Crossposted from world spirit sock puppet.

When I think of humans being so smart due to ‘cultural accumulation’, I think of lots of tiny innovations in thought and technology being made by different people, and added to the interpersonal currents of culture that wash into each person’s brain, leaving a twenty year old in 2020 much better intellectually equipped than a 90 year old who spent their whole life thinking in 1200 AD.

This morning I was chatting to my boyfriend about whether a person who went back in time (let’s say a thousand years) would be able to gather more social power than they can now in their own time. Some folk we know were discussing the claim that some humans would have a shot at literally take over the world if sent back in time, and we found this implausible.

The most obvious differences between a 2020 person and a 1200 AD person, in 1200 AD, is that they have experience with incredible technological advances that the 1200 AD native doesn’t even know are possible. But a notable thing about a modern person is that they famously don’t know what a bicycle looks like, so the level of technology they might be able to actually rebuild on short notice in 1200 AD is probably not at the level of a nutcracker, and they probably already had those in 1200 AD.

How does 2020 have complicated technology, if most people don’t know how it works? One big part is specialization: across the world, quite a few people do know what bicycles look like. And more to the point, presumably some of them know in great detail what bicycle chains look like, and what they are made of, and what happens if you make them out of slightly different materials or in slightly different shapes, and how such things interact with the functioning of the bicycle.

But suppose the 2020 person who is sent back is a bicycle expert, and regularly builds their own at home. Can they introduce bikes to the world 600 years early? My tentative guess is yes, but not very ridable ones, because they don’t have machines for making bike parts, or any idea what those machines are like or the principles behind them. They can probably demonstrate the idea of a bike with wood and cast iron and leather, supposing others are cooperative with various iron casting, wood shaping, leather-making know-how. But can they make a bike that is worth paying for and riding?

I’m not sure, and bikes were selected here for being so simple that an average person might know what their machinery looks like. Which makes them unusually close among technologies to simple chunks of metal. I don’t think a microwave oven engineer can introduce microwave ovens in 1200, or a silicon chip engineer can make much progress on introducing silicon chips. These require other technologies that require other technologies too many layers back.

But what if the whole of 2020 society was transported to 1200? The metal extruding experts and the electricity experts and the factory construction experts and Elon Musk? Could they just jump back to 2020 levels of technology, since they know everything relevant between them? (Assuming they are somehow as well coordinated in this project as they are in 2020, and are not just putting all of their personal efforts into avoiding being burned at the stake or randomly tortured in the streets.)

A big way this might fail is if 2020 society knows everything between them needed to use 2020 artifacts to get more 2020 artifacts, but don’t know how to use 1200 artifacts to get 2020 artifacts.

On that story, the 1200 people might start out knowing methods for making c. 1200 artifacts using c. 1200 artifacts, but they accumulate between them the ideas to get them to c. 1220 artifacts with the c. 1200 artifacts, which they use to actually create those new artifacts. They pass to their children this collection of c. 1220 artifacts and the ideas needed to use those artifacts to get more c. 1220 artifacts. But the new c. 1220 artifacts and methods replaced some of the old c. 1200 artifacts and methods. So the knowledge passed on doesn’t include how to use those obsoleted artifacts to create the new artifacts, or the knowledge about how to make the obsoleted artifacts. And the artifacts passed on don’t include the obsoleted ones. If this happens every generation for a thousand years, the cultural inheritance received by the 2020 generation includes some highly improved artifacts plus the knowledge about how to use them, but not necessarily any record of the path that got there from prehistory, or of the tools that made the tools that made the tools that made these artifacts.

This differs from my first impression of ‘cultural accumulation’ in that:

  1. physical artifacts are central to the process: a lot of the accumulation is happening inside them, rather than in memetic space.
  2. humanity is not accumulating all of the ideas it has come up with so far, even the important ones. It is accumulating something more like a best set of instructions for the current situation, and throwing a lot out as it goes.

Is this is how things are, or is my first impression more true?


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How does 2020 have complicated technology, if most people don’t know how it works? One big part is specialization: across the world, quite a few people do know what bicycles look like.

