Crossposted from the AI Alignment Forum. May contain more technical jargon than usual.

Some people think GDP is a good metric for AI timelines and takeoff speeds, and that the world economy will double in 4 years before the start of the first 1-year doubling period, and that AGI will happen after the economy is already growing much faster than it is today.

Other than AGI, what technologies could significantly accelerate world GDP growth? (Say, to a doubling period of <8 years, meaning the whole world economy grows 9%+ per year, significantly faster than the fastest-growing countries today.)

I find myself struggling to think of plausible answers to this question. Here are some ideas:

--Cheap energy, e.g. from solar panels or fusion

--Cheap resources, e.g. from asteroid mining, undersea mining, automated mines...

--Robots and self-driving cars make transportation and manufacturing cheaper

--3D printing? Idk.

--Narrow AI? Seems like the most plausible answer, but narrow AI doing what, exactly? Driving cars? Manufacturing things? Already discussed that. Inventing new products? OK, but in that case won't they also invent AGI?

My problem is that while all of these things seem like they could be a big deal by ordinary standards, they don't seem like that big a deal. Looking back over US economic history, it seems to my quick glance that growth rates haven't changed much in 200 years. (!!!) But over that time energy, resources, etc. have gotten lots cheaper in the USA, and all sorts of new tech has been developed. Worldwide, it looks like the last time annual GWP growth was less than half of what it is now (excluding the Great Depression) was... 1875! (At least according to my data, would love to see a more thorough investigation of this). The world looked hella different in 1875 than it does now in 2020; doubling world GDP growth rates again seems like a pretty tall order. I believe that AGI could do it, but what else could?

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Dec 12, 2020


I think past acceleration is mostly about a large number of improvements that build on one another rather than a small number of big wins (as Katja points out), and future acceleration will probably be more of the same. It seems like almost all of the tasks that humans currently do could plausibly be automated without "AGI" (though it depends on how exactly you define AGI), and if you improve human productivity a bunch in enough industries then you are likely to have faster growth.

I expect "21st century acceleration is about computers taking over cognitive work from humans" will be the analog of "The industrial revolution is about engines taking over mechanical work from humans / beasts of burden."

From that perspective, asking "What technology short of AGI would take over cognitive work from humans, and how?" is analogous to asking "What technology short of a universal actuator would take over mechanical work from humans, and how?" The answer is just: a bunch of stuff that's specific to the details of each type of work.

Thoughts on some particular technologies, kind of at random:

  • I think that most of that automation is likely to involve new software, and so the size of the software industry is likely to grow a bunch. Increasing productivity in the software industry (likely via ML) would then be an important driver of productivity growth despite software currently being a small share of GDP.
  • I think that cheap solar power, automation of manufacturing and construction (including manufacturing industrial tools and construction of factories), and automation of service jobs are also very important stories.
  • I think that west probably could be growing considerably faster even without qualitative technological change, so part of the story may be western countries either getting out of their current slump or being overtaken.

The other part of your post is about how much qualitative change would correspond to a doubling of growth rates. I think you are moderately underestimating the extent of historical acceleration and so overestimating how much qualitative change would be needed:

  • I think the US over the last 200 years is a particularly bad comparison because at the beginning of the period it was benefiting a lot from colonization. Below I talk about the UK which I think is probably more representative. I chose the UK as the the most natural frontier economy after the industrial revolution, but I expect the exercise would be similar for other countries without complications.
  • Looking at growth over the last 200 years hides the fact that there was a period of more rapid acceleration followed by a stagnation. If we instead compared 1800 to 1950 we'd see a larger change in growth rates accompanied by a smaller qualitative change. So that's probably more useful if you are looking for an existence proof (and I think low levels of current growth likely make acceleration easier).

