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     Sep 8, 2010
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 Revolution.

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 . [1] 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 1910.
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 landings.

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 future.

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 levels.

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 threatening).

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 exponential.

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.)

 


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