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A public policy blog from AEI
The great stagnation. Secular stagnation. The end of growth. The new normal. Perhaps you’ve heard about these gloomy forecasts.
But what about an age of abundance and mass prosperity and great human flourishing? Imagine life as a “digital Athens.”
A more optimistic take is presented by researchers Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna in “Advanced economies’ progress: Dismal and dazzling” where they cite the technological potential of synthetic biology, artificial intelligence, quantum mechanics, nanotechnology, and neuroscience. More importantly, they explain the deep causes for optimism about economic growth and technological progress and human advancement:
The proximate cause for these paradigm shifts is digital computers, which can peer more deeply and accurately into data than any prior analogue instrument. Because of their (exponentially increasing) power to crunch giant datasets and discern ‘signals’ from ‘noise’, computers have already done, and will continue to do, more to advance astronomy than the invention of the telescope, more to advance biology than the microscope, and more to advance physics than the particle accelerator (Robertson 1998, 2003).
The golden age of labour productivity growth to which Gordon’s longitudinal research points – that single lifetime during which planes, automobiles and electricity arrived together to define modernity – was founded upon a relatively simple set of discoveries: abundant oil under the ground, internal combustion engines, germ theory, etc. Now we possess the tools to begin exploring the genuinely hard questions that reality presents. All science today stands near the base of a steep learning curve.
The broader cause for these emerging paradigm shifts is the inflation in human brainpower that has taken place over the past 25 years. Thanks to giant medical successes against childhood disease and aging over the past quarter-century, the present global cohort of adults is humanity’s largest and healthiest ever. It is also the best-educated. In just a generation, illiteracy has fallen from nearly half to just one-sixth of humanity. In 30 years, we’ve added three billion literate brains to our ranks. Meanwhile, the rapid expansion of higher learning in Asia means that the number of people alive right now with a university degree is greater than the total number of degrees awarded in history prior to 1980. Most importantly, the present generation is history’s best-connected, thanks principally to a quartet of big events – the end of the Cold War, waves of democratisation across Latin America, much of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, China’s emergence from autarky, and the advent of digital communications.
Neither history, nor the present-day pace of scientific discovery supports the notion of diminishing returns to technological innovation.
Communication. collaboration, openness. The free and frictionless flow of knowledge, talent, and capital. But will policy encourage or instead push retreat behind modern drawbridges?
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