In 1800 the US was growing rapidly in significant part because colonists were still taking new land and then increasing utilization of that land. So over the last 200 years you have a decrease in some kinds of growth and an increase in others. I don't know much about this and it may be completely wrong, but given that the US was growing so much faster than the rest of the world and that there's such a simple explanation that seems to check out, that's what I'd assume is going on. If that's right then it can still be OK to use the US as an example but you can't use raw growth numbers to infer something about technological change.

If you want to see what's happening in frontier economies since the industrial revolution then it seems more natural to use something like per capita GDP in the UK. If I look up the GDP per capita in the UK time series at Our World in Data and turn that into a graph of (GDP per capita growth rate) vs (time), I get:

Growth rates are averaged over the next doubling of economy (clamped to [30 years, 200 years]). This introduces some artifacts around big years and probably isn't ideal.

So it seems to me like things really did change a lot as technology improved, growing from 0.4% in 1800-1850, to 1% in 1850-1900, to .8% in 1900-1950, to 2.4% in 1950-2000. What we're talking about is a further change similar in scope to the change from 1800 to 1850 or from 1900 to 1950.

(I don't know if there are other reasons the UK isn't representative. I think the most obvious candidate would be that 1900-1950 was a really rough period for the UK, and then 1950-2000 potentially involves some catch-up growth.)

Thanks! This is my new favorite answer. I consider it to be a variant on Abram's answer.

--I think the large number of small improvements vs. small number of large improvements thing is a red herring, a linguistic trick as you say. There's something useful about the distinction for sure, but I don't think we have any major disagreements here.

-- Re: "21st century acceleration is about computers taking over cognitive work from humans" will be the analog of "The industrial revolution is about engines taking over mechanical work f... (read more)

France is the other country for which Our World in Data has figures going back to 1400 (I think from Maddison), here's the same graph for France:

There is more crazy stuff going on, but broadly the picture looks the same and there is quite a lot of acceleration between 1800 and the 1950s. The growth numbers are 0.7% for 1800-1850, 1.2% for 1850-1900, 1.2% for 1900-1950, 2.8% for 1950-2000.

And for the even messier case of China:

Growth averages 0 from 1800 to 1950, and then 3.8% from 1950-2000 and 6.9% from 2000-2016.


Dec 10, 2020


I don't know what post to link to, but I recall at some point Robin Hanson articulated fully automated manufacturing as his guess about the next big bump in GDP doubling times.

The argument as I recall it:

  • Full automation means automation of everything including building the factories themselves.
  • Full automation plausibly requires advanced AI, but not full human-level AGI. So (especially if we believe in relatively slow AI progress) we might expect to see this significantly before an AGI-based boom.
  • Fully automated manufacturing would make manufacturing much cheaper by cutting out the human cost, and automated manufacture of factories would allow rapid scaling, and rapid responses to economic demands, which would be dramatic and game-changing. Production cycles (from idea to prototype to hitting the market) would be dramatically shortened.

Thanks, this is my favorite answer so far. [EDIT: Now Paul's is my favorite.] It's sorta what I had in mind with my list of candidates above. I guess your points #2 and #3 are the ones I'm skeptical of.

Re point 2: If we've automated everything, including building factories and entire production cycles, (a) doesn't that involve figuring out how to make computers do a huge variety of tasks, many of which are quite intellectually difficult, such that plausibly the easiest way to do this is to create general AI rather than loads of na... (read more)

90% automation only gives a ~10x increase in per-worker productivity in manufacturing. Since manufacturing is only a fraction of GWP, a 10x productivity increase only makes GWP (per capita) a few times larger. Take humans out of the process completely and the bottleneck is gone. The feedback loop is only constrained the availability of resources. 
2Daniel Kokotajlo3y
Good point. I guess I just find it implausible that humans will be COMPLETELY out of the loop prior to AGI. Some parts of the loops involve agenty tasks in which you draw on general world-knowledge to make novel plans and strategies and then execute them learning and adapting constantly.
I'm not sure if the agenty tasks you have in mind are considered part of manufacturing per se or business management. My impression from above is that production work and factory construction is being automated but design/engineering and business management are not. I'm not sure, but it does seem likely that humans could be out of the loop without AGI. (Though of course AGI could happen before narrow AI actually achieves this level in practice). 


