more to make movies that are similar to existing movies, even if they not be as good as the best original movies. In the second equilibrium, the problem is that the really good original movies can't be identified, and so they languish at the box office.
It’s time to build: A New World’s Fair

Also, for a contrast—that is, what not to do—see James Pethokoukis's “The Smithsonian’s dreary 'Futures' exhibition is stuck in the eco-pessimist 1970s”:

A tour of Futures gives little to no hint (a) that America has again returned to manned space flight; (b) that Musk’s SpaceX, not NASA, is responsible for a historic reduction in launch costs that could revolutionize manned exploration and space economics; (c) that there’s renewed global interest in nuclear power, and major advances being made in nuclear fusion and geothermal; (d) that there’s this revolut

... (read more)
2Cameron Wiese12dThis is a great contrast — I'm hoping to make it out to see this in person. I'm curious to learn what happened here that caused the Smithsonian to take such a limited view.
It’s time to build: A New World’s Fair

Thanks Cameron! So excited about this project and your vision for it.

I also liked Anton Howes's idea for a new Fair:

So what would a modern-day exhibition of industry look like today? We would have to imagine all of today’s specific industry fairs, combined. Like the popular Consumer Electronics Show, but for everything. A place where visitors would actually get to see drone deliveries in action, take rides in a driverless car, experience the latest in virtual reality technology, play with prototype augmented reality devices, see organ tissue and metals and

... (read more)
2Cameron Wiese14dThanks for resurfacing Anton's piece as well. He did a great job of highlighting some of the specifics. It's super important that the Fair promote a sense of agency -- that visitors of all types can see someone like them building the future. As Anton writes "Visitors would naturally meet the inventors and scientists and engineers who developed it all, too."
Bombs, Brains, and Science

Interesting paper and great writeup.

One thing I wonder about: how much of the “brains” setback was due to it being from an evil, self-imposed policy? That is, the bombing was a sort of random, external factor. But the expulsion of the Jews was a conscious policy from the regime. If the scientists had randomly died of disease or something, instead of being deliberately kicked out, would the effect have been similar?

2ericgilliam14dHmmmmm this is particularly interesting because, if the setback was really a recruiting problem, it breaks the problem down in a way I hadn't thought about. Because when most people deal with this question they treat it as kind of a "are there currently good people there? Yes or no?" But your question implies a different formulation. Not just "are there good people at the department right now?" But also, "how likely is that department to treat good people well/retain them if they do good work?" This is quite interesting. Because if we could start to find some rough answers to how important the expectations piece is, that could possibly shed some light on how to: 1. Recruit top scientists to departments/orgs/research areas that are not currently top-tier but looking to build up towards the future 2. And the more impactful, less zero-sum topic of maybe there are ways to use whatever we learn to get more talented potential researchers into academic departments in the first place. I'm sure we all know people who gave up possible top-flight academic careers for the private sector not just because of the paycheck, but also because they didn't really have any faith in the academic institutions/ecosystem as a whole treating them well. Would love to know anyone's thoughts or if there are interesting papers to start running down this rabbit hole on!
jasoncrawford's Shortform

New blog prize for “positive visions of the world 50 years from now”: 

jasoncrawford's Shortform

Eren Bali:

I grew up in a small village in Turkey. Before commercial fertilizers became affordable enough, you would collect cow shit all year, let it dry out and use it as fertilizer. It was hard labor, didn’t work as well and smelled as you’d think it smells.

jasoncrawford's Shortform

New podcast from Stripe Press:

Introducing Beneath the Surface—a seven-part podcast series about infrastructure. 

Join us on May 3rd for the first episode.

Spotify, iTunes 

Guarantee Funds / Leveraged Philanthropy

First thought: seems like the kind of thing you could use for vaccine development and manufacturing in a pandemic? (How does this relate to what the Gates Foundation did… didn't they fund manufacturing facilities for several vaccines, even in advance of knowing which one would work?)

Another potential application: carbon capture systems?

