Five minutes on whether the industrial revolution was a high-leverage time

In this excellent post, Ben Garfinkel asks:


An analogy is sometimes made to the industrial revolution and the agricultural revolution. The idea is that in the future, impacts of AI may be substantial enough that there will be changes that are comparable to these two revolutionary periods throughout history.
The issue here, though, is that it’s not really clear that either of these periods actually were periods of especially high leverage. If you were, say, an Englishman in 1780, and trying to figure out how to make this industry thing go well in a way that would have a lasting and foreseeable impact on the world today, it’s really not clear you could have done all that much. 

I figured it would be worth spending five minutes thinking about whether it would be reasonable for a smart, wealthy, effective-altruist Englishman in 1780 to focus on trying to steer the long-term future via influencing the industrial revolution.

  1. It should have been clear to our hypothetical Englishman that the industrial revolution would lead to an increase in economic power that would result in an increase in military power. Thus, he might have been able to predict that the colonialism sweeping the globe would intensify thanks to the IR. He could influence this by bringing the IR to other countries directly, rather than waiting for the British Empire to get even bigger and more powerful. (For example: Bringing steam engine technology to China or Japan would probably work decently well at preventing them from getting colonized.) If for whatever reason he decided that British colonization was a good thing, he could have sped it up by sabotaging the IR as it spread to other countries (France, etc.)
  2. On the subject of speeding up and slowing down, he could have done research on the likely effects of such increased worker productivity on society–would it lead to a higher or lower standard of living? He could then have agitated with the British government to accelerate or slow down the IR. (For example, he might reasonably conclude that the IR would render slave plantations obsolete, and thus make abolishing slavery easier. Or he might conclude instead that factory labor is particularly suitable to slavery. I don’t myself know which is right, but that’s because I don’t know history that well; living through it perhaps our Englishman could have made some decent guesses at least.)
  3. Miscellaneous: He could have tried to influence whether the IR is publicly associated with conservatism or progressivism or monarchism or whatever, or whether it is seen as politically neutral. He could have tried to anticipate the problems it would cause (pollution, urbanization, plagues) and begin working on solutions early.

OK, out of time & ideas. (That was more like 10 minutes). What, if anything, to conclude?

I think it’s plausible that a smart, wealthy Englishman in 1780 would have had a decent amount of leverage on the future via the IR–but also plausible that he would have had even more leverage via sociopolitical things like advocating for democracy, or slavery abolition, or decolonialism, or whatnot. And it’s also plausible that he would have had even more leverage by advancing the scientific method, especially in medicine.

I’m not sure what to make of this, if anything. I think there is a big disanalogy between AI safety stuff and the IR, namely, that there seems to be a real risk of AI takeover existential risk, whereas there was no such thing for the IR. For the IR, the biggest points of leverage were over how fast it happened and over where it happened. For AI, those points of leverage exist also, but there is also a much bigger and more important lever having to do with whether or not we all die.

I think I would very seriously consider abandoning my focus on AI if I were convinced that AI wasn’t an existential threat. If, for example, the control problem were solved, so that I was confident AI would be merely like a second IR, then I would maybe shift to more sociopolitical activism, trying to change social structures to better prepare for AI (or to distribute it more equitably).

3 thoughts on “Five minutes on whether the industrial revolution was a high-leverage time

  1. Girish Sastry

    Can you say a little more about why you think > also plausible that he would have had even more leverage via sociopolitical things like advocating for democracy, or slavery abolition, or decolonialism, or whatnot. And it’s also plausible that he would have had even more leverage by advancing the scientific method, especially in medicine. ?

    Why are these more leveraged?

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  2. Can you say a little more about why you think: > also plausible that he would have had even more leverage via sociopolitical things like advocating for democracy, or slavery abolition, or decolonialism, or whatnot. And it’s also plausible that he would have had even more leverage by advancing the scientific method, especially in medicine.

    How do you think the Englishman could have decided between these options?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Daniel Kokotajlo

    Hey, sorry for the delay, I need to update my settings so I get notifications when people comment…

    Why I think it’s plausible? Well, I don’t have a detailed model or anything, I’m just going off intuition. But I guess the thought would be: Our hypothetical Englishman does have a significant amount of leverage via the IR, but not loads: It’s going to happen no matter what he does, he can just affect how fast it happens in which countries.

    By contrast, things like the abolition of slavery or women’s suffrage–maybe they too were “inevitable” in a similar sense to the IR, but it seems to me like they were probably less inevitable, more fragile. Pushing to get them to happen faster & in more places would therefore plausibly be more likely to work.

    As for how our Englishman could have decided what to do… idk, same way we are trying to decide? Do lots of research on the probable effects of the IR, abolition, scientific research in medicine, etc. and then on the basis of that research pick the cause that seems most important/tractable/neglected?

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