Dec 10, 2020


...there are somewhere between six and ten billion people. At any given time, most of them are making mud bricks or field-stripping their AK-47s. - Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

When we think of new technologies, we typically think of expensive, high-tech innovations, like energy production, robotics, etc. I would suggest that broader adoption of existing technologies, including social technologies, would have a bigger global impact. 

For example, one technology that could dramatically impact GDP is improved managerial technology. This paper describes a study of this in India. Among the findings in the paper (or in references that it cites):

100% productivity spreads between the 10th and 90th percentile in US commodity-producing firms

A ratio of the 90th to the 10th percentiles of total factor productivity is 5.0 in Indian and 4.9 in Chinese firms

After improving management in the studied firms, "We estimate that within the first year productivity increased by 17%; based on these changes we impute that annual profitability increased by over $300,000. These better-managed firms also appeared to grow faster, with suggestive evidence that better management allowed them to delegate more and open more production plants in the three years following the start of the experiment"

FWIW, world GDP growth rates have if anything been decreasing over the last ~80 years 

Interesting. Yeah, I guess if the less-developed world suddenly adopted cutting-edge tech and practices, that would be enough of a boost to grow at 9%+ for a few years until they caught up to the developed countries and slowed down to developed-country rates.

What could cause that to happen, though? Shouldn't we expect the diffusion of cutting-edge tech and practices to take place over several years (decades, even) in the absence of AGI?

China had 40 years of that kind of growth. For poor African countries there's more then a few years of growing like that to catch up. If someone manages to solve online teaching in a scaleable way it might be able to change the way people in developing countries run their businesses in shorter amounts of time.
Yeah, someone else suggested a novel nootropic drug as one answer - online education is basically an alternative form of that drug that is easier to realize (or at least, it's hard is a very different way)

Donald Hobson

Dec 12, 2020


Excluding AI, and things like human intelligence enhancement, mind uploading ect.

I think that the biggest increases in the economy would be from more automated manufacturing. The extreme case is fully programmable molecular nanotech. The sort that can easily self replicate and where making anything is as easy as saying where to put the atoms. This would potentially lead to a substantially faster economic growth rate than 9%. 

There are various ways that the partially developed tech might be less powerful.

Maybe the nanotech uses a lot of energy, or some rare elements, making it much more expensive.

Maybe it can only use really pure feedstock, not environmental raw materials.

Maybe it is just really hard to program, no one has built the equivalent of a compiler yet, we are writing instructions in assembly, and even making a hello world is challenging.

Maybe we have macroscopic clanking replicators.

Maybe we have a collection of autonomous factories that can make most, but not all, of their own parts.

Maybe the nanotech is slowed down by some non-technological constraint, like bureaucracy, proprietary standards and patent disputes.

Mix and match various social and technological limitations to tune the effect on GDP


Dec 11, 2020


I don't think any one of those would have an impact anywhere near that big. If nothing else, they'll each take long enough to mature that their impact will be spread out over many years. However, I would suggest the combination of distributed, autonomous manufacturing (of which 3D printing is one part), generative design, and materials informatics (and related informatics technologies) could get there.

Right now bringing new stuff to market and scaling it up is many times faster and cheaper for software than anything else. The more you can reduce the resource burden, and with it the number of people and organizations that have to buy in, to turning ideas into products, the smaller that gap can get. I would naively assume that this is analogous to any other catalyst - lower the energy barriers for the rate-limiting steps, and you get exponential speed-up. It also reduces the cost of entry and cost of failure, making it possible for many more people to participate in innovation.

One problem with this idea is that what I'm proposing is to essentially commoditize scale-up, manufacturing, and some parts of R&D, to make them nearly free. I'm making no attempt to work out the downstream effects of that on the service sector, which is a majority of GDP. I do think that's likely more a measurement problem with GDP (if a problem at all), though, and that the kind of improvement I'm suggesting could easily lead to a less-easily-measured acceleration of economic value growth.


