Is the rate of production of useful ideas really dependent on the number of people involved?

Paul Romer at the Nobel Memorial Prize Ceremony  By Bengt Nyman from Vaxholm, Sweden - EM1B6039, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74934767

Paul Romer at the Nobel Memorial Prize Ceremony

By Bengt Nyman from Vaxholm, Sweden - EM1B6039, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74934767

Conversations with Tyler is one of my favorite long reads at the moment. This recent talk with economist Paul Romer [recent winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics] overlaps nicely with many of my current obsessions [including English orthography!]. Today, let’s look at the rate of production of useful ideas. Romer brings up a paper by Bloom, Jones, Van Reenen, and Webb “Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?“.

The model used here is a pretty simple one:

Here is what Romer says on the subject:

Chad Jones has really been leading the push, saying that to understand the broad sweep of history, you’ve got to have something which is offsetting the substantial increase in the number of people who are going into the R&D-type business or the discovery business. And that could take the form either of a short-run kind of adjustment cost effect, so that it’s hard to increase the rate of growth of ideas. Or it could be, the more things you’ve discovered, the harder it is to find other ones, the fishing-out effect.

I’ve had some thoughts myself about whether it really is harder to find new ideas, but I wonder whether the model posited is really telling us anything interesting. The equation has the form of a rate [research productivity per researcher] multiplied by the number of researchers. But per the notes in the paper, research productivity is defined as TFP growth divided by research effort, which is proxied by the number of researchers scaled by wages. This just cancels out the number of researchers, and gives us something like growth equals research productivity with an average wage fudge factor.

Number of researchers = people who work in IP generation

Number of researchers = people who work in IP generation

These things are anti-correlated, given the way they are described.

These things are anti-correlated, given the way they are described.

What it looks like to me is the rate of intellectual discovery is flat to slightly declining [when defined as equal to TFP growth], and that the number of people involved is completely irrelevant once you reach some relatively small threshold. I think the growth model referenced above is mostly useless for what it purports to be about.

That is a pretty bold statement, but I stand by it. My prediction is that you would get about the same rate of growth if you took most of the people doing “research” and had them do something else. On balance, they contribute nothing. [Or in my darker moments, I suspect a net negative contribution is possible….] When I think about this, I’ve made a number of simplifying assumptions, so let’s look at those.

#1: Innovation and scientific discovery are almost wholly the product of a few brilliant minds

This growth model matches up with other kinds of growth models in economics. When you are talking about how fast you make stuff, it is pretty plausible to think that adding more people will increase the overall rate of making stuff, even if you account for differences in ability. This is because given a method of production, there really isn’t much absolute difference in ability to make stuff. You can probably useful model such things as a random normal, which works well in general linear models.

For intellectual activity, this doesn’t seem to be the case. The distribution of accomplishment is nothing like ability. In practice, a tiny fraction of scientists produce the vast majority of results, with a distribution that looks something like a power law distribution. This isn’t a particularly obscure result, but it doesn’t seem to enter into the model.

How Jones et al. attempt to compensate for different levels of ability

How Jones et al. attempt to compensate for different levels of ability

What was done instead was an attempt to account for variations in productivity by looking at average wages. But again, this has the wrong form. Wages don’t vary as much as productivity does, or in the same way.

#2: The roles of the most innovative researchers are already filled by the most productive people

I think this one is arguable, but close enough, especially for the kind of outsize talents that really drive Solovian growth. Especially in a meritocratic age, the vast majority of bright, talented people already get a chance. To a first approximation, the most talented people are already doing what they are good at, so if you add more people, you are going to be adding researchers with a small probability of adding anything of huge impact. This is true even if you find smart people to do more research, given assumption #1.


Counterarguments

I can think of plausible arguments that should count against my argument above. I’ve made some of them before.

#C1: We aren’t talking about science, but engineering

The data behind the Lotka curve and other similar metrics mostly looks at unusual accomplishments, like publishing a lot of papers or winning big prizes. However, the data Jones et al. are looking are are mostly about total factor productivity growth, which is pretty clearly applied science, or what most of us call technology and engineering. This of its very nature is more diffuse, and needs a broader range of talents to actualize than a seminal paper does.

#C2: The historical rates of accomplishment in technology growth probably should be discounted because important things were left out

It is easy to build great things fast if you don’t need to worry about fracture analysis or environmental impacts. I’m sometimes horrified by the huge costs borne by the public during the Industrial Revolution, but I don’t face the choices they did either. Modern engineering is more labor intensive than it used to be because we have to integrate a much more comprehensive body of knowledge. And consequently, accidents of all types, environmental pollution, and infrastructure disasters are all less common than they used to be [with a huge caveat for China].

