Tag Archives: Meta

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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Meta-Comments On UFO Talk

Following my “live and learn” strategy, after having written a bit about UFOs, let me now make some meta-comments.

For most intellectuals, UFOs are a topic “beyond the pale” and “outside the Overton window”. As was the topic of sex once, not because people didn’t think sex existed, but because of a consensus it wasn’t a “serious” topic. We generally know which topics do and don’t have this label, even if we don’t have much of an idea of why each label was once applied.

Since I started talking about UFOs, I’ve more clearly seen some of the rules we apply to talk near the edge of acceptable topics. The edge isn’t that sharp, so these are rules that apply more strongly but in a graded way as you approach closer to the edge, and then perhaps go past it.

As you approach the edge of the pale, your tone is supposed to become more jocular, your language less precise and more evocative, and your writings short and infrequent. High prestige people are allowed to go a bit further toward or past the edge without modifying their writings quite as much in these directions. You are expected to eagerly lampoon any who violate these rules.

We can think of all this as our having a “vote” on whether to move the Overrton window, with high prestige people of course getting far more votes. If you go much further than usual in taking such a topic seriously, as your attempt to argue for moving the window, that will mostly fail, as you will mainly be seen as losing your standing to vote on the topic.

I’ve noticed that this topic of UFOs makes me feel especially uncomfortable. I look at the many details, and many seem to cry out “there really is something important here.” But I know full well that most people refuse to look at the details, and are quick to denigrate those who do, being confident in getting wide social support when they do.

So I’m forced to choose between my intellectual standards, which say to go where the evidence leads, and my desire for social approval, or at least not extra disapproval. I know which one I’m idealistically supposed to pick, but I also know that I don’t really care as much for picking the things you are supposed to pick as I pretend to myself or others.

We often fantasize about being confronted with a big moral dilemma, so we can prove our morality to ourselves and others. But we should mostly be glad we don’t get what we wish for, as we are often quite wrong about how we would actually act.

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Live And Learn

In my last four posts you’ll see a pattern repeated twice: first I participate in “ground” talk on a particular issue, then I stand back and reflect on some patterns in that ground talk. I see this as a healthy way to think about social behavior.

If I only participated in each topic, I’d miss the chance to notice key social patterns up close. A great pleasure and power of being a social scientist is that most all social behavior you see around you is grist for your mills.

If I only thought about behaviors from a distance, without participating in them, I’d miss many crucial details useful in testing broader theories. Yes, by participating I risk collecting biases due to my particular stances, biases that my block me from seeing larger pictures. That probably does happen, maybe even a lot. But this still seems like a good mix.

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10 Year Blog Anniversary

Ten years ago today this blog began with this post. Since then we’ve had 3,772 posts, 104 thousand comments, & over 15 million page views. This started as a group blog, and later became my personal blog, and I’ve been posting less the last few years as I focused on writing books.

I still have mixed feelings about putting in effort to write blog posts, relative to longer more academic articles and books. I agree that a blog post can communicate a useful and original insight in just a few paragraphs to thousands, while an academic article or book might be read by only tens or hundreds. But a much higher fraction of academic readers will try to build on my insight in a way that becomes part of our shared accumulating edifice of human insight. My hope is even if the fraction of blog readers who also do this is small, it is large enough to make a comparable total number. Because if not, I fear blogging is mostly a waste.

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‘About’ Isn’t About You

Imagine you told people:

  1. What looks like the sky above is actually the roof of a cave, and trees hold it up.
  2. The food we eat doesn’t give us nutrition; we get nutrition by rubbing rocks.
  3. The reason we wear clothes isn’t for modesty or protection from weather, but instead to keep cave frogs from jumping on our skin.

Imagine that you offered plausible evidence for these claims. But imagine further that people mostly took your claims as personal accusations, and responded defensively:

“Don’t look at me. I’ve always been a big supporter of trees, I’ve always warned against the dangers of frogs, and I make sure to rub rocks regularly.”