Dec 10, 2020


Digital matter, in other words, molecular manufacturing. 

With a Star Trekian autogenous home synthesizer, one could expect Moore's Law-like growth.

I agree this would do it. However it seems unlikely to come prior to AGI, and also if it does come before AGI I think someone would use it to create AGI before the first 9%+ GWP growth year. (How? By building loads of awesome cheap computers, and then brute-forcing AGI with the extra orders of magnitude of compute. If a sugar cube can do 10^21 flops, then a datacenter can do 10^26 I guess (unsure), and that means 10^32 operations in ten days or so.)

Do you expect pre-takeoff AI to provide this? What sort of AI and production capabilities are you envisioning?

Or are you answering this question without reference to AI? If so, what would make this useful for estimating AI timelines?

There is nothing magical about it, so yes - AI will help, but humans are enough. I would expect a sustained, 100s of millions/$1bn 10 year effort would bring us a lot closer to this hardware technological 'maturity' (we are not even trying hard now - a mole of carbon-12 has a mass of 12g and it contains 6*10^23 atoms, yet there is nothing stopping us from building small machines with mere thousands/millions of atoms). Obviously you could say that this sort of money would help with anything, but I believe it would be one of the best value/$ projects). With regards to molecular manufacturing, one could imagine a multitude of ideas that are perfectly feasible from classical physics standpoint yet nowadays are in the realm of sci-fi - examples including humanoid robots built bottom-up (with milliond of tiny motors, moving more majestically than a human), mechanical computers the size of a sugar cube with 10^21 FLOPS and approaching Landauer's principle (~computronium - or as I mentioned previously, an autogenous replicator which would allow any object to be replicated, including itself (you know what the curve looks like...)  The second example ties with the AI/AGI - you do not have to worry about Moore's law in the narrow sense, even in terms of FLOPS/$ as current semiconductor substrate in simply a local maximum. Regardless of whether you are in the 'scaling'  camp or not, more FLOPS would surely help test this hypothesis as well as many others... No one knows the hurdles in front of us, but it would surely 'help' to build AGI - obviously in quotation marks given the risks.


Dec 12, 2020


A tricky thing here is that it really depends how quickly a technology is adopted, improved, integrated, and so on.

For example, it seems like computers and the internet caused a bit of a surge in American productivity growth in the 90s. The surge wasn't anything radical, though, for at least a few reasons:

  1. Continued technological progress is necessary just to sustain steady productivity growth.

  2. It's apparently very hard, in general, to increase aggregate productivity.

  3. The adoption, improvement, integration, etc., of information technology was a relatively gradual process.

If we instead suddenly jumped from a world where no company has information technology to one where every company is using 2020-level information technology (and using it with 2020-level tacit knowledge, IT-enabling capital investments, IT-adapted business practices, complementary technologies, etc.), then the productivity growth rate for that year would probably have been very high. But the gradualness of everything flattened out the surge. Given how slowly diffusion happens globally, I actually wouldn't be surprised if the surge was totally invisible at the global level.

So if we want to predict that some technology (e.g. fusion power) will help surge the growth rate above some high threshold, we will also typically need to predict that its aggregrate impact will be unusually sudden.


Dec 10, 2020


How about a novel nootropic drug?  Or advancements in neurolink technology to enhance brain-computer interfaces?  Plus other biological and medical advancements that one could conceive of.  Weight bearing suits that ease repetitive stress and increase lifting capacity.  Personal climate controlled suits that make you comfortable anywhere.

I've made the argument in a post I wrote that we will see the first genetically engineering humans in the next decade. The technique will likely be embryo selection, which results in somewhat modest trait gains even with hundreds of embryos. However, the gains made by massive embryo selection (hundreds to thousands of embryos rather than ten) are still likely to exceed the effect of even the strongest nootropics.