I take this as a justification for including all of the extra people who get paid to generate intellectual property. To be fair, not everyone involved in STEM work in the US falls into this bucket, and depending on how broadly IP is defined, it could also include a lot of non-STEM workers too.

#C3: Sectors like Pharmaceuticals seem to show this pattern of declining efficiency

Eroom’s Law

Eroom’s Law


On balance, I still think it is a little off-base to inflate the number of effective researchers so heavily over the last 90 years. When you take everything into account, I think even in technology, real advances are more Lotka curve like, but you also need a lot more people to get things done, but not 20 or 30 times as many, which is what Figure 1 from the Jones paper implies.

Pharma does look bad, but if you look at something like how much better imaging is, which heavily leverages Moore’s Law, medicine as a whole has developed quite a lot of new technology. What you get for it is another story, of course.

Linkfest 2017-08-09

Patrice O'Neal explains why Radiohead's Creep speaks to the white soul

I can't argue with this.

Meet Alex, the Russian Casino Hacker Who Makes Millions Targeting Slot

In the grand tradition of Ed Thorp, a Russian mathematician figured out how to beat the house. Of course, Ed chose a slightly different way to cash in.

Ghoulish Acts & Dastardly Deeds

This is a hell of a story! A mad bomber, an initially nonchalant public, and years of official bumbling.

Man Behind Password Requirements Admits He Was Wrong

In fairness to Bill Burr, he was working under pressure, and wasn't able to do the kind of detailed analysis of leaked passwords that is possible now.

More justice, less crime

Joseph Bessette reviews Locked In by John Pfaff.

Self-Domestication

Genetic evidence for self-domestication in humans

Greg Cochran looks at the idea that modern humans have some of the features of Domestication Syndrome, the suite of behavioral traits observed in animals that are bred for tameness. A helpful commenter linked to The “Domestication Syndrome” in Mammals: A Unified Explanation Based on Neural Crest Cell Behavior and Genetics, a survey article explaining the science behind this.

More in my continuing series on technological progress.

The Long View 2005-08-10: Recusant Bears & Bulls Revise History in Extraterrestrial Standard Time

Since by happenstance this post comes up almost exactly 12 years later than it was first published, it manages to be entirely topical with regards to the bombing of Hiroshima. My contribution to the annual event is to remind you how nutty the Japanese government had become in the 1930s and 40s.


Recusant Bears & Bulls Revise History in Extraterrestrial Standard Time

 

Responding to growing popular outrage, the State of New Jersey is almost certainly going to approve a six-day bear hunt in December. Black bears have been reported in all 21 of the state's counties, including the counties that are 100% urban. These animals are dangerous, and people are tired of worrying about them: the environmentalists have been shouted down. Compare this to the situation in the Alps:

They climb trees, can weigh 300 kilos, and are capable of running up to 40mph. And thanks to a reintroduction programme, they are now roaming freely all over the Alps. The successful comeback of the brown bear, however, is causing consternation in northern Italy, Austria and Switzerland following several grizzly episodes - including the mauling of a prize yak, and the deaths of scores of sheep, goats and chickens...While some are warning of dangers, Francesco Borzaga, president of the Trentino branch of the World Wildlife Fund, has been trying to calm fears. "Bears are not considered dangerous to man. Living side by side is possible," he said. "It's a question of reciprocal respect."

Actually, it's a question of where you want to put the new bear-skin rug.

* * *

We should be grateful that the Space Shuttle Discovery landed without misadventure. We should also be appalled at the standards for a "successful mission." The first shuttle flight was in 1981; NASA is still getting the bugs out of a design that is 24 years old. It is as if, in 1951, engineers were still trying to perfect Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis.

This change in the pace of progress has been noted before. A young adult who was suddenly transported from 1900 to 1950 would have been bewildered by a walk down the street; more so, if he read a news magazine. In contrast, the change from 1950 to 2000 was largely a matter of degree. The same pattern obtained in the 19th century. The technology of everyday life in 1800 was not so different from that of Roman times. Fifty years later, the telegraph and steam technology had altered the scale of the world. The following 50 years were spent filling in the details.

* * *

Speaking of space, I see that Space Ventures, of Arlington, Virginia, is offering to send two tourists around the moon at the cost of $100 million each, using Russian technology. The company has already sent two tourists into orbit on a less pricey $20 million trip. And how big is the market?

The price of the two tickets, [Space Ventures spokesman] Mr. Anderson said, would pay for the costs of the Moon shot. His company's demographic research, he said, suggests that 500 to 1,000 people in the world can afford to do this.

"It's the same number of people who could afford to buy a $100 million yacht"...

