Lecture handout: Progress*

⭐ Required readings:

Watch the full movie The Greatest Showman (2017), Michael Gracey

Human civilisation faces many threats. Some of them (e.g. climate change, AI and nuclear war) have the potential to destroy us and our planet. Other types of risk are less existential but still highly damaging, such as pandemics. Covid revealed lots of vulnerabilities in our capacity to manage problems, and one temptation is to fix specific points of failure. This might improve our resilience for future pandemics, but who is to say whether that is the threat that we face? As Mark Pennington has said, “If there is reason to doubt the efficacy of centralised governance in strategic risk planning then the most effective and multipurpose ‘insurance policy’ that might account for the broadest range of future risks may be to sustain robust levels of economic growth. The resources generated by such growth may provide resilience against risks from multiple directions.” In other words, the best insurance policy against unknown threats is greater wealth.

Here is a good Economist article surveying “the new tech worldview” exhibited by the likes of Peter Thiel and Patrick Collison.

Key organisations:

Key movements:

Recommended podcast:

Here is Tyler Cowen talking about Stubborn Attachments:

Here is Aubrey De Grey claiming that the first person to live to the age of 1,000 has already been born:

For more on Operation Warp Speed see ‘A Shot to Save the World‘. For a fascinating (but very long) account of Vaccinate CA see The Story of VaccinateCA.

Here is the Netflix trailer for the Three Body Problem:

Activity: Transformative Breakthrough Worksheet

For a survey of potential breakthrough technologies see:

  • Weinersmith, K., and Weiner, Z., 2017, Soonish, Penguin

Or this Wikipedia article:

Or this collaborative slide deck:

In September 2019 Eli Dourado provided a detailed and illuminating look at the sectors most likely to contribute to higher future economic growth, with specific examples of technological possibilities.

In December 2020 Tyler Cowen provided a list of new technologies that may mark the end of the great stagnation. He included:

In February 2022 MIT Technology Review listed their 10 biggest technology breakthroughs in 2022. They are:

  1. Moving away from passwords
  2. Coronavirus variant tracking
  3. A long-lasting grid battery
  4. Artificial intelligence for protein folding
  5. GlaxoSmithKline’s malaria vaccine
  6. Proof of stake
  7. COVID-19 antiviral pills
  8. Practical fusion reactors
  9. Synthetic data for training AI
  10. The world’s largest carbon removal factory in Iceland

In February 2023 Alex Armlovich listed the following:

  • We cured AIDS (but nobody noticed)
  • We cured Hepatitis C
  • First mRNA vaccines
  • First personalized genomic cancer treatments
  • First CRISPR-based cures on the market now
  • Ozempic

Here is an explanation of nuclear fusion:

Here is a podcast with Eli Dourado:

My favourite “no brainer” growth drivers includes:

I suspect that future growth requires a cultural shift toward the principle of progress, and this involves a shift to longer term thinking. This post by Max Roser nicely presents the importance of “Longtermism”.

Here is a powerful and fascinating account of why advances in artificial wombs are so important, and I encourage all students to read it and reflect carefully on whether we should:

  • Alter the 14 day rule on keeping embryos in labs.
  • Invest more in Femtech.

Here is a video showing how the pill accelerated female participation in the workforce:

And, if you are blessed with children, don’t beat yourself up about having to breastfeed. The evidence in favour is fairly weak:

For more on Permissionless Innovation:

A good, uplifting account of how creativity can result from not asking permission:

Here is a short quiz activity on the difference between the Precautionary principle and Permissionless innovation.

Here is a video on the importance of ideas:

And don’t forget that cComfort is the enemy of progress” (P.T. Barnum)


Learning Objectives: Link technological innovation to growth theory and a broader reflection on the importance of the humanities

Cutting edge theory: A survey of potentially transformative breakthrough technologies.

Focus on diversity: Virginia Postrel’s book, The Future and it’s Enemies, encapsulates the distinctions made at the end of the lecture.