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This week gives us Caffeine Spray, Brought to You by Peter Thiel’s College Dropout Challenge. Which reminds me of the well worth reading in full Our dangerous illusion of tech progress

Our culture has not caught up with the reality of stagnation. Our institutions are addicted to incrementalism. The only huge leap proposed is a leap backward: to slow down for the environment’s sake. But the only means for humanity to consume fewer resources is through new technology. Governments are biased toward managing and thereby perpetuating problems. The cold war glory days of Nasa and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are long gone. Meanwhile, Wall Street analysts’ quarterly earnings expectations encourage short-term thinking at publicly traded companies.

The most innovative companies of the future will be private ones, which enjoy more freedom than governments or listed companies. They will have be able to invest in technologies too risky for politicians to endorse and too futuristic for venture capitalists to fund.

Of course there is the driverless car, but from Garry and Peter's point of view this is a combination of computers and technology mostly invented in the 1960s and not any kind of scientific breakthrough.

Where I disagree with the "dangerous illusion" article is the author's idea that private companies can step into the void left by a deliberately crippled government and an investment system bent on 3 year returns. As Mariana Mazzucato recently detailed, private enterprise has shown absolutely no ability to fund basic research. Even without the book, everyone living in Silicon Valley already knew that laboratories proposing theories and running true scientific experiments are few and far between here.

Furthermore even if the deliberate crippling of the government stops and government research returns to its peak, there is no guarantee that the traditional funding systems are capable of the type of effort required to solve our now very long term scientific problems. So America is faced with a choice

  • Introduce regulation of commerce in general and the financials in particular to prepare for, potentially, a 100 year technology drought
  • Double down on government research and regulate enough to tide us over until something is discovered
  • Continue as is and face an increasingly hostile world of humans working harder and harder to achieve a much the same or even lesser lifestyle  - a potentially centuries long dim ages
  • Introduce a new system that is capable of doing research with many more people and on a much longer time frame

The last option sounds far fetched but I don't think it is. A lot of the scientific problems that remain are not the Eureka! genius sort of the past. They are instead a matter of painstakingly trying combinations and big data organization and categorization of the research and results.

These sorts of grit, hard work and determination problems are in fact exactly the sort that the United States, led by its government, excels at solving. Think of the Homestead Acts success in a time when large scale organization was much more difficult. We need now the equivalent for scientific research and the best part is that there is much less risk to making this effort than is commonly believed.

The typical reaction to this kind of proposal is - oh my giant laboratories wasting our money. Yes of course there will be many, many instances of wasted government money. But you have to consider two factors also
1) Many of the people working on science in this proposal would have been otherwise employed in a financially or environmentally destructive occupation
2) The long term risk of humanity not benefiting from the research is zero. Humans have not mastered even one applied field to the extent of doubting the tremendous amount that has yet to be learned and productized. It is only a question of when, not if.

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Originally posted to Not Made By Nature on Sun Aug 25, 2013 at 03:59 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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