THE BEAR'S LAIR The myth of growth
By Martin Hutchinson
One of the great myths that sustained the late 20th century economy was that of
exponential growth. Technological change was supposedly moving ever faster, so
economic growth would naturally also be exponential, making us all richer than
our parents and immeasurably richer than our grandparents.
Since 2000, this seems to have gone wrong, at least on the economic side. Part
of the problem has been the transfer of wealth to emerging market workers,
enabled by the Internet and modern communications. However, beyond even this
uncomfortable reality is the truly disquieting idea that technological
progress, and therefore the potential for improved
living standards, may not be exponential at all.
The belief in exponential technological progress has among some enthusiasts
been translated into a belief in a "singularity", either upon us already or
shortly to arrive. The singularity is supposed to result in a further
acceleration in progress so great that it will form a discontinuity in human
history in which the future is nothing like the past.
Before we cheer for the singularity's arrival, we should note that most
singularity believers think it will be triggered by the arrival of machines
more intelligent than humanity, who will then take over, manufacture further
machines cleverer than themselves, and consign humanity to the slow lane.
The singularity would thus not represent an almost infinite acceleration in
mankind's improvement in living standards because presumably such
super-intelligent machines would have no interest in mankind's living standards
- or indeed in keeping us around at all, except as laboratory specimens or
perhaps pets. (If the latter I shall doubtless be early on the list for
liquidation - I have few of the desirable pet characteristics exhibited by the
family cat Eudoxia.)
Analyzed logically, there have already been three singularities in human
history: the invention of speech, the change from nomadic life to static
agriculture and the Industrial Revolution. Each of these singularities
accelerated progress by an order of magnitude, so that changes that took
several million years under the influence of evolution alone occurred in a
hundred thousand years after the invention of speech, ten thousand years after
the invention of farming and two or maybe three hundred years after the
Industrial Revolution. Life after each of these changes was completely
different from life before them; it also moved at a very much faster pace, with
huge technological changes within a short human lifespan after the Industrial
It's worth looking a little closer at the Industrial Revolution singularity. It
occurred over a period of close to 200 years, and none of its early innovations
was especially life-changing. The Newcomen engine for pumping water out of
mines, invented in 1712, led to few changes directly and was not succeeded by a
dramatically superior engine, that of James Watt, until 1769 (and Watt's
engines were not universally adopted until the 1790s).
However the technological revolution was accompanied by an equally important
revolution in human thought, beginning roughly with the founding of the Royal
Society in 1662 and extending through Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776)
into the early nineteenth century.
Thus even though the citizen of 1785 enjoyed few technological advances
compared with his 1660 ancestor, his intellectual atmosphere was quite
different. For example, Isaac Newton was an alchemist, whereas a century later
alchemists were being mocked in the famous Joseph Wright of Derby painting that
forms the cover of this writer's co-authored book, Alchemists of Loss .
 The first huge technological fruits of the Industrial Revolution came later
- textile manufacturing in a big way only from the 1790s and the railway
network only after 1830 - but the intellectual changes that formed the
singularity were already in place by 1785 or so.
In this sense, we do not appear at present to be close to any singularities.
The Internet, while it has revolutionized global communications and
substantially changed the way we live, is no more of a revolutionary change
than was electric light, the telephone or the automobile. Life in 2010 is
indeed different to life in 1995. We can organize a global manufacturing or
service-producing business today far more efficiently today than we could in
1995. Young people spend much of their waking lives surfing the Internet or
communicating through cellphones, which they could not have done before 1995.
However that was also true 15-20 years after the invention of previous
life-changing technologies. In 1845, after the invention of railroads, travel
patterns were already very different than what they had been in 1830. In 1905,
after the invention of electric light, urban evening work and entertainment
patterns were very different than those of 1890. Likewise in rural areas of the
United States, life in 1925 with Ford Model Ts was very different from life in
Each of these inventions thus revolutionized life patterns in some respect, yet
they did not speed up the entire process of invention and human progress as had
the Industrial Revolution. Life was different after the inventions had spread,
but technological progress was only modestly if at all faster.
The Internet appears to be an innovation of this type: it has changed our lives
greatly, yet it has not revolutionized the pace of innovation in the way the
Industrial Revolution did, nor does it seem likely to. Indeed, one can
reasonably argue that the generation that saw most revolutionary innovation was
that of my great-aunt Beatrice, born in 1889 and dying in 1973. Her childhood
was gas-lit and horse-drawn, her old age saw widespread jet travel and the Moon
Looking forward, there are three likely technological advances that might
potentially accelerate the pace of change, even if they don't produce a
singularity. They are: the production of a machine more intelligent than human
beings, the discovery of techniques of genetic manipulation that could increase
human cognitive abilities, and the discoveries of techniques, medical or
genetic, that could result in the dramatic extension of human lifespans.
