Phase Shifts

2004-10-11

Could the world economy double in size every week or two? Tyler Cowen links to an essay by Robin Hanson which argues precisely that. On the face of it, the notion seem preposterous, no? But a hunter-gatherer living before the agricultural revolution would have thought it preposterous if presented with the notion that human productive output could double every 900 years rather than every 225,000 years. Similarly, a farmer during the agricultural age would have thought it preposterous if presented with the notion that human productive output could double every 15 years (which it is doing right now) rather than every 900 years. Hanson argues from this historical series that the industrial revolution is not done yet: eventually the industrial phase will result in a doubling every six years or so.

So what comes after that? Each previous phase has ended in a "phase shift" with a massively increased growth rate (on the order of a 150 to 300 times increase). But massively increasing the growth rate from (soon) doubling every six years would result in doubling the total world product every week or two! And Hanson notes that, if the historical series holds true, the next phase shift would begin less than 70 years from now.

Phase shifts are the paradigmatic "interesting times". Within human history, the phase shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture coincided (over thousands of years) with massive upheaval in living patterns: the birth of writing, the founding of the first towns, the origin of class distinctions, etc. Similarly, the phase shift from agriculture to industry coincided (over hundreds of years) with printed culture, exponentially growing knowledge accumulation, world exploration and conquest by the most advanced civilization (Europe), unprecedented concentration of people in large cities, etc. Hanson seems to think that such phase shifts happen "naturally" and are primary historical causes, but as I've written before it's impossible for a phase shift to occur without an accompanying shift in the way that the human mind perpetuates itself: first in language, then in writing, then in printing, then (perhaps) in something else that we have not quite dreamed up yet. The next phase will have something to do with electronic storage of information and human knowledge, which is already causing deep changes in human society. Indeed, one catalyst for the next phase shift might be (as Hanson mentions) the potential to upload a human mind into electronic form -- the ultimate in perpetuating individual intelligence. (Trans-humanists and fans of the Singularity don't stop there: why not upload the sum of human knowledge?)

So while I disagree with Hanson in connecting each phase shift with the ability to store more information (after all, even DNA is "just" an information-storage mechanism), I agree that something momentous may be afoot before long -- and that the phase shift will happen more quickly than ever this time (on the order of decades or even mere years). Will humans be able to adjust to such fast and far-reaching changes? Will humans even be part of the picture (e.g., if machines become intelligent)?

May you live in interesting times!


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