New Thinking, Intractable Problems, and Existential Crises
Our most intractable problems cannot be solved with behavior modification, conservation, or our existing technology, regardless of its advanced or widespread applications.
Only new knowledge creating innovative solutions can address our most intractable problems. This can only be achieved through basic scientific discoveries and then combining these discoveries with enterprise-based innovation, commercial discipline, and competition.
Government cooperation with private enterprises can make this happen.
I am proposing a project focused on developing public policy recommendations for government-funded scientific research in areas of advanced technologies and life sciences. The best methodologies should be developed to enable funding unfettered research, giving access to the fruits of that research, and allowing competition and commercial success to realize sustainable solutions. A solution is only sustainable if it is commercially viable and profitable.
As an example, the Internet, initially a government-funded defense project under DARPA, when made available for the private sector enabled dramatic and unpredictable forms of innovation, creativity, commerce, and sustainable business models. We need the equivalent of multiple Internet-like funded research projects, breakthroughs, and innovations – plus these innovations must be handed to the private sector to enable competition and commercially-based sustainability.
I propose a combination of these policy recommendations for public policy, government-funded programs, and mechanisms to enable private sector development and use of this intellectual property and these innovative breakthroughs.
Focus on advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence, network management software, and new forms of energy including geothermal energy, nuclear fusion, and offshore wind, along with life sciences discoveries including new forms of gene editing and CRISPR technology (including newly developed “base modification” techniques) among other areas.
Alternative energy, including solar, wind, and other forms, is also a networking problem – connecting the source of that alternative energy to where it’s needed most. This is an understated and potentially insurmountable obstacle if not addressed.
Life sciences can enable the ability to address the next series of global pandemics. We know they are coming, but we don’t know what they will be. New technologies such as mRNA enable quick response from genomic data, all of which are a combination of biology, chemistry, and artificial intelligence software tools.
These are some examples of why essential solutions need cross-disciplinary and extensive experience in multiple areas of advanced technologies.
We have no shortage of existential issues. Climate change and clean energy will not be solved with our current technology and thinking. Whether it is breakthroughs via hydrogen-based energy, intelligent alternative energy networking, energy storage, fusion, or innovative fission-based nuclear energy, many solutions deserve an understanding – even if there is no initial commercial dimension to their success. Thus, the need for government funding and thoughtful policies.
The next pandemic will occur and will be more severe. We are not prepared to handle this looming global medical crisis. Life science research, medical discovery, and many fundamental breakthroughs in biology and chemistry need government-funded science – and require much more focus and attention. Examples of great innovations that may lead to lifesaving efforts and global commercialization include CRISPR, other gene and DNA editing techniques, mRNA, and other production technologies.
Many variations exist in academic laboratories and need effective policy, funding, and a long-term plan to be released as potential solutions to these biological intractable issues.
Partnerships among leading academic institutions, government policy for funding scientific research, and plans for ultimate commercialization and release to the market.
Funding for general discovery continues to be the most successful program target, yet government-backed funds for research and development with the aim of only “discovery” with no specific target or applications are being starved of funds because of narrow visions demanding specific outcomes based on current technology – even before basic scientific work.
This is a mistake.
Targeted research and funding are flawed. The mistake is thinking that current knowledge can scale to solve our most critical issues, and my output will be a series of recommendations and policies to be implemented to enable the development of a foundation of new knowledge, discovery, technology, and applications, including policy to enable broad commercial adaptation and the development of sustainable businesses and industries that will enable these discoveries to thrive.
No target–specific research or other limiting mechanisms can achieve this.
Basic science, discovery, innovation, and cooperation between government and business are essential to address our intractable problems including climate change, food scarcity, potential pandemics, and environmental crises.
Discovery, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship
Prosperity and, potentially, humanity’s survival, will depend increasingly on discovery, innovation, and entrepreneurship. But venture capital and growth investing have dried up, at least for now. Rose-colored glasses have been replaced with doom-and-gloom projections on all sides. If the smart money is on the sidelines, and incumbent competitors are facing increasing regulatory pressure – whether it’s the regulatory policy on technology or restrictions on energy and mining, the forces that sustain innovation and economic growth look to be saddled and harassed by both government and financial markets.
