What Will Be Fifth Meta-Innovation?

We owe pretty much everything that we are and have to innovation. That is, to our ancestors’ efforts (intentional or not) to improve their behaviors. But the rate of innovation has not been remotely constant over time. And we can credit increases in the rate of innovation to: meta-innovation. That is, to innovation in the processes by which we try new things, and distribute better versions to wider practice.

On the largest scales, innovation is quite smooth, being mostly made of many small-grain relatively-independent lumps, which is why the rate of overall innovation usually looks pretty steady. The rare bigger lumps only move the overall curve by small amounts; you have to focus in on much smaller scales to see individual innovations making much of a difference. Which is why I’m pretty skeptical about scenarios based on expecting very lumpy innovations in any particular future tech.

However, overall meta-innovation seems to be very lumpy. Through almost all history, innovation has happened at pretty steady rates, implying negligible net meta-innovation at most times. But we have so far seen (at least) four particular events when a huge quantity of meta-innovation dropped all at once. Each such event was so short that it was probably caused by one final key meta-innovation, though that final step may have awaited several other required precursor steps.

First natural selection arose, increasing the rate of innovation from basically zero to a positive rate. For example, over the last half billion years, max brain size on Earth has doubled roughly every 30 million years. Then proto-humans introduced culture, which allowed their economy (tracked by population) to double roughly every quarter million years. (Maybe other meta-innovations arose between life and culture; data is sparse.) Then ten thousand years ago, farming culture allowed the economy (tracked by population) to double roughly every thousand years. Then a few hundred years ago, industrial culture allowed the economy (no longer tracked by population) to double every fifteen years.

So these four meta-innovation lumps caused roughly these four factors of innovation growth rate change: 60,120, 240, infinity. Each era of steady growth between these changes encompassed roughly seven to twenty doublings, and each of these transitions took substantially less than a previous doubling time. Thus while a random grain of innovation so far has almost surely been part of a rather small lump of innovation, a random grain of meta-innovation so far has almost surely part of one of these four huge lumps of meta-innovation.

What caused these four huge lumps? Oddly, we understand the oldest lumps best, and recent lumps worse. But all four seems to be due to better ways to diffuse, as opposed to create, innovations. Lump 1 was clearly the introduction of natural selection, where biological reproduction spreads innovations. Lump 2 seems somewhat clearly cultural evolution, wherein we learned enough how to copy the better observed behaviors of others. Lump 3 seem plausibly, though hardly surely, due to a rise in population density and location stability inducing a change from a disconnected to a fully-connected network of long-distance travel, trade, and conquest. And while the cause of lump 4 seems the least certain, my bet is the rise of “science” in Europe, i.e., long distance networks of experts sharing techniques via math and Latin, enhanced by fashion tastes and noble aspirations.

Innovation continues today, but at a pretty steady rate, suggesting that there has been little net meta-innovation recently. Even so, our long-term history suggests a dramatic prediction: we will see at least one more huge lump, within roughly another ten doublings, or ~150 years, after which the economy will double in roughly a few weeks to a few months. And if the cause of the next lump is like the last four, it will be due to some new faster way to diffuse and spread innovations.

Having seen a lot of innovation diffusion up close, I’m quite confident that we are now no where near fundamental limits on innovation diffusion rates. That is, we could do a lot better. Another factor of sixty doesn’t seem crazy. Even so, it boggles the mind to try to imagine what such a new meta-innovation might be. Some new kind of language? Direct brain state transfer? Better econ incentives for diffusion? New forms of social organization?

I just don’t know. But the point of this post is: we have good reason to think such a thing is coming. And so it is worth looking out for. Within the next few centuries, a single key change will appear, and then within a decade overall econ growth would increase by a factor of sixty or more. Plausibly this will be due to a better way to diffuse innovations. And while the last step enabling this would be singular, it may require several precursors that appear at different times over the prior period.

My book Age of Em describes another possible process by which econ growth could suddenly speed up, to doubling in weeks or months. I still think this is plausible, but my main doubt is that the main reason I had predicted much faster growth there was not due to betters way to diffuse innovations in this scenario. Making this scenario a substantial deviation from prior trends. But maybe I’m wrong there.

Anyway, I’m writing here to say that I’m just not sure. Let’s keep an open mind, and keep on the lookout for some radical new way to better diffuse innovation.

Added 6a: Note that many things that look like plausible big meta-innovations did not actually seem to change the growth rate at the time. This includes sex, language, writing, and electronic computing and communication. Plausibly these are important enabling factors, but not sufficient on their own.

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