Suppose that the price of manned spaceflight does fall dramatically in the near future. Those people who paid tens of millions of dollars to get there first are going to look awfully foolish.

* * *

The Shortest Way with Dissenters, says Christopher D. Morris in an August 9 opinion piece in The Boston GlobeStopping a judicial conflict of interest

[A] new threshold in church-state relations was crossed when Catholic bishops threatened to exclude Senator John Kerry from the Eucharist because of his support for Roe v. Wade...If they rescinded the threats made against Kerry, then Roberts would feel free to make his decision without the appearance of a conflict of interest, and Catholic politicians who support Roe v. Wade would gain renewed confidence in their advocacy. If the bishops repeated or confirmed their threats, the Senate Judiciary Committee should draft legislation calling for the automatic recusal of Catholic judges from cases citing Roe v. Wade as a precedent.

Well, I'm persuaded.

* * *

Meanwhile, in the New York Times, Michael Downing has this to say about Congress's plan to extend my favorite bad idea:

CONGRESS has an amazing new scheme to cut crime, automobile fatalities and energy consumption. There is one hitch. We have to stay in bed until sunrise during the first week of November - lights out, televisions and radios off and please stay away from that coffee maker...Congress has extended daylight saving time by four weeks: In 2007, our clocks will spring forward on the second Sunday of March and fall back on the first Sunday of November. And frankly, there may be another hitch or two in the plan.

First, the trick of shifting unused morning light to evening was intended to exploit long summer days, when sunrise occurs between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m. Standard Time - hours of daylight that do not exist during the short days of March and November.

Second, after nearly 100 years, daylight saving has yet to save us anything.

If we must adjust ourselves to changes in daylight, then we should do it with Spring and Autumn schedules in Standard Time. That would not even require legislation. A few executive orders would mandate that banks and federal offices open at 8:00 AM sometime after the vernal equinox and at 9:00 AM after the autumnal equinox. The rest of the country could fall into line, or not, as businesses and localities chose.

* * *

It's August in Germany, too, so Der Spiegel has the leisure to publish issues with scary cover art and apocalyptic themes, such as: "China Against USA: Struggle for the World of Tomorrow." You can visit the increasingly useless Der Spiegel site itself, but you are better off seeing the translation and commentary at David's Medienkritik.

I don't want to belabor the question of the Chinese Threat again here, though readers will have gathered that I capitalize the words ironically: I suspect that China is going to turn out to be Argentina with pandas. What I would like to remark on is a point raised on Medienkritik: the cover of Der Spiegel shows a dragon and an eagle in conflict, but where, asks Medienkritik, is the European bull?

The use of the bull (specifically, a white bull) as the heraldic symbol for Europe makes perfect sense in terms of mythology. On the other hand, in terms of appeal as a symbol, it ranks with the turkey, which Benjamin Franklin wanted to make the symbol of the United States. (And the Maple Leaf? It apparently dispirits many Canadians, but I always liked it.)

Anyway, if the EU is going to get anywhere, it needs a cooler animal.

* * *

On the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, The Weekly Standard has published a piece by Richard B. Frank on the collapse of the revisionist critique.

In the 1960s and '70s, many historians argued that the use of the bomb was militarily unnecessary, because the Japanese government was already trying to surrender on terms that the US later found acceptable, and that an invasion of Japan either was never seriously contemplated, or could have been accomplished with acceptable casualties. The real reason the bombs were dropped, many revisionists concluded, was as a demonstration to the Soviet Union. (I believe this was also the Party Line as early as 1948, but that's another story.)

This case was plausible, if not unanswerable, in light of the archival information that was available. Only in the 1990s were historians able to view the full range of diplomatic and military intercepts on which the Truman Administration made its decision. For instance:

[Ambassador Sato to the USSR] promptly wired back a cable [to the Inner Cabinet in Tokyo] that the editors of the "Magic" Diplomatic Summary made clear to American policymakers "advocate[s] unconditional surrender provided the Imperial House is preserved." Togo's reply, quoted in the "Magic" Diplomatic Summary of July 22, 1945, was adamant: American policymakers could read for themselves Togo's rejection of Sato's proposal--with not even a hint that a guarantee of the Imperial House would be a step in the right direction.

