Is Science Slowing Down? - SSC

In part a response to Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?

So apparently the average transistor scientist is eighteen times less productive today than fifty years ago. That should be surprising and scary.

the relevant factor is discoveries per researcher, and each discovery is represented as a percent change in transistor size, it makes sense to compare percent change in transistor size with absolute number of researchers.

if you take their methodology seriously, over the past ninety years, each researcher has become about 25x less productive in making discoveries that translate into economic growth.

Some explanations:

  1. A field of 5 truly inspired geniuses and 5 competent careerists will make X progress. A field of 5 truly inspired geniuses and 500,000 competent careerists will make the same X progress Price’s Law
  2. The 1930s academic system was indeed 25x more effective
  3. All the low-hanging fruit has already been picked.``We should not be surprised that discovering element 117 needed more people than discovering phosphorous.

My real objection is that constant progress in science in response to exponential increases in inputs ought to be our null hypothesis, and that it’s almost inconceivable that it could ever be otherwise. Low Hanging fruit theory of stagnation
- That kind of growth would mean that the average person who made $30,000 a year in 2000 should make $50 million a year in 2018
- that should have increased to ten years per decade by about 1955, which would mean everyone would have become immortal starting sometime during the Baby Boom, and we would currently be ruled by a deathless God-Emperor Eisenhower.
- Isn’t the real question not “Why isn’t Dwight Eisenhower immortal god-emperor of Earth?” but “Why isn’t Marcus Aurelius immortal god-emperor of Earth?”

All of these lines of evidence lead me to the same conclusion: constant growth rates in response to exponentially increasing inputs is the null hypothesis.

it at least shifts us from a lens where we view the problem as “What three tweaks should we make to the graduate education system to fix this problem *right now*?” to one where we view it as “Why isn’t Marcus Aurelius immortal?”
And through such a lens, only the “low-hanging fruits” explanation makes sense.

the Gods Of Straight Lines are more powerful than the Gods Of The Copybook Headings, so if you try to use common sense on this problem you will fail.

predict that AIs will start being able to do science in about thirty years, and will exceed the productivity of human researchers in every field shortly afterwards. Suddenly “there aren’t enough humans in the entire world to do the amount of research necessary to continue this trend line” stops sounding so compelling.

Almost the entire room raised their hands. Everyone there was smarter and more prestigious than I was (also richer, and in many cases way more attractive), but with all due respect I worry they are insane

Or perhaps that the Gods Of Straight Lines were acting *through* Bacon and Terman, and they had no choice in their actions? How do we know that the Gods aren’t acting through our conference? Or that our studying these things isn’t the only thing that keeps the straight lines going?

Published

November 2018

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