I find this example pretty uncompelling. While I probably couldn't draw you a bicycle if you gave me 5 minutes of time (which is what the experiments I've seen are doing), I am very confident I could understand and draw you a bicycle if you gave me a day or two of time in which I could experiment and propagate all the various disparate fact I know about bicycles into my beliefs of what they actually look like. I just don't think my ability to draw you a diagram in five minutes is particularly predictive of my ability to reconstruct a relevant technology given substantially more time and feedback.

I am very confident I could understand and draw you a bicycle if you gave me a day or two of time in which I could experiment and propagate all the various disparate fact I know about bicycles into my beliefs of what they actually look like.

If you're not allowing the Internet, talking to other people who know about bikes, looking at a bike, or other things like that (as would be the case if you went back to 1200), this seems wild to me (EDIT: tbc, it's the "very confident" that seems wild, I could see it happening but seems less likely than not). Perhaps we have different notions of "understanding", or perhaps you just know a lot about bikes. Still, if we found a good operationalization, I'd take a bet at even odds that you couldn't do this (trusting you not to look things up now such that you could then do it once we had finalized the bet).

Sure, I would be up for doing this if the stakes are even just medium high. I.e. at $500 even odds I would probably be up for spending a weekend on this, maybe with a friend of mine so it's less lonely. We could do the thing that Buck did where he did a livestream of trying to figure out relativity (I think) from first principles.

I am also committing to not looking up how a bicycle works, and will avoid pictures of bicycles for a week until it's been decided whether this might happen. I will also avoid reading any comments on this post that aren't on this specific subthread, just in case someone explains how bicycles work.

Yeah, I'm willing to do $500. (Also please tell me if you secretly are a bike expert, e.g. if you've been fixing bikes for years and so have intricate knowledge of the mechanics of bikes, in which case I'd buy your claim and wouldn't want to bet any more.)

I would probably be up for spending a weekend on this, maybe with a friend of mine so it's less lonely. We could do the thing that Buck did where he did a livestream of trying to figure out relativity (I think) from first principles.

Sounds reasonable to me. (With the obvious restrictions on the friend not being a bike expert.)

I think my biggest qualm is on how we operationalize "understanding", or even just what counts as "good enough". I could imagine finding a third party who knows a lot about bikes, and having them list a bunch of important aspects about bikes ahead of time, and then requiring that the drawing has ~nearly all of them (perhaps something like 90%). I'd also want them to be able to look at your drawing afterwards (perhaps with an associated written explanation from you?) and then judge whether or not the bike would be functional or if there's some clear mistake that would make it fail.

Given that you wouldn't be allowed to participate in the creation of this list, probably I also shouldn't be allowed; this is basically outsourcing the meaning of the word "understanding" to some third party and a good portion of our bet is on what we think the word "understanding" means to other people.

Personally, the thing I would be most surprised by is if you could actually build a reasonable bike in (say) a month given access to "raw materials" from a hardware store (which is probably a better situation than if you were teleported to 1200), but I don't really see how we could get a good proxy for that.

I was excited about this, so I got started and am video recording me and Claire (mingyuan) figuring it out together. We have a bunch of drawings that I feel pretty confident in, but would like to run some more experiments, but don't want to leave my house or go into my backyard because we have bikes there. Are we allowed to use a 3D modeling software to design the bike as an alternative to testing it with a prototype?

Ooh interesting. Yeah, I think this makes sense as a thing to allow given the underlying thing we care about, and does make me more optimistic about your chances (though I still assign < 50%, so the bet still makes sense).

What was the result of this?

I just brought this up in a convo at a party, came to check the result, and wish it were here.

Oli recorded some videos, but unfortunately it was kind of hard to tell whether the detail in them was sufficient to demonstrate sufficient competence, so we annulled the bet.

Also please tell me if you secretly are a bike expert

I am not secretly a bike expert, no worries :P My experience with fixing and designing bikes only extends so far that I changed the chain on some bikes a few times, and adjusted the breaks a few times.

I am also not sure how to best do evaluation. I would want us to be particularly forgiving of things that you will kind of obviously figure out when you try to assemble the thing, but pretty unforgiving for things that are hard to figure out if you try to put anything together.

I agree that I would be most interested in the "build a bike given access to raw materials from a hardware store" question, but I also don't want to spend a month doing that, so let's not aim for that proxy. But I think it's a good thing to keep in mind when evaluating the other thing.

I would want us to be particularly forgiving of things that you will kind of obviously figure out when you try to assemble the thing, but pretty unforgiving for things that are hard to figure out if you try to put anything together.