This is not an environment for risk-taking, idea generation, basic science, and discovery. The risks are too great and there is little incentive or motivation.
Build What Matters
Brilliance combined with quirkiness and rule-breaking perpetuates an image of daring entrepreneurs and risk-taking capitalists generating outsized wealth. This simply doesn’t happen unless what is created matters. While we might question how much one needs to play a videogame or interact with social media, that’s a sideshow. An advanced society needs advanced solutions to the intractable problems it faces.
As John F. Kennedy said, “Our problems are man-made, mankind can solve them, as well.”
Perhaps. But this does not happen organically.
The harsh reality is that brilliant, hard-working entrepreneurs and thoughtful investors lose much more often than they win. We need their risk-taking and willingness to lose. It’s how we win. We need the benefits technological innovation delivers even if we don’t understand that innovation’s ultimate purpose.
Most importantly, given the existential issues we confront, there won’t be a future anyone wants without unfettered innovation and technological advancement. That is not a smooth path, but we are in no position to choose what technologies should win because we will never know the full breadth of what innovation can bring until it happens.
It is why an environment is needed that lets the most innovative thinkers take the greatest risk toward the most important goals. This is not easy to do and is fraught with well-intentioned but ill-advised intervention.
A Wish, a Law, a Mistake
An example of inefficient meddling is recent legislation requiring electric vehicles to be the dominant, and ultimately, the only, new vehicles allowed in California. This seems profoundly shortsighted because the electrical grid is still unreliable, especially during times of intense energy needs (a heat wave or frigid winter — which are more likely in the future), and it will not be replaced with renewable energy anytime soon.
Hydrogen and other options might be a better solution, but inflexible regulation and policy are likely to eliminate them as options even before their capabilities are fully understood. This is an example of the fundamental public policy mistake that my research hopes to address and rectify.
Therefore, predicting an innovation trajectory is foolish because it is based on what we know currently and cannot conceive of unforeseen innovation. As was said during the hunt for a polio vaccine, “if the federal government handled development, we would have the world’s best iron lung — but no vaccine.”
The same is happening now with too much government intervention and meddling. The government needs to play an important role in enabling research and discovery, but government policy is currently uncomfortable with “discovery for discovery’s sake.” Innovation is a unique convergence of many factors and is unpredictable. It can’t be legislated or regulated into existence.
That is beyond what even the most brilliant and bright-eyed entrepreneurs can imagine. It is certainly beyond what policymakers and regulators can envision. Unfortunately, the latter want their hand on the rudder even more – this is a mistake.
Crisis and Creativity
Government investment in basic research can make an extraordinary difference. For example, World War II created an enormous technological push into basic science and applied research. This funding continued at an unimaginable pace, even after the war. It contributed to the creation of the first computer hardware and computer-based software, and the internet, among other startling innovations.
The lesson is clear — pursuing discovery for its own sake with no specific commercial application is the essential foundation for all commercial innovation and value creation.
This is the role government should play regarding scientific development and innovation. Innovation does not have an immediate economic purpose, and policy should not be designed that expects one.
Paranoia and Fear are Effective.
A true sense of urgency is still missing. Throwing pies at the Mona Lisa does not create a unified sense of purpose. This is the missing element, and no policy can overcome it. I am not an advocate of fear-mongering, but without urgency, we will not have the solutions needed until we are deep within a crisis.
The internet was a solution to the defense department’s fear of nuclear war disrupting computer networks. The paranoia driving the space race with the Soviets sparked remarkable software development and hardware designs with new applications creating unforeseen technological advancements. Space exploration was a wide-eyed dream, but extraordinary vision and relentless innovative work made it happen. Urgency underpinned both efforts.