There is also an example of why Alternative History is not just a parlor game:

...Even with the full ration of caution that any historian should apply anytime he ventures comments on paths history did not take, in this instance it is now clear that the long-held belief that Operation Olympic [the invasion of Japan] loomed as a certainty is mistaken. Truman's reluctant endorsement of the Olympic invasion at a meeting in June 1945 was based in key part on the fact that the Joint Chiefs had presented it as their unanimous recommendation...With the Navy's withdrawal of support, the terrible casualties in Okinawa, and the appalling radio-intelligence picture of the Japanese buildup on Kyushu...[From mid-July onwards, Ultra intercepts exposed a huge military buildup on Kyushu...One intelligence officer commented that the Japanese defenses threatened "to grow to [the] point where we attack on a ratio of one (1) to one (1) which is not the recipe for victory."]...Olympic was not going forward as planned and authorized--period. But this evidence also shows that the demise of Olympic came not because it was deemed unnecessary, but because it had become unthinkable.

So, any American government would have done what the Truman Administration did. The question of the effect of the entry of the USSR into the war in the interval between Hiroshima and Nagasaki adds another layer of complexity, but it appears that nothing less than the combination was necessary to induce surrender. As Aragorn said, if this is victory, our hands are too small to hold it.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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LinkFest 2016-10-07

James Lovelock: ‘Before the end of this century, robots will have taken over’

I was introduced to the Gaia Hypothesis by SimEarth on a Mac LC. That was a great game, and it is a neat idea. James Lovelock also introduced me to John Brockman's Edge.org, through Brockman's book The Third Culture. I always find it fun to read things written by eminent scientists after they are too old to care what other people think, and this interview does not disappoint.

Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge: systematic review of randomised controlled trials

LOL

80% of data in Chinese clinical trials have been fabricated

No one in my line of work would be surprised.

Knowledge, Human Capital and Economic Development: Evidence from the British Industrial Revolution, 1750-1930

This goes on the pile of evidence for my cocktail party theory that technological progress [what most people call scientific progress] is harmed when science is more pure.

The camel doesn’t have two humps: Programming “aptitude test” canned for overzealous conclusion

I can't find the link now, but I am pretty sure I referenced this draft paper at some point on this blog. It has one of the funniest retractions I have seen:

Though it’s embarrassing, I feel it’s necessary to explain how and why I came to write “The camel has two humps” and its part-retraction in (Bornat et al., 2008). It’s in part a mental health story. In autumn 2005 I became clinically depressed. My physician put me on the then-standard treatment for depression, an SSRI. But she wasn’t aware that for some people an SSRI doesn’t gently treat depression, it puts them on the ceiling. I took the SSRI for three months, by which time I was grandiose, extremely self-righteous and very combative – myself turned up to one hundred and eleven. I did a number of very silly things whilst on the SSRI and some more in the immediate aftermath, amongst them writing “The camel has two humps”. I’m fairly sure that I believed, at the time, that there were people who couldn’t learn to program and that Dehnadi had proved it. Perhaps I wanted to believe it because it would explain why I’d so often failed to teach them. The paper doesn’t exactly make that claim, but it comes pretty close. It was an absurd claim because I didn’t have the extraordinary evidence needed to support it. I no longer believe it’s true.

I don't follow the Retraction Watch blog, but I am unlikely to since poor Larry Summers and James Watson are unfairly lumped together with a guy who exaggerated his conclusion.

The Forgotten Revolution

Via Logarithmic HIstory: Plutarch attributed to Hipparchus a discovery that would be forgotten for two millennia, Schröder numbers. The Ionian Greeks were truly something special.

That's what happens when you drink the Kool-Aid

John Walker reviews Janon Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget to hiliarious effect.

I've long been a skeptic of the kind of technological libertarian fantasy world that is exemplified by Glenn Reynolds' Army of Davids. It all seems rather silly to me, but it is deeply appealing to a lot very bright people. These people are busily working to make this fantasy happen, come hell or high water. This book is the result of disillusionment with this vision.

Next, the focus turns to the cult of free and open source software, “cloud computing”, “crowd sourcing”, and the assumption that a “hive mind” assembled from a multitude of individuals collaborating by means of the Internet can create novel and valuable work and even assume some of the attributes of personhood. Now, this may seem absurd, but there are many people in the Silicon Valley culture to whom these are articles of faith, and since these people are engaged in designing the tools many of us will end up using, it's worth looking at the assumptions which inform their designs. Compared to what seemed the unbounded potential of the personal computer and Internet revolutions in their early days, what the open model of development has achieved to date seems depressingly modest: re-implementations of an operating system, text editor, and programming language all rooted in the 1970s, and creation of a new encyclopedia which is structured in the same manner as paper encyclopedias dating from a century ago—oh wow. Where are the immersive massively multi-user virtual reality worlds, or the innovative presentation of science and mathematics in an interactive exploratory learning environment, or new ways to build computer tools without writing code, or any one of the hundreds of breakthroughs we assumed would come along when individual creativity was unleashed by their hardware prerequisites becoming available to a mass market at an affordable price?