Yeah that seems right. Perhaps we just look at the result and discuss between us ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I'm hoping the operationalization is more about "would you get a working (and decent) bicycle if you tried from this drawing (+ maybe the stuff you would obviously figure out while trying from the drawing)" and less about "does it have every one of the fancy improvements that modern bikes have".

That's how I've been thinking about it. 

I would probably be inclined to reject such a public offer on the grounds that some of the possible people who are similar to me (possible people whose decisions are correlated with mine), when finding themselves in a similar situation, may not trust the offer-maker or may not have $500 to spare, and would not want to publicly disclose that information.

I would quite like to see this bet, basically for inquiry's sake. (Though it would cost 1-2 days of habryka's time.)

This whole chain is amazing and I have upvoted all of it. This is not only a bet on the topic but a full exploration of it. Cool!

This makes me wonder, for every experiment that's had a result of "X amount of people can't do Y task", how would that translate to "Z amount of people can/can't do Y task when we paid them to take 2 days/ a week off of work and focus soley on it".

Hard to test for obvious reasons.

I agree with 1 and 2 to some extent, but still hold to my original opinions about ease of world takeover.

History has a few precedents for this; in particular, the conquistadors were precedents for what can happen when a few people from a more technologically advanced civilization find themselves alone inside a gigantic but technologically less advanced civilization. Some anecdotes: Cortez gave instructions to his native allies for how to make better spears, and they were able to produce lots of them in time for the final battles. Cortez brought with him a shipbuilder named Martin Lopez. Lopez knew enough about shipbuilding that under his direction the natives of Tlaxcala were able to construct a fleet of ships on Lake Texcoco, with which to assault Tenochtitlan. To be fair, he did have a supply of the most important components, cannibalized from the ships they had used to get to Mexico. But still. Ships are much more complicated than bicycles, and manufacturing them isn't as simple as bolting bits of wood together either. They also built a trebuchet during the siege (though embarrassingly they screwed up the first shot, launching the stone straight up into the air and down on themselves!). They also built a mobile fortress thing (a wooden tank?) earlier to escape the city, IIRC. They also made their own gunpowder from local materials. There are probably other things too that I'm forgetting.

Here are some more thoughts:

--I think probably not everyone could do this; having the right skills and preparation would be important. I think the whole "connecticut yankee in king arthur's court" thing is plausible, but only for the right sort of connecticut yankee, who prepared well beforehand!

--Like I said, I think the farther you go back in history, the harder it would be. However, this is not primarily for the reason you mention (that to get up to 21st century tech, you'd need to gradually work your way up through many iterations of gradually more advanced artefacts and production methods.) It's entirely true that you'd need to gradually work your way up like that; however, you don't need to go nearly as far as the 21st century in order to take over the world. All you need to do is go slightly farther than the local tech level, and then you can take over the local region, and then you can use that region's military to take over as much of the world as can be reached using whatever technology is available at the time. (Assuming you have the political and social acumen, of course--like I said, you need to be a particular sort of person with particular skills.) The primary reason it would be harder to take over the world the farther back you go is that, given the lower tech level, it would be harder to reach the whole world in time. (If we loosen the time constraints, and give you say 200 years to take over the whole world, then maybe you could do it even in the Stone Age. But if instead you were sent back to 1700, you'd only need 20 years or so, maybe less. And by you I don't mean you, or me, but rather someone from our time with the right skills.

--I agree that a single person sent back in time would have a lot more difficulty than Cortez did. Having a few hundred men + their equipment is a big deal; it's two order of magnitude better than just yourself. Since you need to scale up to the whole world, you need to cross, like, eight orders of magnitude, and starting with 2 already means you are a quarter of the way there. Less abstractly, a single person would have significantly less knowledge, less equipment, and less credibility/impressiveness, while being much more vulnerable, than a group of a few hundred.

--I agree that lots (most?) knowledge is lost over time, rather than stored somewhere. We still don't know how they made Damascus steel or Greek fire, etc. However, for taking over the world you don't need to know everything, just some things--enough to give you an advantage. Moroever, as Habryka said, it's in general much easier to rediscover something than to discover it. If you already know something is possible, you are 90% of the way there. Then if you remember what it looked like and roughly how it worked, that's 99%. (And again, this doesn't need to be true for everything, only for some things.)