Other than being defensive, however, people showed little interest in these revelations. How would that make you feel?

That is how I feel about typical responses to my saying politics isn’t about policy, medicine isn’t about health, charity isn’t about helping, etc. People usually focus on proving that even if I’m right about others, they are the rare exceptions. They offer specific evidence on their personal behavior to prove that for them politics is about policy, medicine is about health, charity is about helping, etc. But aside from that, they show little interest in what such hypotheses might imply about the world in which they live. (They are, however, often eager to point out that I may have illicit motivations for pointing all this out.)

To which I respond: really, “X is not about Y” is not about you. Yes, your forager ancestors were hyper-sensitive to being singled out by public accusations of norm violations, and in fact much of our reasoning and story abilities may have evolved to help us defend against such accusations, and to make such accusations against others. So yes your instincts naturally push you to react this way.

But I’m talking about ways that we all violate the norms to which we all give lip service. I’m not trying to shame some of us, or even all of us, into trying harder to live up to our professed ideals. I’m focused first and foremost on making sense of our world. If I really believed that the sky might really be the roof of a cave held up by trees, or that we wear clothes to protect against frogs, I wouldn’t focus first on making sure that I was very publicly pro-tree and anti-frog; I’d instead ask what else I must rethink, given such revelations.

Once we better understand the basics of what we are doing in areas like policy, medicine, charity, etc. then we might start to ask if we should be doing more or less of those things, and if invoking norms, and shaming norm violators, will help or hurt on net. But first someone needs to figure out the basics of what we are doing in these areas of life. I implore some of you to join me in this noble quest.

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Eight Million Visits

If milestones mean something to you, here’s a new one. There is a lot it doesn’t catch, but the Sitemeter widget on this blog has been here from the very start, and it at least gives a consistent measure of traffic. And according to it, we’ve now had eight million visits here at OvercomingBias.com.

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Seven Million Visits

According to the Sitemeter figure on the lower right hand side of this page, there have now been seven million visits to Overcoming Bias since it began in November 2006. Of course many folks read this blog in ways that don’t trigger such counts, but this still seems a reasonable time to pause and take stock. THANK YOU to all you readers, and to all the other authors who have contributed over the years.

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This Is A Personal Blog Again

Last June I turned this into a group blog to help me overcome my addiction to blogging, and focus on writing a book. I think I’ve succeed in changing my work habits, and the book is coming along well, so I think it is time to switch this back to being a personal blog. After all, blogs work best when they have a very distinct coherent voice, and I’m weird enough that most anyone stands out in contrast.

So I offer my deep thanks to Katja Grace, Rob Wiblin, and Carl Shulman, who have honored me with their thoughtful contributions over the last ten months. They are promising young folks for whom I have great expectations, and I suggest you continue to read them, as will I, at their blogs:

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Thank You TrikeApps!

In 2009 my co-blogger Eliezer Yudkowsky split off from Overcoming Bias (OB) to create the Less Wrong (LW) blog. TrikeApps wrote the feature-full software for LW, and Eliezer wanted to start it off with a high Google page rank via inheriting his posts here at OB. To support this, I agreed to let TrikeApps move OB from TypePad to a new platform where TrikeApps could turn Eliezer’s OB post links into hard links to posts at LW, to have recent LW and OB posts show up in a sidebar at the other site, and to have TrikeApps manage the technical aspects of OB.

Four years later, I’d like to send a big hearty THANK YOU to TrikeApps for their blog management. I expect it would have cost lots to pay someone to do the work they’ve done. I don’t have any plans to change this arrangement anytime soon, though I’m of course open to suggestions for other ways to manage and structure this blog.

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Welcome Carl Shulman

Today we welcome a fourth author at Overcoming Bias: Carl Shulman. The other authors have known Carl for many years, he’s posted here at OB before, and while we (ok, I) have often disagreed, he’s consistently thoughtful, clear, and interested in interesting topics. You can read more about Carl here, here, and here, but I suggest you mainly just listen to what he has to say. 🙂

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