The super-robot possibility has been the most popular cause of a supposed
singularity, but when examined more closely it seems an unlikely generator of
one. Singularity devotees like to quote Moore's Law, the theory propounded by
Gordon Moore in 1965 that computer processing power doubles every two years.
However, in reality we are coming very close to the limit of that progression;
the speed of light, the energy required to run microprocessors (which give off
heat), the wavelength of electromagnetic radiation and the size of atomic
structures are all limiting factors.
We are within a couple of Moore generations of a temporary barrier, which will
greatly complicate progress, and within no more than five to six Moore
generations of a permanent barrier, beyond which progress will be impossible by
currently imaginable techniques. Admittedly further progress in computer IQ
will be feasible through better programming and massively parallel
architecture, but the reality is that after about 2015-2020 progress in this
field will endure a dramatic slowing rather than acceleration. Just as the last
truly revolutionary change in automotive design was the invention of automatic
transmission in 1939, so too the apparently inexorable progress in computer
design will eventually reach a natural limit.
Genetic engineering to improve human intelligence will undoubtedly change our
world but is likely to occur very slowly, since it will be bitterly opposed by
most Western religious groups and governments. Even simple cloning, which
merely reproduces an existing individual, is no closer than it appeared a
decade ago and may still be a generation in the future.
Even with government permission, the safety checks needed before
intelligence-enhancing experimentation could be carried out, the likelihood
that the first such trials would merely increase human intelligence within the
currently available range rather than extending it, and the biological need for
children to spend 15 years to maturity and another five to 10 receiving higher
education would make any result from this change at least 50 years in the
In this respect the super-robot, were it feasible, could be produced more
quickly, since it would emerge fully adult. Add the fact that the first few
specimens of enhanced man would be in a tiny minority of the human/neo-human
race, and it becomes clear that any macro-acceleration from this means will not
occur before the next century.
The third potential technology, life extension, is more intriguing.
Technologically, any major such effect (beyond through medical advances
increasing the percentage of humanity surviving to 90-100) is likely to require
similar skills to producing life with superior intelligence. However, it will
face much less Luddite opposition from politicians and religious leaders, since
the benefits of longer life are obvious and theoretically universal. On the
other hand, extending the lifespan of the already living would be more
difficult than producing new longer-lived people, and is therefore likely to
take place later.
By 2050 therefore, we are likely to have the capability to produce babies whose
lifespan is in the 150-200 year range (going further than that will require the
ability to overcome decay factors that we don't yet know about, since they do
not affect non-centenarians.) Some time after that, we should be able to
produce at least partial lifespan lengthening for existing people. Given the
massive potential demand for these techniques, they should spread rapidly among
much of humanity, as mass production will reduce their cost to manageable
However, while greater longevity will greatly improve human life, it will not
accelerate it. The longer-lived will not enter the workforce for at least 25
years, as they will be more thoroughly educated than we are. Once in the
workforce, they will be naturally more risk-averse and patient than we are,
since delay will consume less of their remaining lifespan. Conversely, even
without further acceleration, they will require extensive re-education every
20-25 years, in order that their workforce skills do not become hopelessly
outdated. Since the costs to them of rapid change will be greater than to us
and the benefits less, they will naturally wish to slow it down. Only if longer
lifespan is combined with higher intelligence will they accept the breakneck
post-Industrial-Revolution pace of change.
So far, I have discussed the possible acceleration of positive change. There is
also however the possibility of catastrophic negative change, returning
civilization, living standards and knowledge to a more primitive level. One
possible generator of this is a global war, perhaps somewhat less likely than
it was 50 years ago.
Another is environmental catastrophe. Here the omens are not so good. The
current inexorable increase in population, apparently slowing but not stopping
by 2050, would be greatly worsened by discoveries that led to 200-year
lifespans, both because of fewer deaths and because of the greater number of
births produced by a species with a 100-year fertility period. Whether or not
global warming is a serious problem in a world of 7 billion people, increasing
to10 billion, it undoubtedly would be a very serious one in a world of 20
billion people (and resource exhaustion would be correspondingly more
Hence measures to slow global population increase, or better still to turn it
into reduction, should be a top priority. After all, before the last
singularity global population was only 1 billion; at that level our
environmental and resource problems would disappear.
Apart from the possibility of collapse, two of the three likely major
technological developments of the next 50 years - reaching the limit of Moore's
Law and the increase in human lifespan - will slow the pace of change rather
than increase it. Only the third, genetically increased intelligence, has the
potential to accelerate change, but the systemic opposition to this technology
is likely to prevent it appearing until far into the future. The curve of human
progress in the 21st century will therefore be asymptotic [limited], not
Note 1. Alchemists of Loss: How modern finance and government
intervention crashed the financial system, by Kevin Dowd, Martin
Hutchinson. July 2010. Wiley, US$27.95.
Martin Hutchinson is the author of Great Conservatives (Academica
Press, 2005) - details can be found at www.greatconservatives.com.
(Republished with permission from PrudentBear.com.
Copyright 2005-10 David W Tice & Associates.)