Was the industrial revolution a drastic departure from historic trends?

Updated Nov 18, 2020

We do not have a considered view on this topic.


We have not investigated this topic. This is an incomplete list of evidence that we know of:

  • David Roodman’s analysis of the surprisingness of the industrial revolution under his 2020 model of economic history.1
  • Ben Garfinkel’s analysis of whether economic history suggests a singularity2
  • Robin Hanson’s analysis of historic economic growth understood as a sequence of exponential modes.3
  • On a log(GWP)-log(doubling time) graph, the industrial revolution appears to be almost perfectly on trend, according to our very crude analysis.


The nature of the industrial revolution is relevant to AI forecasting in the following ways:

  • If growth during the industrial revolution is a highly improbable aberration from longer term trends, it suggests that it is a consequence of specific developments at the time, most saliently new technologies. This suggests that new technologies can sometimes alone cause changes at the level of the global economy.
  • ‘The impact of the industrial revolution’ is sometimes used as a measure against which to compare consequences of AI developments. Thinking here may be sharpened by clarification on the nature of the industrial revolution. This use is likely related to the point above, where ‘the scale of the industrial revolution’ is taken to be a historically plausible scale of impact for the most ambitious technologies.
  • If economic history is best understood as a sequence of ‘growth modes’, per Hanson 2000,4 the industrial revolution being one, this changes our best extrapolation to the future. For instance, we might expect the continuation of the current mode to be slower than in a continuously super-exponential model, but may also expect to meet a new growth mode at some point, which may be substantially faster (and have other characteristics recognizable from past ‘growth mode’ changes). See Hanson 2000 for more on this.


  1. Open Philanthropy. “Modeling the Human Trajectory,” June 15, 2020. https://www.openphilanthropy.org/blog/modeling-human-trajectory.
  2. “Does Economic History Point Toward a Singularity? – EA Forum.” Accessed November 17, 2020. https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/CWFn9qAKsRibpCGq8/does-economic-history-point-toward-a-singularity.
  3. Hanson, Robin. “Long-Term Growth As A Sequence of Exponential Modes,” 2000, 24.
  4. Hanson, Robin. “Long-Term Growth As A Sequence of Exponential Modes,” 2000, 24.

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