I do find it plausible that if we had some sort of cheap drug that made the user +2 SD's in IQ while also being more focused and creative, that would kick the economy into a much higher growth rate. Seems unlikely to happen though. Maybe narrow AI for bio R&D could do it. Maybe I'm overestimating how much it would take -- maybe only half an SD would do it?


Dec 10, 2020


Cloning. Increase world population by 9% per year and you'll add 9% in GDP fairly easily.

Which also points to GDP per capita being a more interesting measure?

Following this logic, couldn't a government just drive GDP growth by paying people to have more children? 

Right now, it seems that one can get a $1000 tax credit per child under the age of 17 in the US. The GDP per capita in the US is about $65,000. Therefore, it seems that there is lots of room to increase GDP by paying even more per child. 

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Having more children the natural way would do the trick, but that's not a technological solution, which was what was being asked for? But again, this "only" increases GDP, not GDP per capita. It wouldn't actually change anybody's living standards.

OK, thanks, I hadn't thought of that! However, this seems very unlikely to happen anytime soon. In fact it basically can't happen for the next 25 years at least.

Probably true. And even then I don't see any reason why there would be an interest in increasing the world population by that much. But it's a technological possibility...


Dec 11, 2020


China had a longer time that kind of growth through having good governance and effective economic policy. 

If a technology such as the seeing rooms that Cummings talked about suddenly allow decision making and governance to improve by a large margin, we might get that kind of economic growth. 

The fact that the cost of building subway tunnels increased rather then decreased isn't because energy prices or resource prices rose but because of a mix of lack of innovation and complex regulation. 


Dec 10, 2020


How about 3D bioprinting as a form of regenerative medicine?

Richard Lucas

Dec 12, 2020


It's been said that about half of all people have an IQ less than 100. Some psychologists have pointed out that those with IQs less than 90 have a difficult time finding good work in advanced knowledge-driven economies, and manual labor has been either exported to other countries or replaced with robots, leaving part of the labor pool underutilized.

So the shape of the idea that would generate 9%+ GDP growth is a set of technologies and/or political configurations that bring people of all IQs enthusiastically into the labor force. Not just employment opportunity, but situations that would be gleefully embraced, and productive, regardless of IQ. Work that is useful and fulfilling and worth doing for all involved.

This is not the actual idea, of course, only a statement of what might be its shape. If I actually had that idea, I would be talking to venture capitalists at this moment rather than typing this comment.

This would be good only for a temporary gain of three to six years of high growth. After that, we would be at full employment, and although the indirect gains would likely flow for a long time, national growth would likely fall below the 9% figure.

What's more important, though, is that such an outcome (bringing gleeful and productive employment to many) would make a lot of people happier, regardless of GDP growth. 

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If throughout most of history growth rates have been gradually increasing, I don't follow why you would expect one technology to cause it to grow much faster, if it goes back to accelerating.

I currently don't expect it to grow much faster, at least not until we have AGI. Is your question why I think AGI would make it grow much faster? Roughly, my answer is "Because singularity." But if you think not even AGI would make it grow much faster -- which in this context means >9% per year -- then that's all the more reason to think "Economy doubles in 4 years before the first 1-year doubling" is a bad metric for what we care about.

(To clarify though, I don't intend for the question to be only answerable by single technologies. Answers can list several technologies, e.g. all the ones on my list.)

I meant: conditional on it growing faster, why expect this is attributable to a small number of technologies, given that when it accelerated previously it was not like that (if I understand)?

Another, somewhat different reply occurs to me: Plausibly the reason why growth rates have been roughly steady for the past sixty years or so is that world population growth has slowed down (thanks to education, birth control, etc.). So on this view, there's technological growth and there's population growth, and combined they equal GWP growth, and combined they've been on a hyperbolic trajectory for most of history but recently are merely on an exponential trajectory thanks to faltering population growth.

