- Why it matters if "ideas get harder to find"
By Holden Karnofsky 7 min read

Why it matters if "ideas get harder to find"

Want more innovation? Think about population, not recapturing "golden age" culture.

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There's been a fair amount of attention over the last few years on the idea that ideas are getting harder to find (link goes to a paper by Bloom, Jones, Reenen and Webb that I think is the main source of this term). That is: the number of people doing research has grown exponentially, but various measures of "research progress" have not.

In two previous posts (here and here), I argued that the same dynamic applies to (certain types of) art, as well as science. We have a growing population, growing rates of education, etc. - but the production of "great art" (as judged by critical acclaim) doesn't seem to be keeping up.

Why does this matter?

The usual story I hear is something like this: "It's really scary that ideas are getting harder to find. We should try to fix whatever is going wrong, so we can get back to a high level of scientific and artistic output."

This "usual story" seems to me like a misreading of the evidence. The issue is not that "our culture is getting worse at finding ideas," but rather that "ideas naturally get harder to find, because that's just how it is." (For my defense of this idea, see Where's Today's Beethoven?; also see this 2018 post by Slate Star Codex.)

I believe in a different set of implications:

  • By default, we should expect further stagnation in scientific output, and in certain kinds of artistic output.
  • The most likely routes to avoiding stagnation run through the sorts of things discussed here: (a) population growth; (b) "effective population" growth (e.g., making it possible for more people, especially in poor countries, to become scientists and artists); (c) artificial intelligence. Cultural and institutional reform could help too, but they frankly seem like smaller potatoes than (a)-(c).
  • We should think of scientists and artists as "discovering" or even "mining" ideas rather than as "creating" them. Intellectual property law and norms should be consistent with this. In particular, I think we'd see more and better art and entertainment if we did more to encourage explicit riffing on existing works.

Stagnation by default

I previously wrote about a growth economics paper by Charles I. Jones, discussing the implications of "semi-endogenous growth models," in which: (a) the more people there are trying to produce new ideas, the more new ideas we get; (b) but at the same time, ideas get harder to find.

I think this paper contains the most important implications of "ideas get harder to find":

  • By default, we should expect idea production to fall over time.
  • The main thing that can push against this dynamic is a fast enough increase in the number of people trying to have ideas.
  • This could be caused by population growth, or by "effective population" growth: growth in the number of people who have a "decent shot" at being innovators (something like: they have adequate nutrition, education, and access to people and cultures in which they can learn to innovate).
  • We might get "effective population growth" if we could do a better job making "innovator" paths open to more people - for example, by lowering barriers for people in poor countries, or for women in currently-male-dominated fields. Improving culture and institutions could help with this too.
  • In the long run, there's only so high the "percentage of the population with a decent shot at being innovators" can go. So in the long run, if we want to keep up the pace of innovation, we need growth in the overall population - or something that creates a similar effect, such as advanced AI.
  • Something like advanced AI could cause an explosion in innovation. Without something like that, we're probably eventually looking at stagnation.

Overall, I think that today's discourse around "ideas get harder to find" is overly obsessed with improving culture and institutions, as opposed to increasing the sheer number of people with a shot at being innovators - which I see as a likely larger and more sustained route to increased innovation.

Innovation as mining

Another implication of "ideas get harder to find" is a bit softer and more metaphorical. It has to do with the way we think about innovators and their role in the world.

One metaphor for innovation is that of "conjuring ideas from thin air." I think this is the default way people tend to think of innovation. They tend to imagine that the world's enjoyment of an idea is entirely thanks to the person who had it.

  • An example of this attitude would be, which credits each scientist with saving as many lives as their technology ever saved (it doesn't just credit them for speeding up the technology).
  • I think this attitude tends to be even stronger with artists: copyrights last an incredibly long time, and there is a general attitude that artists have the absolute moral right to control how their work (including characters, fictional universes, etc.) is used.

The metaphor I prefer is that of mining: when an innovator publicizes an idea, they're speeding up how fast the world benefits from the idea, but if it weren't for them, someone else would have had a chance to come up with something similar. I think this applies significantly to art as well as science: as discussed previously, many of the most acclaimed works of art are the sort of thing that "only could have been done once."

A central contrast for the "conjuring" vs. "mining" frames is how you think legendary innovators of the past would fare in today's world, where (due to past innovation) ideas are harder to find. I think people tend to default to assuming that a clone of Shakespeare or Beethoven, transplanted to the modern world, would achieve the same sort of Shakespeare- or Beethoven-like stature. I doubt this, and would guess that a modern-day Shakespeare would at best achieve a career like Aaron Sorkin's or something.

When viewing innovators through a "mining" lens, we should ask questions like:

  • How much did an innovator speed up (not "create") an idea, and how helpful was this? For example, being very far ahead of one's time should perhaps be considered a miss, instead of being considered extra impressive: if an idea sat around unused for a long time, this implies that someone else could've had a similar idea in that time without the world missing out on anything in particular.
  • What did an innovator do with the intellectual property they laid claim to - did they make the most of it? George Lucas is revered for creating the Star Wars universe - but Star Wars works after the first three movies have been lackluster, and if someone else had created something like Star Wars, they might have done a better job managing the intellectual property from there. Maybe we should judge Lucas negatively for "mining and mismanaging" Star Wars, as opposed to positively for "creating" it?

None of this is meant to question the brilliance it takes to be first to find and develop an exciting idea, or the huge value that can come of it. I'm pointing to a subtle shift in our model. But I think it's a potentially important one.

Want more and better art? Normalize riffing on past work

I think of art and science as having a lot in common.

  • In both cases, an innovator puts some amount of work into developing an idea, and then once it's developed it can be freely understood, used and enjoyed by unlimited numbers of people.
  • In both cases, innovators can build on each others' ideas, but still, it seems that ideas get overall harder to find over time as the "low-hanging fruit" is picked.

But it seems to me that science has much healthier intellectual property norms.

  • In science, it's understood that just because someone had an insight, this doesn't mean that the insight is their property forever. A lot of scientific ideas can be cited, built upon and even used commercially without needing to pay royalties or be apologetic. (Some ideas are protected by patents, but these patents tend to be much more limited and short-lived protections than copyright.)
  • By contrast, if you want to write your own stories building on someone else's characters and fictional universe, you're confined to a low-status genre with no hope of commercialization.

Imagine a world in which we saw "protection of artistic intellectual property" as a necessary evil to get the economics and incentives right, rather than as a matter of justice for the creator who morally "owns" their ideas.

In this world, music, fiction, etc. would be protected long enough for financial purposes, but would quickly become fair game for other artists to build upon in whatever way they want - sequels, prequels, extensions, anything as long as they gave attribution.

I think this could be particularly useful for getting more art that is simultaneously accessible and innovative.

  • Today, if you want to write a space opera, you need to "dance around" some of the classic plot points, character traits, fictional technologies, and other ideas from e.g. Star Wars. You either need to avoid these completely (thus ensuring your work won't feel derivative and stale, but missing out on ideas that have broad appeal), or go ahead and copy important things in a way that feels stale and cheapens the overall feel of the work.
  • Only people with the intellectual property rights to make sequels can fully, explicitly acknowledge and extend the ideas in Star Wars, getting a chance to make something fresh yet recognizable. (In the case of Star Wars, the few people with this opportunity don't seem to have made the most of it.)

Changing norms around artistic intellectual property seems to me like a promising route to getting more art that is both accessible and innovative. Much more promising, in my view, than trying to figure out what we can learn from Elizabethan or ancient Greek culture.

Next in series: Reader reactions and update on "Where's Today's Beethoven"

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