1Anton Howes16dCarbon capture seems like a pretty good potential use, yeah. I hadn't thought of vaccine development, though I wonder if traditional finance may be better at that, as you'd marshal more resources promising people the upside too. Good question on the Gates Foundation, I'd be interested to know too.
jasoncrawford's Shortform

From Dima Shamoun:

I just wanted to bring to your attention this recent release by the Health Physics Society on the entire history of the Linear Non-Threshold model, in the form of 22 episodes interview with Ed Calabrese. 

For context, see “Why has nuclear power been a flop?” and my interview with Dima on her podcast Flies in the Ointment.

jasoncrawford's Shortform

Voltaire on commerce and religious tolerance:

Go into the Royal Exchange in London, a building more respectable than most courts; there you will find deputies from every nation assembled simply to serve mankind. There, the Jew, the Mohammedan, and the Christian negotiate with one another as if they were all of the same religion, and the only heretics are those who declare bankruptcy; there the Presbyterian trusts the Anabaptist, the Anglican accepts the word of the Quaker. Leaving this peaceful and liberal assembly, some go to the synagogue, others go to dr

... (read more)
jasoncrawford's Shortform


A 1965 Harris poll showed 57 percent of Americans believed money would be better spent on a less literal moonshot: new water desalination systems. A few years later, in 1967, only 43 percent of the public supported landing a man on the moon, according to another Harris poll. It was popularly referred to as a “moondoggle.”

From “Bernie Sanders Would Have Voted Against the Moon Landing

jasoncrawford's Shortform

If you’re trying to promote progress and abundance, you need to figure out how. What’s the roadmap from here to utopia?

Sarah Constantin on her aims with her new blog: “In Search of Opportunity

jasoncrawford's Shortform

Tomas Puyeo on “Why Germany Won’t Keep Its Nuclear Plants Open”:

The document explaining Germany’s nuclear position reads as a long list of excuses of why it would be inconvenient to keep nuclear reactors open, forget about reopening old ones.

What is even more interesting is not what’s there, but what’s not there. This is not a cost-benefit analysis. It doesn’t explain the benefits of reopening the reactors, how much money would be saved, how much safer Germany would be, how much more it could defend its neighbors.

When you only pay attention to something’s

... (read more)
Why progress needs futurism

I think to avoid repeating past mistakes, it's crucial to remember that (1) technology and industry are ultimately valuable only in the service of human well-being, and (2) in order to ensure this, we need more than just technology and industry: we need the recognition and protection of individual rights.

Why progress needs futurism

Strong agree. I called out “vision for the future” as one of four key areas that progress studies writers should focus on here: “What would a thriving progress movement look like?

I would add another reason for futurism that's maybe even more important: it can inspire and motivate scientists, inventors, and founders—exactly the people who will be actually making these breakthroughs. It can spotlight exciting opportunities and help direct their efforts. (Maybe this is just a part of your first reason.)

Because of all this, I think J. Storrs Hall did a great ... (read more)

Ecclesiastes in the Age of Progress

There are a number of books on the history of the idea of progress, most famously by J. B. Bury. I have only skimmed/sampled them, though.

The best thing I've read on this topic is from Joel Mokyr in The Atlantic: Progress Isn't Natural

jasoncrawford's Shortform

Nuclear going mainstream?

Experts and environmentalists say the U.S. will need to turn to nuclear power, which creates no planet-warming emissions, to replace fossil fuels.

“Nuclear power will be a reliable, stable fuel source for many, many years to come,” says one power company official. 

Where is “Progress Studies” Going?

Thanks Adam! A few thoughts in response:

1. On comprehension vs. advocacy, I think there are actually two types of advocacy. One is more like “application” and is analogous to medicine or engineering: we learn something (comprehension) that can then be applied for practical results. In Cowen & Collison's article, they give the example of teaching better management practices to companies.

The other type is advocating for progress itself: promoting the idea that progress is even desirable and possible. I don't think this has an analog in biology/medicine, ... (read more)

1Chris Leong3d"Progress is real, desirable, and possible" is an inspiring slogan, but I would suggest that it's actually mistaken. What we want is differential progress where we accelerate those technologies most likely to be beneficial and slow those technologies most likely to be harmful.
jasoncrawford's Shortform

This looks interesting: “Funding for long-term-oriented people and projects” 

Load More