What is the next Really Big Enormous Thing?
According to Dr. Robin Hanson, Assistant Professor of Economics at George Mason University, it's... Well, he's not sure exactly what it will be, but he makes a strong case that it will be ENORMOUS in this essay at Future Brief.
Economists’s best estimates of total world product (average wealth per person times the number of people) show it to have been growing exponentially over the last century, doubling about every fifteen years, or about sixty times faster than under farming. And a model of the whole time series as a transition from a farming exponential mode to an industry exponential mode suggests that the transition is not over yet -- we are slowly approaching a real industry doubling time of about six years, or one hundred and fifty times the farming growth rate.
Robotics, artificial intelligence, and/or machines replacing human labor are suggested by Hanson as probable prime movers in the next huge wave of innovation. That's not surprising, and it fits nicely with CRN's contention that molecular manufacturing -- a powerful blend of machines, robotics, and supercomputer intelligence -- will drive a new industrial revolution in the coming decades.
What Hanson foresees, however, is not only revolutionary; it is transformative and potentially disruptive change. Again, this is right in line with CRN's warnings.
Underlying Hanson's provocative claim is his analysis of economic growth rates, not just in the recent past, but over the full history of humankind. (To get the full gist of his argument, I'd urge reading the entire essay.) This leads to a near future point where he sees machine productivity as key for massive increases in wealth...
[W]e pay seventy percent of world income for human labor, so anything that can lower this cost can have a huge impact. . . While machines have sometimes displaced human workers, they have much more often helped humans be more productive at tasks that machines cannot do. Machines have thus on net raised the value, and hence the cost, of human labor. And because people are essential, the limited rate of human population growth has limited the economic growth rate.
Once we have machines that can do almost all the tasks that people can do, however, this picture changes dramatically. Since the number of machines can grow as fast as the economy needs them, human population growth no longer limits economic growth. In fact, simple growth models which assume no other changes can easily allow a new doubling time of a month, a week, or even less.
Unfortunately, this explosive growth may not come without a cost...
This is disturbing because human wages should fall quickly with the falling price of machines. So while humans who owned shares in the firms that made machines would get very rich, those whose only source of income was their labor could die of starvation.
Severe economic disruption -- and resulting social chaos -- is seen by CRN as a major risk of the molecular manufacturing revolution.
Dr. Hanson prescribes increased awareness...
If we stand back from all the big events and innovations we have seen in the last century and look at the overall world economic growth rate, it seems surprisingly steady. . . Looking further back in time, however, we see that once in a while something has changed the growth rate by enormous factors in a relatively short time. We might do well to not ignore such a speeding freight train until it actually hits us.
Hit by a speeding freight train is his analogy, but I prefer to put us in the driver's seat, racing very fast on a poorly marked road into pitch-black darkness. That's the state of the world as we move rapidly toward the Nano Era.