Lecture handout: Stagnation*

Textbook Reading: Chapter 12 (Section 12.3; pp. 413-421)

Key readings:

Recommended audio:

Here’s a concerning thought: “Half of all scientific papers were published in the last 12 years, but much less than half of all scientific progress has happened in that time” (link).

I was saddened to learn recently that same amount of time had passed between the first human airplane flight and the first human spaceflight as between the first spaceflight and 2018 (see here).

The lecture provided some pessimistic views on transformative breakthroughs. But every now and then I notice the power of steady, incremental progress. For example:

Noah Smith has a nice Twitter thread on progress since 1970.

For a survey of potential breakthrough technologies see:

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

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

Here is a podcast with Eli Dourado:

Some of my favourite “no brainer” growth drivers include:

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.

For more on Permissionless Innovation:

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

The importance of ideas:

Learning Objectives: Understand the debate around secular stagnation.

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. 

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