Monday, August 15, 2011

We are getting better at nearly everything

How quickly are humans getting better? We tend to think technology is getting better or that humans augmented by technology are improving. New swimming records happen regularly as swim suit technology improves. This post just throws up some evidence about human progress.

The Effect of Testing for Performance Enhancing Drugs on the Progress of World Records in Weightlifting “From 1964 to 1988 the relative strength of the world record holders in those weight classes increased by 21% …The same analysis in other types of sports, where there had been some changes in training methods over the same period of time, revealed that the maximum improvement was only 9%“ So most improvement in weightlifting seems to have been from pharmacological rather than having a wider range of people to select from or improved training mechanism reasons. However what about areas of human endeavour that drug taking seems unlikely to help?

In chess taking steroids seems unlikely to help. Though future nootropics might. "We conclude that there has been little or no ‘inflation’ in ratings over time—if anything there has been deflation. This runs counter to conventional wisdom, but is predicted by population models on which rating systems have been based…The results also support a no answer to question 2. In the 1970’s there were only two players with ratings over 2700, namely Bobby Fischer and Anatoly Karpov, and there were years as late as 1981 when no one had a rating over 2700 (see [Wee00]). In the past decade there have usually been thirty or more players with such ratings."

Even musicians are getting better Virtuosos Becoming a Dime a Dozen "The overall level of technical proficiency in instrumental playing, especially on the piano, has increased steadily over time." One good explanation for this and the chess improvement is just that more people are getting to try these, people who are not as limited by nutrition and disease as they would have been int he past.

This explanation is expanded in this rather good post "Two Hour Marathon in 2045"

"But the pipeline that selects and trains runners behaves, in some ways, like the model. If a person with record-breaking potential is born in Kenya, where running is the national sport, the chances are good that he will be found, he will have opportunities to train, and he will become a world-class runner. It is not a certainty, but the chances are good.

If the same person is born in rural India, he may not have the opportunity to train; if he is in the United States, he might have options that are more appealing.

So in some sense the relevant population is not the world, but the people who are likely to become professional runners, given the talent. As long as this population is growing exponentially, world records will increase linearly.

That said, the slope of the line depends on the parameter of exponential growth. If economic development increases the fraction of people in the world who have the opportunity to become professional runners, these curves could accelerate."

Progress of things like number of children suffering malnutrition and having clean water can really result in increasing the number of great chess or piano players as well as the world running record. We are getting better at loads of things because more people are getting to try them without the poverty induced hinderances they used to have. According to this model it is not that population is increasing exponentially but at the moment population of people who have a chance at being great at something is.

If you have other explanations for why and in what human achievment is progressing I would love to hear them.

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