If this story is right, then in order for GWP growth to accelerate again, we either need to boost population growth, or boost technological growth even more than usual, i.e. even more than was the case in previous periods of GWP acceleration like the industrial revolution or the agricultural revolution or, well, literally any period.

So, I'd conclude that it's unlikely for GWP growth to accelerate again, absent specific reasons to think this time will be different. AGI is one such reason. The other answers people are giving are other reasons (though I don't find them plausible.)

Ah, OK. Good point. I think when it accelerated previously, it was the result of a small number of technologies, so long as we are careful to define our technologies broadly enough. For example, we can say the acceleration due to the agricultural revolution was due to agriculture + a few other things maybe. And we can say the acceleration due to the industrial revolution was due to engines + international trade + mass-production methods + scientific institutions + capitalist institutions + a few other things I'm forgetting. I'm looking for something similar here; e.g. Abram's answer "We automate everything, but without using AGI" is acceptable to me, even though it's only a single technology if we define our tech extremely broadly.

the acceleration due to the agricultural revolution was due to agriculture + a few other things maybe

This linguistic trick only seems to work because you have a single word ("agriculture") that describes most human work at that time. If you want the analogous level of description for "what is going to improve next?" just look up what people are doing in the modern economy. If you need more words to describe the modern economy, then I guess it's going to be "more technologies" that are responsible this time (though in the future, when stuff we do today is a smaller part of the economy, they may describe it using a smaller number of words).

we can say the acceleration due to the industrial revolution was due to engines + international trade + mass-production methods + scientific institutions + capitalist institutions + a few other things I'm forgetting

If you are including lists that long then I guess the thing that's going to change is "improved manufacturing + logistics + construction + retail + finance" or whatever, just sample all the stuff that humans do and then it gets improved.

(I think "a few other things" is actually quite a lot of other things, unless you construe "mass-production" super broadly.)

It's fair to call what I did a linguistic trick, but that cuts both ways--it's equally a linguistic trick to say that my original question assumed a small number of technologies. I did have possibilities like the one you mention in mind when I wrote the question, though in retrospect I didn't make that clear. I think the possibility you raise is a good one, and similar to Abram's.

"Do paperclips count as GDP" (Quote from someone)

What is GDP doing in a grey goo scenario. What if there are actually several types of goo that are trading mass and energy between each other? 

What about an economy in which utterly vast amounts of money are being shuffled around on computers, but not that much is actually being produced.

There are a bunch of scenarios where GDP could reasonably be interpreted as multiple different quantities. In the last case, once you decide whether virtual money counts or not, then GDP is a useful measure of what is going on, but measures something different in each case.

Or you can crank up inflation, which is very easy to do as history attests.

But that only impacts this artificial thing called GDP, not the thing OP is interested in? Though I'm not entirely sure what that thing is exactly

Some people think GDP is a good metric for AI timelines and takeoff speeds

Kind of.  A computation of per-capita GDP in terms of purchasing-power parity is often used to compare historical or other wildly-divergent lifestyle groups.  It's perhaps the best measure we have, but that doesn't make it a good measure.

Specifically, GDP could become very disconnected from anything most of us care about with sufficient technological change.

What if instead of producing new things to value, people change the things they value. Perhaps increased homogeneity of value creates more efficient economies of scale.


Not confident enough to make this an answer but what about chemical engineering. If we can make the basic resources from whatever mater we have here no need to drag stuff in from space. Chemical processes both consume and produce energy. Figuring out how to capture some of that energy lost to heat might well allow weird things like constructing a strong alloy I-beam for construction without a foundry. Maybe that goes with the 3-D printing but at a element/molecule level.

I would think we have two paths there: organic/bio engineering and the inorganic (e.g., that I-beam). One the bio/organic side, we might be growing our housing/work spaces or roads. We would also be adding to real GDP by shifting spend from maintenance/repair in the form of healthcare to other outputs. (Is the value of healthcare contribution to GDP eventually going to be viewed a bit like a broken window type contribution?)

[+][comment deleted]3y10