A lot of this probably comes from the perfectly understandable mistake of thinking that everyone in the world is exactly like you. There are worse things to think about other people, but the vast majority of people in all times and places probably prefer the easy life and the tried and true instead of the hard work and intense mental effort required to do the things that were supposed to happen after the advent of the Internet.

Another monkey wrench in the works is the modern age is ending, and the rapid ferment that characterizes modernity is ebbing as well. Lanier laments, “It's as if culture froze just before it became digitally open, and all we can do now is mine the past like salvagers picking over a garbage dump.” This is to be expected, the culture of the West is fossilizing, in the sense Spengler meant. Rapid change and immense instability go hand in hand, and the mass of mankind get tired of the latter after a while, so things slow down again. This isn't really bad, just different.

James Burke: Connections

One of my favorite shows on PBS was Connections, by James Burke. Burke had a breezy, familiar style
that truly annoys some people. Since he was making a science popularization, he tends to skip over things that don't fit the narrative neatly, but the gist of it is generally pretty good. This series made an indelible impression on me at a young age, and I think I have been affected by it ever since. I have a tendency to see everything as connected in strange and unusual ways, and I have an interest in a great many different fields of inquiry.

Connections probably also played a part in my interest in the Victorian era, because a seemingly disproportionate amount of my memories of the show center on technology of the Victorian era. It really was an amazing time with an unsurpassed rapidity of technological change.

The beginning of episode 1 of Connections also shows a bygone era of mechanical switches. There is a sequence demonstrating the controls of an elevator, that relies entirely on mechanical relays. I can't think of any object I have worked in the guts of recently that actually used a mechanical relay. Everything is solid-state electronics now. No moving parts, which is nice, but when those little things break, they are usually broken forever. You can't repair them easily. Its often cheaper to discard consumer objects with this kind of controls than fix them, which makes me sad in a vague way.

In the modern survivalist movement there is also a passion for XIXth century technology. The advantage to this is much of it does not depend on very much outside assistance or electricity. And also it is more easily repairable if it breaks. Thus, all sorts of books are sought, chemistry, horticulture, medicine, all from this period or shortly thereafter. Many of these books are available for free on the internet, since their copyright has long since expired. Thus, in true James Burke fashion, the internet is now enabling the spread of XIXth century technology. For example: Mackenzie's Ten Thousand Recipes, a collection of soaps and elixers and whatnot made from things you can easily find in nature.

I've sometimes pondered this, and wondered how long it would take to reestablish a XIXth century level of techology after an apocalyptic event. The knowledge is all out there, the trouble is getting hold of it when you need it. A thing that has been done once can be done again. For example, every village used to have a blacksmith. The level of technology you need to start making iron and steel is pretty low, the problem is finding someone who knows how to do it!

Watching this first episode of Connections again, I can really see where the whole zombie phenomenon comes from. There is a part near the middle where Burke is walking down a highway littered with abandoned cars that reminded me strongly of Zombieland. Really the whole first episode does, because it is about a technological apocalypse: flickering lights and chaos. Burke was trying in this episode to call to mind our utter dependence upon modern technology. Perhaps at the time, no one thought of this much. Well, Burke got what he was looking for. Now it is much more commonplace for people to express anxiety about the fate of modern technological civilization. Zombies are just one popular manifestation. Survivalists another.

I suppose that it is really a doubt about the ability of our civilization to sustain itself. 50 years ago, Western Civilization still had a great deal of residual self-confidence in itself, but now much of that has dissipated. So I suppose the question is whether that confidence can be restored. Thus my interest in metahistory. So in true Connections style, James Burke is ultimately responsible for everything you see here.

For more on James Burke, check Knowledge Web, a project of the James Burke Institute.

Shoelaces, Science, and Cool Tools

A trifecta of links today.

I was often frustrated by the difficulty in tying the shoelaces on my shoes. Oftentimes, shoes come with round, slippery laces that are hard to tie securely, but are too short to double knot. I looked around, and I found Ian's Secure Shoelace Knot. This is heartily recommended. I use it almost all the time now, because I can be sure that my laces will stay were I put them. This may seem a little silly, but knots are actually of professional interest to me, because I need to know how to make secure knots with slippery fibers.

Cool tools is another place I had seen before. It is a geek kind of thing, clever solutions to small problems.

Finally, Science Hobbyist. I like the idea of amateur science. Today, most big physics involves multi-billion dollar particle accelerators or telescopes. However, science did not start out this way, and you can still have some fun and learn things on the cheap. There is more on this website than I could possibly look at, so beware of wasting time.

h/t Art of Manliness