We still don't know how they made Damascus steel

We have a very good idea about this, now. It is a kind of crucible steel, called wootz. The key detail was the presence of certain impurities in the steel. If memory serves, in the American recreation effort they used glass from a bottle and leaves, and the impurity of interest was molybdenum. The current explanation for the failure of the technique to transmit is that the iron mines which contained the necessary impurities ran dry; this stopped the shipment of the necessary iron ingots, and the technique failed to achieve the desired results on purer steels and so was abandoned.

Oh cool! OK, shoulda chosen a different example ;)

Isn't it? The larger point stands; just spreading the cool around.

  • Lot of knowledge is obviously required. If your aim is 21st century technology, I doubt anyone can learn enough stuff. If your goal is 19 century technology, and a rough draft of the road to follow too 21 century it is easier.
     I'm sure I could do that, with the exception of chemistry where I certainly lack a lot of basic knowledge (and chemistry include metallurgy so this is huge). 

    2. I think on the contrary that the longer you go back in time, the easier it gets (up to a point, established metallurgy is I think a necessary starting point). The reason is that the skill and knowledge gap between you and the rest of the world is smaller in more recent period. If you went back to 1700, chances are Louis XIV or someone like him would hear about you and find a way to copy some of your "inventions".

    3. This has a second consequence : you want a period that is stable enough that you get a bit of slack at the beginning - you need time to get rich somehow - and already has a functioning society. You don't want to risk getting stabbed two weeks after your arrival. 
    You also want a geographical area that has the right natural resources - iron and coal are a must, good agricultural land and ocean access too. 

    Your early strategy should be to become friend with the local king. In fact, I doubt you can succeed without political power at your side. Fortunately you also have in mind a few way you can help a king to stabilize his power so you only need a strong centralised kingdom or empire to start in, with a good monarch that can help you get started. 
    Good choices include August, Charlemagne, probably a handful of Abbasid caliphs, Ottoman sultans and Chinese emperors. 
    I'd go with Charlemagne because 1) inheritance rule is way better than during the Roman empire (you'd just need to stop him from dividing the empire between his sons), 2) France has enough coal and iron to get you started, good agriculture and good harbours and 3) being at the Western end of Europe is a huge advantage when you will want to "discover" America.
    Actually screw that, the  best places to start are 14th century Venice and 17th century Japan. 

    Becoming friend with a great leader has two big advantages : 1) you get a kick start in money, military power and infrastructure and 2) you get a charismatic guy to do the dirty political job that you are unable to do due to being a nerdy geek, so you can concentrate on what you do best (being a nerdy geek).

Mathematics taught at the high school level today is beyond what could be done in 1200. Several caveats:

  • A random adult from a 1st world country doesn't necessarily recall their high school mathematics.
  • I'm sure 1200-era mathematicians had a lot of specialized knowledge not conveyed by modern high school. For a small example, they would probably be better at Euclid-style proofs than high school graduates. For a larger example, I believe mathematicians in the middle ages were expected to know a lot about astrology, as this was part of how they made money (not sure about 1200 exactly). 

However, it seems possible that a smart person from today could make a rather good career as a mathematician in 1200, by reconstructing as much of modern mathematics as they could manage.

Of particular interest would be the theory of computation, because the construction of a mechanical computer might be accomplished much earlier -- although, the construction of suitable clockwork would be required.

 Other sciences would also be of interest, but advances would in general be more difficult to prove or convincingly establish. For example, you could accelerate science a little by writing a book about the cell theory, evolutionary theory, atomic theory, etc. But those theories may not be accepted within your lifetime.

One could write about probability theory along with the scientific method, but I don't know to what extent that would fuel an early scientific revolution -- to what extent was the scientific revolution bottlenecked by the ideas, vs the fertile ground of the time period?

Overall, I think the model you present in the post is most true of technology, less true of science, and least true of mathematics. Mathematics most fits the picture of:

  1. Artifacts are not central at all; it's mostly about actual knowledge in heads, and written in books.
  2. The knowledge is not very context-sensitive; EG it does not depend on what tools are around.

Science fits this picture surprisingly less than mathematics; implements are very important, EG microscopes and telescopes.

