SebastianG

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Why was progress so slow in the past?

Great essay! And clearly you put your elbow grease in to make it flow and feel right rhetorically. Mwah. That catalogue of hurdles was very well thought out.

I have one comment on the following:

"If it were, say, a millwright, he would have to learn enough about machines to go beyond the kinds that he had been taught to make through apprenticeship, and invent something entirely new. Where would this knowledge have come from?"

I was just listening to Esther Duflo talk about mathematics ability and difference between street kids who sell produce and students in school. The 10 year old math practitioner in the streets can solve very complex practical problems involving two divisions, an additions, and a subtraction quickly with a high degree of accuracy. But in the study which ratcheted up the abstraction layers of the question to the practitioners, they quickly fell off as the questions became more abstracted out (even when given monetary incentive to solve the problem!).

Similarly students in school weren't able to climb down the ladder from abstraction to application. And when they tried, they needed pen and paper and took 10 minutes to figure it out.

This study once again indicates the difficulty of transfer. What is learned in one area only with conscious and deliberate practice can be applied to another.

But another more subtle takeaway is possible, namely that the vast majority of millwrights don't engage in philosophical abstraction of the art of millwrighting, hunting for foundational and transferable principles to other fields. You present it as a 'knowledge problem'. Perhaps we can get even more precise. It's that millwrights don't teach their apprentices general principles, because they themselves never did formulate explicit general principles about machines. Until there are general principles, there are few inventors. It's a science problem. Technique without science is sterile.   

The Hamming Principle: Archimedes requires Euclids, not Euclids Archimedes.

Draft for comment: Towards a philosophy of safety

Hi Jason,

A few comments. I like the basic idea, but he article seems too fawning and just does not provide enough of a Scylla and Charybdis of where "safety" goes right and where it can go wrong. The hidden context, I believe, is the high-profile catalyzing exposure of x-risk and longtermist ideas to the broader public.

Here are less than a few thoughts on some of your statements.

"Safety is properly a goal of progress."

Certainly safety is not properly a goal of progress, any more than seatbelt is a goal of fast transportation. Safety is one method of achieving progress by reducing risks, costs, or "the error rate."

"We’ve made a lot of progress on these already, but there’s no reason to stop improving as long as the risk is greater than zero."

The law of diminishing returns applies to safety as to everything else. It's precisely when people talk about the safety as though "every little bit helps" that we get nonsensical regulation, unnecessarily high costs, disastrous environmental review, IRBs which kill social science. There must be reasonable way of deciding which risks must continually be decreased and which we can and should live with. Safety can be cudgel against progress, even though it can also be a helpmate of it.

"Being proactive about safety means identifying risks via theory, ahead of experience, and there are inherent epistemic limits to this."

This point is good and could use expansion. What are the limits? When are they greater and when are there lesser epistemic limitations?

"This should be the job of professional “ethics” fields: instead of problematizing research or technology, applied ethics should teach technologists how to respond constructively to risk and how to maximize safety while still moving forward with their careers."

I don't know what it means to "problematize research", research seems problem-ridden already. But also this comment seems to contradict an earlier point where you stated that engineers are best situated to work on the safety of the systems they build. Which is it? The engineers or the ethicists?

I have a bioethicist on my team, and I think he's invaluable because he offers a coherent method for thinking through ethical problems (especially end of life issues and informed consent issues). But it's important to recognize that his particular method is dependent, as all ethical systems are, upon a particular metaphysics, to use a dirty term loathed by most ethicists. Not that we have to wait for everyone to have the same metaphysics to work on big safety or big progress - we could never do anything in that case. For in that case, we'd be stuck like Russ Roberts, in his articles against utilitarianism, unable to judge whether free trade is worth the cost of one person's workforce participation. But metaphysics does offer some guidance about tradeoffs we should and shouldn't make by providing useful if, sometimes vague, definitions of human life, human flourishing, human moral responsibility. There are real differences between people on these definitions, which lead to very different ethical conclusions about which tradeoffs we should and should not make. Indeed, how much safety we should invest in is informed by our metaphysical and meta-ethical assumptions.

I think trained ethicists with an engineering or medical degree are extremely helpful. In our space that's a minority opinion. But, like having a lawyer well-versed in case law, the excellent ethicist can quickly see different implications and applications of a process, and be able to provide advice on potential pitfalls, low-cost safety features, and mis-applications that were not immediately obvious consequences.

Progress and Disabilities

Thanks for sharing your story. Although there are a lot of disability advocacy groups, progress studies is in a unique position in that it can detail technologies that enable people to live rich lives who otherwise would not be able to.

I would love a follow up article on the technologies that are most essential for your wife's life and how they work both in the technical and socio-cultural sense. 

What would you all change the h-index to? I'm very curious!

I would like to understand what the biggest advantages of the h-index are. It seems to me the advantages are that it balances quantity and quality. Let's try the opposite for a decade or two. A measurement strategy that gives high weight to quantity or quality.

Here are some ideas, likely bizarre for reasons others will eagerly point out.

S-index = |N-log(C)|^log(C)

N = number of topics written on as measured by Milojević 2015 or more simply the unique keywords used by the journals to describe the article. C = total citations.

