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Is Technological Progress Accelerating?

The acceleration of technological progress has been particularly apparent since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
Today's technology makes it easier to participate in farming, which is an ancient technology.
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  • Written By: Michael Anissimov
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 24 September 2014
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It does seem that technological progress has been accelerating for some time, especially since the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th and early 19th century. Consider some of the major milestones in technological progress throughout history:

Milestone Reached in
Harnessing of fire 1 million BC
Emergence of Homo sapiens 300,000 BC
Farming, first cities 8500 BC
Writing, Bronze Age 3500 BC
Iron Age 1000 BC
Scientific Revolution 1600
Industrial Revolution 1800
Electricity, indoor plumbing 1860
Mass extraction of oil 1870
Aeroplanes 1903
Synthetic fertilizer 1910
Nuclear power 1942
Digital computing 1943
Lunar landing 1969
World Wide Web 1991

Clearly, something is amiss here: there has been more technological progress in recent times. Although the choice of milestones is semi-arbitrary, historians have compared different sets of "major milestones" as defined by dozens of respected publications, and found that the acceleration effect is present in every list.

One obvious reason for the acceleration of technological progress is that there are simply more people nowadays. For most of humanity's history, there were fewer than three million people on Earth. By the invention of agriculture in 8500 BC, there were about five million people. By the birth of Christ, there were 200 million. In 1800 the world population was approximately one billion, and as of 2008 is 6.6 billion. 10% of everyone who has ever lived is alive today, and we are more educated, interconnected, efficient, and automation-assisted than ever.

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More people means more farmers, more factory workers, more businessmen, more scientists, inventors, and geniuses of every stripe. The more people there are and the better technology they have, the more likely they are to invent new technologies and distribute them. It is a fundamental fact of economics that new inventions are incredibly beneficial. Once invented and distributed, they can permanently increase output per capita for billions of people. So there is a powerful economic incentive, in capitalist societies, to invent new technologies.

Technologies build on themselves in a recursive fashion: better tools can be used to construct ever-better tools at an accelerating rate. Futurists argue that advanced technologies likely to be developed in the 21st century, such as molecular nanotechnology and artificial intelligence, will fuel the continuation of the technological acceleration effect, producing an era of very rapid progress. Where this future progress leads us is anybody's guess.

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