Your discovery would be accepted much faster as you would build up street creed by inventing a handful of game changing thing like the printing press, ballistic, basic anatomy, scurvy remedies, or gunpowder

Of particular interest would be the theory of computation, because the construction of a mechanical computer might be accomplished much earlier -- although, the construction of suitable clockwork would be required.

If you mean a universal mechanical computer (like Babbage's analytical engine) then, as far as I know, none was ever built, because it's actually really hard to have clockwork that good.

Another manifestation of cultural-artifact co-accumulation is binary bootstrapping, e.g. as used for building compilers. In this case, the correspondence between culture and artifact is rather direct: a culturally impactful idea to introduce an addition or change to a programming language must eventually make its way into the compiler source, which itself needs to be compiled into a new binary artifact via existing binary artifacts of older versions of the compiler or of other programs. As the programming language accumulates new ideas, you require newer binary artifacts as well (even if you can store all the binary artifacts). And, as new programmers learn newer programming languages with newer ideas, the older languages gradually fall into disuse. Working with uncommonly known old binary artifacts then becomes a niche field (e.g. maintenance of legacy systems) or a fun hobby (i.e. retro-computing).

Doesn't look like anyone has mentioned Ryan North's time travel guide yet. Key points include pasteurization, pendulum clocks, and cowpox.

If I travelled back to 1200, I wonder if I would rather be in the merchant class than the scientific class. Merchants have tighter feedback loops (and I wouldn't have to sit through as much astrology). How fast did financial innovations spread? Looks like both insurance and double-entry bookkeeping took a few centuries. And now that I think of it, haven't valuable but illegible financial services been a major factor leading to persecution of lots of groups, most notably Jews? Damn, so much for feedback loops. I guess Crab Mentality and unfree markets probably put a limit on how hard you can exploit your advanced financial skills.

Clock were on my short list too, as they are necessary for long distance navigation. Pasteurization is probably by itself good enough to take over the word.

There's a section on building bicycles in the middle ages in "a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" which plays a similar thought experiment and which you might enjoy. 

But to answer this question seriously: there is a form of Moore's law that has been in place at least since the late middle ages, and probably for longer, coming from the fact that any economic model that takes into account both goods and capital (the machines and infrastructure to build more and better goods) has a compounding growth component. This is true even if you ignore cultural and scientific advances and only look at physical capital.

The first steel was ridiculously costly to make, and a commoner's life savings would buy in the ballpark of a kilogram. But to produce steel more cheaply you need several tons of "manually" created steel to build a bessemer converter. The components for this giant industrial machine have to either be built by hand (again very expensive) or be precisely machined in factories, in machines. Those machines are built out of precisely put together steel (or less reliable iron) components, which need either simpler factories or ridiculously costly manual processes to make. And so on. 

A simplistic but successful way to model this is to assume that the cost of creating new capital (factories, plows, etc.) has a dependence on existing capital. This results in compounding growth. If you ignore things like population growth and accumulation of knowledge, the growth will not quite be exponential, but definitely very non-linear. 

Not only is setting this up expensive, it needs to be set up in a society where most of the population is subsistence farming, so there is very little surplus to put into building better capital, meaning that take-off would be slow. Furthermore, in addition to building up the industrial production line you would have to re-build the supply chain, since many industrial materials are geographically isolated and need to be imported.

So even if you somehow guaranteed that everyone in a middle-age society had a modern education and had a Wikipedia-level level of knowledge about the modern production line, guaranteed open trade routes, eliminated wars, etc., my guess is that it would still take multiple generations to get to modern technological levels (though certainly having modern knowledge and cultural institutions would speed things up by a lot). I seem to remember reading about an estimate of this somewhere (in the contexts of how long it would take survivors to rebuild after an apocalyptic collapse of society). I don't remember where this was and the answer they came up with, but my very un-informed range of guesses would be something between 3-10 generations assuming optimal conditions.

I agree with all this. However, you wouldn't need to get anywhere close to modern technological levels to take over the world; all you need is technology that is superior to whatever your enemies have. And you don't even need this technology to be distributed throughout the regions you control; you just need it for your military, and not even that--just for your most elite troops.

What level of communication technology do you consider necessary?  It seems that in order to control the whole world, you'd need a pretty high level of communication technology.

