Big Idea Famine

Parse the title either way—I believe that 30 years from now people will look back at the beginning of our century and wonder what we were doing and thinking about big, hard, long-term problems, particularly those of basic research.
Feb 02, 2018chevron-down
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Big Idea Famine

Parse the title either way—I believe that 30 years from now people will look back at the beginning of our century and wonder what we were doing and thinking about big, hard, long-term problems, particularly those of basic research. They will read books and articles written by us in which we congratulate ourselves about being innovative. The self-portraits we paint today show a disruptive and creative society, characterized by entrepreneurship, start-ups and big company research advertised as moonshots. Our great-grandchildren are certain to read about our accomplishments, all the companies started, and all the money made. At the same time, they will experience the unfortunate knock-on effects of an historical (by then) famine of big thinking.

Here’s what I mean with the help of three examples, which I beg you to read both literally and metaphorically:

First, which successful company has benefited the most from basic science and technology, yet given the least back to it? The answer: Apple. It is so extreme, that the runners-up are not even close. Apple funds internal research galore, then locks it up, reportedly refusing to allow its own scientists to attend public and open research conferences. It does make some software open (sort of), but funds no accessible research to speak of that would help further the kind of basic computer science upon which others can build. You might think that such behavior is natural; how could Apple—or any company for that matter—be competitive otherwise? And yet there is a long history of precompetitive basic science that, for example, came from the likes of Bell Labs (like semi-conductors), later IBM, and more recently Microsoft. You cannot keep skimming the cream off the top, without doing some basic, open research that is widely shared. Open and shared are the key words.

Second, think of all of the start-ups today that focus on thoughtless ways to do our laundry, deliver food or entertain ourselves with another app. Even new technologies, real discoveries, and inventions in science and engineering are often trivialized by the start-up process in order to meet the expectations of investors. Start-ups in general are the victims of focus: the new F-word. For example, a start-up using gene replication to make real sirloin steaks without cattle and very little water was guided into making leather to avoid problems posed by the FDA. This may sound practical, but it isn’t bold. In the end, it may work in terms of creating return on investment, being cash-flow positive or making wealth for a few. But it is not a world-changing advancement to help the hungry or, for that matter, vegetarians. 

Third is government. It’s very hard to pass a smell test when the whole room stinks, as it currently does under the Trump administration. But hold your nose and imagine a class of problems that will take 10 years of hard work to address, will have many blind alleys, and will see no economic return for a very long time. Not only are these problems characterized by large time horizons and high risk, but we also know that their solutions can only be achieved by sharing, by working together, by pooling insights and by standing on each other’s shoulders. Government labs served some of these purposes before they were closed down, as did universities before their faculty became distracted by creating start-ups and IP. Large scale government and inter-government funding is key, yet is plummeting.

I’m sure we can all find many counter-examples, but the three above all have something in common: greed. Summarized in four words, capitalism is not democracy. In the United States, we live in a dog-eat-dog society that emphasizes short-term competition over long-term collaboration. We think in terms of winning, not in terms of what might be beneficial for society. Kids aspire to be Mark Zuckerberg, not Alan Turing.

Disinterest in social welfare did not happen overnight. It has been the background music to American economic prosperity since World War II—especially during Republican administrations. You might argue: “But look, it works; we are arguably the largest economy.” However, who are the richest, most socially conscious, and most productive people in the world? No matter what list you look at, the top five are always social democracies, like Denmark and Sweden, which Americans often derogatorily called welfare states. These societies have a group mindset that puts us before me. They do not consider citizens to be customers.

When I started One Laptop per Child everybody—and I mean everybody—advised me to make it a for-profit organization so that I could incentivize people to join, as if the only incentive was money. Instead, the reverse happened: it was a non-profit, and those who joined passed an implicit character test because their aim was a larger good than lining their own pockets.

Likewise, 25 years before OLPC, the MIT Media Lab was built on the idea of doing things because you could, which often resulted in solutions looking for problems. Said differently, the Lab did what market forces did not. Today nearly 800 people work openly and with impunity on things considered impossible, unnecessary, silly or all of the above. When asked why, the answer is “Because.” So we might conclude that these reasons are themselves a form of short-sightedness.  

Maybe our great-grandchildren, assuming they are around, will be here because of world collaboration on the environment, peace and global prosperity. Therefore being socially minded might be more natural to them. If this is the case, I believe it should extend more generally to science and technology in order to compensate for the famine we are inadvertently creating today.

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