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Why Human Progress Has No Limits

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It was one of those books I’d had on my shelf for over a decade – and still hadn’t read.

Yet I kept coming across other writers who referred to it as “groundbreaking,” “dazzling,” “award-winning” and “the most optimistic book ever written.”

A few months ago, I quit promising myself that I’d get around to it eventually and finally picked it up.

Then I couldn’t put it down.

In The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World, British physicist David Deutsch explains why human progress is not only accelerating but potentially boundless.

You could read this book because it might make you a smarter investor.

But you should read it because it will make you a much-better-informed human being.

The infinity that Deutsch refers to in the title is knowledge, which he explains is limitless.

Few would disagree with this statement. But it is a much bigger deal than most of us realize.

Why? Because knowledge creates wealth.

For untold centuries, for example, all the energy we needed – in the form of oil and natural gas – was available right beneath our feet, below the surface of the Earth.

But we didn’t know how to discover it, drill for it, extract it or refine it.

That’s partly because we lacked the tools – machines, electric lights, etc. – that the energy could power to make our lives better.

(The reason, of course, is that we lacked the knowledge to create those too.)

Today, however, the situation is very different.

Scientists and engineers invent, develop, and use elements, compounds, materials, and processes in unprecedented ways.

Building today’s logic chips, for example, can require more than 1,500 manufacturing steps.

Historically, performance gains in microchips were accomplished by shrinking the individual components.

Until, eventually, chipmakers bumped up against a hard limit on how tiny the elements on a chip can become.

Yet tech manufacturers today are able to deliver ever faster and more capable computers and smartphones thanks to profound discoveries at the atomic level.

Everything from the food you eat… to the clothes you wear… to the buildings you live and work in are due to the specialized knowledge of scientists, engineers, farmers, manufacturers, miners, extractors, builders, refiners, transporters, bankers, insurers, venture capitalists and others who – coordinated by commercial and financial markets – trade products, services and specialized skills for money.

This – along with our democratic institutions and the rule of law – is what created our modern standard of living, the greatest the world has ever known.

Most folks assume that progress has been occurring for a very long time, since the beginning of human history.

They are dead wrong.

For 99% of human history, progress wasn’t just slow.

Over periods that could be measured in an average human lifetime – which (not incidentally) was a lot shorter than today’s – it didn’t happen at all.

It isn’t that our distant ancestors wouldn’t have enjoyed progress.

They would have loved to live longer, healthier, safer, richer, easier lives.

But they couldn’t imagine it. And they sure didn’t experience it.

Prior to the scientific revolution, discoveries such as fire, stone tools, agriculture, navigation, etc., happened so rarely that it appeared that the world essentially never improved.

However, over the last 200 years (a period that economic historian Deirdre McCloskey calls “The Great Enrichment”), knowledge has exploded, leading to a standard of living that was inconceivable throughout most of our history.

And this progress – like the expansion of the universe itself – is accelerating.

In the not-too-distant future, we will have transportation, communications, medical treatments, healthcare, goods and services, and investment opportunities that cannot be appreciated today.

As Deutsch points out in The Beginning of Infinity, “Everything that is not forbidden by the laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge.”

Think about that statement for a moment.

Every possible advance that could benefit you and the rest of humanity is either a) impossible because it is forbidden by the laws of physics or b) achievable given the right knowledge.

And “the right knowledge” is increasing at an unprecedented rate.

Forty years ago, you didn’t have a personal computer. Thirty years ago, you didn’t have an internet connection. Twenty years ago, you didn’t have a smartphone. Fifteen years ago, you didn’t have electric cars, voice recognition technology, cloud computing, 3D printing, augmented reality, 5G or the Internet of Things.

And soon, all these advances will be surpassed by the greatest technological achievement of our era, one that will send human progress into overdrive: artificial intelligence.

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