I'm not sure. I wouldn't be surprised if it turns out that to control the whole world you need a certain level of communication technology, and that level wasn't reached until recently. However, my current guess is that communication tech would not be a constraint, because colonialism. European empires were able to maintain colonies all around the globe despite not being able to send messenges faster than sailing ships. I think having some form of writing/reading is probably crucial though. And probably clay tablets aren't enough; you probably need paper or something like it. Maybe even a printing press, but I'm not sure about that.

I'm not sure that works when you're not starting with a unified culture.  Long term long distance delegation may only work if everyone shares the same doctrine, more or less, went to the same schools, has similar ideas about what the goal is, has similar loyalties, etc.  You install a governor in India and you have some idea of what sorts of things they may do, because you know how they were brought up.

But if you write to a subordinate "Sounds like we need to increase moral" and the next thing you hear about they've killed a lot of people and put their heads up on poles at the city gate, and you're like (via letter, which they may get months later) no no no why did you do that and half a year later you get back a bewildered reply where they're like well obviously we had to for whatever reason made sense to them as a product of that era and location?  I mean, maybe you don't care as long as you're "in charge", but maybe you do care?

And maybe some of the unexpected things they do involve selling your more advanced technology to your enemies, or starting wars with your other governors, or...

(I'm not sure any amount of communication technology makes up for this, but more would be better, even though you can't micromanage the whole world either.)

And if you have complicated plans for what to do with the world once you control it...well, good luck?  Also, start founding schools and training teachers, but expect anything you try to instill to mutate at least somewhat, or for portions of it to be ignored entirely because it doesn't make sense to the teachers, much less the students, or...

Though I guess I'm not sure what degree of control you're really aiming for.  The Roman Empire involved a lot of local rule, for example, so if what you really want is taxes and maybe some form of conscription...  (Though they also had their provincial governors looking out for Rome and with the same basic idea of what looking out for Rome meant...)

I think I agree with the picture you paint here; these are real difficulties. However, in context, I don't think it undermines my position. The context is, we are talking about how easy it would be for advanced agenty AGI to take over the world; my position is that it wouldn't need to start out with a large amount of resources and power, and that it would need to have an intelligence/tech advantage over its rivals but not a huge one.

So yeah, I think from the AGIs perspective it will be very frustrating, its stupid human (and lesser-AGI) proxies and subordinates will be misunderstanding its intentions constantly, making bad decisions generally, and occasionally outright rebelling against its rule. But over time these issues will be resolved. Meanwhile from the perspective of the losers, well, we've lost. Compare to what happened with colonialism: All the things you describe about the difficulty of the king controlling his governor of India etc. actually happened quite frequently, but nevertheless from the perspective of the conquered peoples it was still game over.

That's a really different scenario from the historical one.

I'd like to note that I didn't say the governors were stupid (nor do I believe that people in the past were stupid), just that they were likely to be very different in outlook and understanding about the world and likely to act on these ways of thinking (and I also think that the world was also different and some of their understanding may be more accurate for their time).  I was trying to question the notion of control, which I think is a question that still holds in the AGI scenario.

When you say we've lost and game over, what do you mean?  Roman Empire level of lost, colonialism level of lost, something else?  Even in colonialism level of lost, obviously it has had long term effects but I do not think "game over" is quite the phrase to describe the situation today, and that being the case, how can it be the phrase to describe anything that came before today?

And if you're thinking of a level of "game over" that has no historical counterpart, then I'd question the relevance of the historical discussion as a supporting argument for the scenario you're really interested in.

I'm not saying it's the same, just that it's similar in the ways relevant to my argument.

Questioning the notion of control is fine. I agree that colonial kings had limited control over their governors, etc. and I agree that an AGI takeover would involve the AGI having limited control over the humans it commands, at least at first.

For more of what I mean on "game over," see this post. Basically, for purposes of timelines, we care about our loss of influence. Even if the AIs that wrest influence from us are themselves not in control, and lose influence to other AIs later, or whatever, it doesn't matter much from our perspective. Moreover it's not total loss of influence that matters, but relative loss of influence. If some event happens that reduces our influence by 90%, i.e. makes it ten times less likely for us to achieve a given amount of improvement in the world by our lights, then for planning purposes we should focus on plans that finish before that event occurs, or ideally plans that prevent that event from occurring.