Essentially fear and paranoia drove government funding for unprecedented advancements in fundamental technological research and advancement. It drove semiconductor creation, cheaper computing power, and a digital and communication revolution. After that, the government stayed out of the way because they knew better — or rather, they had no idea, and so they made a wise choice not to interfere.
Our government must initiate extraordinary accomplishments again. Our population may not have a sense of urgency, but public policy can overcome this.
In the past, government funding created the spark that built Silicon Valley and a generation of innovators benefiting from the US government’s largesse and postwar prosperity. While this may have been a time of counterculture, these entrepreneurs — from HP to Intel to Apple — were ruthlessly competitive businesspeople driving commercial success. Government allocations evolved into private wealth and the influx of private capital skyrocketed.
Unprecedented and sustainable innovations were created. These opportunities must be created again.
This can only happen through enlightened cooperation between business and government and appropriate policy to enable basic discovery, unfettered and untargeted research, free availability of this knowledge and discovery, creating a competitive environment, allowing capital a sustainable and appropriate return for the risk it is assuming, and let the best be the best.
Collectively, we can develop these solutions. In a fragmented, focused, and political world, we will not.
We Cannot Predict Success.
Public policy can create an environment for discovery and testing of new and innovative ideas, but it also creates inefficiency, dead ends, and frustration. It is because we simply do not know enough to make this process more efficient, but serendipitous and surprising results, typically unplanned, also create the most outstanding outcomes.
Predictions usually end up being nonsense. We simply draw a trajectory from what we know today. But innovation is a discontinuity. Things are unpredictable because innovation does not come from consensus thinking. It comes from small groups and individuals with a spark of entrepreneurship, intelligence, and vision.
One of the fundamental tenets of predicting technology is that most forecasters get things spectacularly wrong. A policy that intends to forecast what technologies should be applied as solutions to our most important problems is misguided.
It Won’t Be Easy
Political friction, fragmentation, xenophobia, impatience, incrementalism, and ill-conceived regulation get in the way of innovation. Discovery for the sake of discovery is somehow discounted, yet it is fundamental discovery that brings unforeseen, dramatic, and extraordinary developments.
One of my favorite examples is the generation of electricity from electric motors. It is illuminating and exemplary, but for all the wrong reasons. We simply don’t know what we have when we first discover it.
Queen Victoria famously said, upon seeing Faraday’s electric motor generating an electromagnetic current, essentially the core technology behind the modern electrical grid, “it looks awfully clever, but what would you ever use it for?”
That is basic science and discovery. A development that changed the world, and the modern world could not exist without the electrical grid, was something completely unforeseen when it was created.
The Faradays of the modern world must be allowed to thrive. Modern-day politicians and regulators are the equivalents of Queen Victoria. If they can’t see what it can be used for, they have no interest in it and don’t see what its value could ever be. It should not be their decision or their place to predict what should be researched and how it should be applied.
Let The Best Do Their Best
Tools exist today for the same scale of innovative development as Faraday’s. Artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, gene editing, quantum computers, and other technological advancements can solve our biggest problems.
Innovation enables opportunity. But how society collectively chooses to use those technologies influences their impact. Large problems of enormous magnitude that are addressed with current thinking will not be solved.
Climate change, access to energy, abundant food, effective healthcare and vaccines, and other global societal challenges will most likely best be solved through technological innovation that cannot be envisioned today. The freedom to pursue solutions is the essential first step. Letting the best people do their best is still the best policy to generate the best outcome.
Business and State – Collaborators Not Protectors.
A dangerous spiral into global protectionism is underway. As much as anything, protectionism created political turmoil, and economic dysfunction, and spiraled into fascism in the 1930s, culminating with World War II. Remember when that stupidity could never happen again? How global trade, cooperation, and mutual benefit won the Cold War? But who reads history?
Re-industrializing America’s heartland via subsidy, noneconomic pricing, and competitive protection is not the best use of public funds. Zero-sum policies will not be successful.
Competition, innovation, and global access to markets indisputably create the best value, wealth, and innovative progress, and enable the broadest range of people to be substantially better off. These vast amounts of money now being allocated will most likely be used inefficiently.
