The history of life, on a postcard?

Will your children see an exponential growth explosion? Here is Robin Hanson’s latest:

A revised postcard summary of life, the universe, and everything, therefore, is that an exponentially growing universe gave life to a sequence of faster and faster exponential growth modes, first among the largest animal brains, then for the wealth of human hunters, then farmers, and then industry. It seems that each new growth mode starts when the previous mode reaches a certain enabling scale. That is, humans may not grow via culture until animal brains are large enough, farming may not be feasible until hunters are dense enough, and industry may not be possible until there are enough farmers.

Notice how many “important events” are left out of this postcard summary. Language, fire, writing, cities, sailing, printing presses, steam engines, electricity, assembly lines, radio, and hundreds of other “key” innovations are not listed separately here. You see, most big changes are just a part of some growth mode, and do not cause an increase in the growth rate. While we do not know what exactly has made growth rates change, we do see that the number of such causes so far can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

While growth rates have varied widely, growth rate changes have been remarkably consistent — each mode grew from one hundred and fifty to three hundred times faster than its predecessor. Also, the recent modes have made a similar number of doublings. While the universe has barely completed one doubling time, and the largest animals grew through sixteen doublings, hunting grew through nine doublings, farming grew through seven and a half doublings, and industry has so far done a bit over nine doublings.

This pattern explains event clustering – transitions between faster growth modes that double a similar number of times must cluster closer and closer in time. But looking at this pattern, I cannot help but wonder: are we in the last mode, or will there be more?

If a new growth transition were to be similar to the last few, in terms of the number of doublings and the increase in the growth rate, then the remarkable consistency in the previous transitions allows a remarkably precise prediction. A new growth mode should arise sometime within about the next seven industry mode doublings (i.e., the next seventy years) and give a new wealth doubling time of between seven and sixteen days. Such a new mode would surely count as “the next really big enormous thing.”

Read the whole thing. Yes you should pay attention to these ideas; even if their chance of being right is small, their expected value in terms of importance is high. That being said, I sometimes tease Robin for offering us a secular version of Pascal’s Wager.

Note that Robin makes Arnold Kling look like a pessimist.


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