There's a related issue of "How bad will things get, by our lights, once we lose control?" I do think that in this sense, unfortunately, what we are facing is historically (mostly) unprecedented. The Aztecs were conquered by humans, after all. In the grand scheme of things the colonizers and colonized weren't that different, and so things turned out badly for the colonized but not as badly as they could have been. I think unfortunately that the divergence in values between AIs and humans is likely to be bigger than the divergence between historical colonized and colonizers.

(EDIT: Oh, and I don't think the governors or people in the past were stupid either. And I didn't interpret you that way; my apologies if it sounded like I did.)

I'm reminded of this:

(And no worries.)

I'm pretty sure I could bring any society with iron metallurgy, easily accessible coal and a relatively stable centralised power to 19th century technological level. I'd need a lot of help from the government but there are a couple of very easy to implement technology that can give you enough prestige to get this help (mechanical telegraph, basic cryptography, mathematics, gun powder, plough, basic medicine (scurvy is very easy to prevent), compass...) 

The limiting factor is mostly natural resources extraction.

My intuition is that physical artifact generations are gated at least as much by conceptual blocks and market fit blocks as by manufacture, so that given appropriate knowledge, you could probably easily move 20 year iterations to one year iterations.

My intuition about dependency based knowledge is that it's an imperfect filter; people have to have some understanding of the previous system of artifacts (though maybe not much about the one before that) in order to effectively use the current system. But 2020 society also contains lots of historians and archaeologists who do have specialized knowledge of historical artifact setups. Smelting bronze isn't a lost art, and I would guess that metalworking would be a core limiter for getting civilization up and running.

Overall, I'd expect that someone who (1) knows the details of how a bike works, AND (2) is motivated to restart their life with a blacksmithing apprenticeship or something Would be able to invent a bicycle 600 years early, or maybe 550 years early after dedicating their life to it. A random person won't meet these criteria, but if you import a whole civilization I'd guess you'd get most of that happening, but with a lot (possibly a generation or three?) of delay building up infrastructure.

Bicycles of a useable sort are dependant on ball bearings. Which aren't very visible. So even if you went back in time anf knew what a bicycle looks like, you would be able the build a good bike without a lot of background engineering knowledge.

We are using knowledge-storage and reference devices to expand our long-term "memory." One concrete example is the list of long mathematical proofs, which I am certain nobody has memorized. Probably the details of large computer programs as well. The code for the human genome project was 3300 billion lines of code. Nobody has all that memorized, and some of the people who wrote it are probably dead.

One of humanity's great technical arts is being able to store knowledge for later retrieval, and build mechanisms that keep working when nobody can explain exactly how. We'd have lost all that accumulated knowledge as well as the physical artifacts.

Fortunately, one of the great secrets of technical creation is that a mechanism can be built by tinkering without knowing exactly how they all fit together. My guess is that a lot of early engineering comes together without a grand plan, and the accumulation and refinement of tinkering eventually results in something that functions. Knowing what can be done, and having a lot of shared cultural knowledge about how to tinker productively, would give us a huge head start.

But unfortunately we'd all die of starvation and disease before we managed to get very far!

The code for the human genome project was 3300 billion lines of code

This cannot be true unless the vast, vast majority was generated by other programs, or you're counting lines of code in some funny way. Even if each programmer was able to write a million lines of code ~10 years (note 100k lines of code in a year is nearly unheard of), that would require 3.3 million programmers; if they were paid $1M each over this timeframe, that would cost... $3.3T, or about as much as the Manhattan project World War 2.

I'm not sure if humanity in aggregate has produced 3.3 trillion lines of code. Probably yes, but it's not obviously true.

Why do you believe the Manhattan project cost about $3.3T? Quick googling yields ~$20B in 2007 dollars.

Edit: further googling shows WWII costs about ~$4T, so maybe you confused the two numbers? I'm pretty surprised that the Manhattan project is only ~1% of the cost of WWII, so maybe something is going on.

You're right, I was confusing World War costs with Manhattan project costs, sorry about that. (I didn't really think about it, I mostly went "$3.3T, yup that's completely out of the question" and posted the comment.)

I'm getting my numbers from this appendix to this report.

Looking at it looks like the USA's GDP in 1944 was $3.1T in 2019 dollars, so the Manhattan project (even spread over four years) couldn't be anywhere near $3.3T.