Cooperation Always Wins
Global integration is essential. I am confident that included in my recommendations will be deeper cooperation among countries. This creates the greatest value and enables communication and integration, and everyone is better off.
This will be an enormous task, and I am not naïve about the intractable issues and seemingly insurmountable obstacles, as I outline below. But, even if it is tilting at windmills, it is an effort that needs energy and focus to counterbalance fragmentation, protectionism, and ill-conceived policy.
Saving globalization may seem impossible given the protectionist attitude permeating the global economy and geopolitics. Bold leadership is required but zero-sum thinking is a false promise of prosperity. One of the best examples is seen via technology policy and vast unintended consequences.
Policy and Unintended Consequences
Technology is facing a substantial crossroads as policy changes with global resonance, such as resurgent protectionism in the United States and China’s crackdown on the country’s big tech, the rising resistance to social media behemoths like Facebook, and the need for governments, whether in the United States, Western Europe, or China, to manage and control technological development.
Regardless of any good intentions, this will add friction, inefficiency, and underperformance to the most dynamic global industry. The best intentions usually bring disastrous consequences.
The Real Signal Above the Noise
Policies and proposals must make a difference, not simply influence. Things that matter versus pies thrown in museums or social media noise.
The overwhelming wave of media today is a substantial impediment to progress. If everything is important, nothing is important, and we cannot determine what matters, nor can we focus on what ought to be important. Communication is a wall of sound where nothing seems to be distinctive or distinguishable. This is one of the great challenges we face.
This is where informed public policy can also make a difference. It can determine what is important to understand the real signal and discard the noise. It can also keep dangerous fragmentation and protectionism at bay.
Here’s the real signal: technology infrastructure is going through a dramatic transformation. An unprecedented combination of massive data combined with powerful processing has enabled analysis, creation, and new insights that can transform an economy, a nation, and potentially, the planet.
These transformational technologies have the potential to be the best tools to address and solve society’s most important issues whether it is climate change, enhanced health and well-being, longevity, wealth creation, economic stability, and enhanced quality of life.
Protectionism over advanced technologies, coveting intellectual property, and not allowing access to innovation will make the world worse off, less stable, and more dangerous.
Motivate, Manage, or Control?
“I’ll build a wall and we will all be fine behind here.”
This did not work for China’s First Emperor, it will not work for its current one, and it will fail for the United States. I argue against fractionalized, localized, and protected technology. It is inefficient and will not address our urgent needs fast enough.
Countries and their governments now believe that each can be safe and develop the essential innovations it needs from behind a wall where it directs the focus of entrepreneurship and capital, and it controls and moderates the benefits of its rewards.
Trying to “manage” innovation and creativity takes away the often unplanned and serendipitous breakthroughs that make many significant advancements possible in the first place. From an economic perspective, capital is not going to invest in an uncertain environment where prosperity is managed and, despite great risk where most ventures fail, policy mitigates success.
“Fairness and more equal distribution” will do nothing more than keep capital away and stifle creativity, technical innovation, and economic advancement. The consequence of this policy will yield an outcome opposite to its intention. These unintended consequences starve those very companies that we are trying to encourage.
Companies are real people – not concepts and ideas. They are real organizations run by real people. Who is going to run these companies? Skilled management is not ubiquitous. For better or worse, competition is a meritocracy – perhaps not always efficient, but still effective enough so that the better players win most of the time.
The Competitive Few
Very few people can run innovative companies well and motivate creative individuals to become forceful teams. It’s why few managers succeed, and effective chief executives are rare. This is the harsh reality of the real world. The list of “A Players” is very short.
One cannot simply wish that there be many broad-based, innovative, and successful companies within the challenging technological business sectors simply because government policy wishes that it were so. This is simply not how industry works.
Policy recommendations should create an environment for competition, not define outcomes. While we want to draw the sidelines and the goal lines with rules and referees, we do not want referees calling plays. Some teams will win. The best policy is competition, economic reward, and the freedom to participate enabling the best and the brightest to win.