That formula is a response to Matt Clancy's paper on innovation getting harder. He points out that the number of topics is slowing down. So the incentive under this paradigm to work either on unique topics or on a few topics intently.


Another idea is to think that as science slows down groups and coalitions are becoming more important.

So here is a second idea, almost certainly terrible.

Average h-index of self and all co-authors. This would be something like a measure of the h-strength of one's network but gives no reward for the size of the network. One effect might be that it encourages strong research networks, which would have pros and cons, granting more freedom to the more productive clusters but making social life more important.

Increasing Demand for Progress Beyond Desire

This is largely a response to footnote 2.

In The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth Benjamin Friedman deploys a lot of case studies of social progress and economic growth going hand in hand. Similarly, in Stubborn Attachments, Tyler makes a compelling case the GDP is greatly linked with human-wellbeing, but he also allows that there is more to well-being than the basket of goods that can be currently be purchased. He calls the total basket of goods Wealth Plus. So far so good.

I appreciate that what you do here is look for a way for economic growth to correlate with some level of social change, i.e. more vacation. As a first look, I think this style of thinking hold some promise. It is impossible to detail all the goods that humans choose to purchase or tradeoff against and create public policy around them. But perhaps we can formulate an account of Wealth Plus/ Human Flourishing that takes advantage of the correlation between wealth and wellbeing.

Well-being is likely multiplicative of several species of goods which tradeoff against each other, but are hard to exchange. I want to do more theorizing on this. The example of vacation days vs. productive work is interesting. Can you share more about your model of rival species of goods?  

We Are Not Gods: The Geographic Critique of Impartial Progress

"Things like shared culture/values are important because that can be what empowers people to take a leap together, and it's especially magical when that culture (say of science) is shared among people who, in other aspects of their lives, do not share culture."

I've been thinking a lot about this recently. See for example the recent discussion on creating demand for innovation. https://progressforum.org/posts/RhYhhfQ3KTvKhEKF3/to-increase-progress-increase-desire

One dichotomy that might be useful is the distinction between invention and innovation.

Invention, as in the invention of the periodic table, the flying shuttle, and Euclidean geometry requires a set of conditions that foster freedom, unbridled curiosity, debate and play. Here taking a leap together to learn something new.

Innovation, as in taking an idea or invention and investing in it to make something real, profitable, or socially beneficial. Taking a leap together to get something done.

Not all progress comes from innovation, much of progress, perhaps even the most important types, come from invention and discovery. These are two sides of the same system, both necessary, like upper and lower teeth.

In the progress studies community, you can see this divide too. Some people are more purely interested in investigating how progress happens, others in making it happen. Two rows of teeth!

To Increase Progress, Increase Desire

I think it worthwhile to take a moment to theorize about demand. I think we are all supply-siders in some way.

Aren't you trying to manufacture demand to consider the supply side? What's the theory of demand that increases the supply-side?

To Increase Progress, Increase Desire

Having thought it about this some more, I think my point actually buttresses your thesis.

Lets imagine that humans are adaptable to the living standards of current circumstances and have finite competition points. Along the dimension of current circumstances there is zero-sum competition for status and relative power. Demand for status, relative power, and group belonging can swamp demand for a brighter, more efficient future.

So under this theory climate change action is an example where demand moved from the scientific community who identified a negative externality from carbon emissions to a marker of group solidarity and desirability. In this case, the competition to do something about it is probably net-good (although the anti-natal doomerism is a pretty high cost already, if that birth-rate effect is real), since many climate actions are productive.

So a model for boosting demand would be something like:

  1. Identify goods where when demand increases there are long term positive effects. Thinkers and prophets.
  2. Produce media content and communities around those effects. Enthusiasts and fandoms.
  3. Create institutions that actually facilitate those effects. Innovators and political possiblity.

Each of these points requires a population that is not stuck trying to find ways to conform to their dis-innovative peers full time. "Freedom for alternative demand," you might call it.

(This reminds me of Tyler's comment on dentists. The marginal dentist doesn't create much in the way of public goods. But the marginal innovative firm changes the equilibrium of society.)

State capacity eats interest rates for lunch

I agree that the article is kind of hard to follow because the concept of state capacity doesn't feel natural in the article, (this is more a stylistic issue than a conceptual one) when what is meant is something more like regulatory cost-multipliers.

If your audience is a little more left-coded, then 'state capacity' is a term more likely to generate agreement than talking about regulatory costs to efficiency, which sounds more libertarian.

I think I would have started the article with an arresting breakdown of how much of a project's cost were caused by financing, and then used that to show that even low interest rates can't help the impossibility of building even modest sized projects in the US at decent cost. The cost of financing is a big deal in multi-year projects, so creating policies on how to get things done when interest rates are higher is a big deal.

Now I'm wondering if there is a correlation between low interest rates and regulation. Do low interest rates crowd out low-cost construction, by decreasing the cost of regulation?

To Increase Progress, Increase Desire

The selfishness motive for increasing demand is actually weaker than you might think. In the three examples you chose, climate change, Tesla, and Apple, I'd make the case that all three, even Apple(?) pulled demand because they are socially desirable at the same time as personally beneficial.

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