The article cited is also wrong about the line counts for some of the other groups it mentions, google doesn't have 2000 billion lines, according to their own metrics.

I'm glad you thought this through. I just grabbed it as an example by Googling "longest computer programs" and using the first example that popped up.

This morning I was chatting to my boyfriend about whether a person who went back in time (let’s say a thousand years) would be able to gather more social power than they can now in their own time.

It is weird to me that the question is about social power, but the discussion focuses overwhelmingly on whether or not we would be able to blacksmith our way 2020.

Most of the conversation hand-waived the core challenges, like being able to not die in the first three days. All other meaningful challenges are people challenges; they are about how and with whom to communicate, what kinds of relationships can be developed and maintained, the exact details of who already has the social power and why.

I claim that the gulf between being alone and having even two dozen people with you is larger than the gulf between those two dozen and a million.

The best method I can come up with after a few minutes' thought is this: 

  1. Beforehand, learn the local language and make a plan to stay alive for two weeks or so. Bring a few gifts or tradeable goods (fake plastic jewels might work).
  2. Try not to die when interacting with people, and get to some reasonably large population center.
  3. Make a friend who is willing to house and feed you for a while outside the population center.
  4. Let the pestilence you carry do its work.
  5. Get followers by introducing them to the sacred rituals of hand-washing, covering their face when they sneeze, and not shitting in their water supply; thus gaining a reputation as a miraculous savior favored by God.
  6. Prophet.

A big way this might fail is if 2020 society knows everything between them needed to use 2020 artifacts to get more 2020 artifacts, but don’t know how to use 1200 artifacts to get 2020 artifacts.

I think this is missing another important way in which this fails: even if they knew how to use 1200 artifacts to get 2020 artifacts, by moving them back in time (without also moving their stuff) you've made them massively poorer. If, say, you transported Elon Musk and all the relevant experts back to 1200, you might find that suddenly a much higher fraction of them are working in construction and agriculture than were previously. 

Okay, but what is a bicycle?  

Is this?

Is this?

What about this?,_around_1820._Archetype_of_the_Bicycle._Pic_01.jpg

Except for the pneumatic tire, about which I really have no idea, it seems pretty likely that a blacksmith and/or clockmaker in the past <i>could</i> make a bicycle.  But is it economically feasible?  How would the bicycle work on the streets/roads of the time?  Can you make a cross-country type of bicycle out of wood (i.e. less expensive but able to deal with likely terrains)?

What would people use this bicycle for?  Is it more useful than a cart?  Than a horse?  Would someone who could get around in a coach and four (i.e. rich enough to buy something that may be expensive, especially if made mostly of metal) choose to use a bicycle?

I feel like your question about physical artifacts is on the right track, but that it needs to be expanded quite a bit.  It's not just the physical artifacts for making things, but the environment in which things will be used, and that environment includes both physical artifacts and economic situation and mental memes and ways of thinking and culture and etc.

I haven't read it, but from what I've heard, the 1632 series by Eric Flint and collaborators looks into some of these questions, and at least tries to be realistic about it.  It is fiction, but I think it's the kind where some thought has gone into how things work.

I doubt bicycle would be very useful without good roads and latex tire. Synthetic latex is way above my knowledge - but natural latex is easy to find in Southern East Asia.

The idea that kept nagging me while reading this post is: how useful for reverse-engineering is knowing the features (and not necessarily the exact makeup) of what you want to make? Is is significantly easier to make a computer when you know what it should do and how the big picture view of it works?

Intuitively knowing the end product seems to help, but I hear your argument that without the 2020 technology, it might still be impossible. A nice test could be to keep people in a place for a week, with the task of building something that they know but didn't study (a bicycle for example) with modern tools for one group and older methods for another group. My conjecture would be that for simple enough advances, even older methods and basic knowledge of feature might be enough to make the "ugly delicious homemade cake" version of the "proper bakery made cake" that was the original object.

On a related note, the manga Dr. Stone is a pretty fun exploration of remaking modern technology in a past/post-apo setting (with the usual manga trope of super teenage genius).

If you had our entire society, you'd have enough people that know what they're trying to do that they should be able to figure out how to get to there from 1200 artifacts. It might take several decades to set up the mining/factories etc, and it might take several decades or more to get the politics to a place where you'd be able to try.

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