Many companies may engage in new and emerging technology, but very few survive. Every industry – every industry in history – consolidates into a handful of successful businesses that simply do things better than others.
What drives this phenomenon is that managerial talent concentrates in these better organizations and therefore those organizations thrive, and there is a concentrated and condensed upward spiral benefitting these companies disproportionately.
Magnifying this, even a small advantage creates a distinction among all the competitors where there is no choice but to use that company’s products and services that are the best, even if marginally so.
Enable success. It is unfair to interfere with policy restrictions in this process because society prospers when the best rise to the top, even if it is concentrated. The overall bar is still raised to a level that would not be achieved otherwise. This is how more people prosper and is “fairer” than any other system or structure.
Now for What We Need
The real economic and social drivers for a fair and prosperous society are transformational technologies – semiconductors, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, green energy, and even quantum computing. As many people as possible are needed to develop these technologies and create as many “shots on goal” as possible – trying different strategies, approaches, and competitive dynamics.
This is how society benefits because what will prove to be essential and to the benefit of everyone is what will be developed, market-tested, refined, improved, and implemented. In other words, society gets what is needed.
Enabling entrepreneurship, unfettered capital, and independently managed financial and social services developed from fundamental science and basic research.
There is no greater way to share value creation than sharing ownership. While the founders of firms like Google, Apple, and Amazon are touted for their enormous wealth, each of these companies has created tens of thousands of millionaires and spread wealth broadly. Enabling better companies that are profitable, share equity ownership, and can hire and pay more workers is the sustainable solution.
Government Intervention is Not Sustainable
I am not advocating government-based industrial policy. It is one thing to fund research and scientific development and enable private enterprise. But it is quite another thing to try to control it and intervene.
Just as China’s government’s push to spur domestic chipmaking and other advanced technologies is similar to the Great Leap Forward, let’s not forget what a disaster the latter was. As an example, in 1958 Mao decreed that farmers set up furnaces in their backyards to help China surpass British steelmakers. The result of a managed and non-competitive environment produced substandard and unusable products. In the meantime, the tragic unintended consequence was that millions of Chinese starved as fields went unattended.
A handful of bureaucrats, regardless of how brilliant each may be, can never equal the mind of the market. Bureaucratic control usually spells disaster. Managed focus on technological development for products and services the central government believes have a greater benefit to the overall society may not be calamitous, but the law of unintended consequences has not been repealed. It will be inefficient, substandard, and create potentially dangerous side effects.
Innovation, creative freedom, and unstructured thought will be foundational to my research.
Advanced technologies, such as semiconductors, AI, cloud computing, etc. cannot be turned off easily without a significant detrimental impact. But these technologies require development and innovation on many fronts – almost none of which is easily predicted.
Free competition, the free flow of capital, and the ability for the winners to excel and leave the less worthy competitors behind may seem harsh and unwelcomed, and perhaps not the best approach, but it is better than all the others.
The problem is that we face a series of existential crises that current science and technology will not solve. As Asia, South America, and Africa enter the developed world, we will be overcome with climate crisis, water shortage, food scarcity, pandemics, and other global threats.
Addressing this problem will take government policy to encourage new scientific breakthroughs, the broad application of that knowledge, and the free flow of information, ideas, and capital.
Public policy should have broad guidelines on funding such research. There should be no specific technology favored, outcome managed, or planned structural applications. Markets need to be free to discover, make mistakes, learned, fail, try again, and ultimately succeed. This cannot be managed by any central authority.
Innovation, creativity, and competitive dynamics create the most effective innovations, the best solutions, and the most sustainable companies. Another of my deliverables will be how best to bridge the gap from government funding to private enterprise. Developing the best public policy as well as the best structure to enable innovative and creative solutions, as well as the economic incentive to scale these opportunities and make them economically sustainable.
Central planning, bureaucratic industrial policy, government-led economic management, and dictatorial focus have always failed, and always will.