WorldChanging Canada: Funding the Outliers

Robert Bussard has died. This is an historic loss and comes at exactly the wrong time. Dr. Bussard had just received funding to continue his work on a radical clean-fusion reactor. Although reassuring emails are zipping about, claiming that his work will continue, I have my doubts now that the visionary who led the effort is gone.

Dr. Bussard’s effort has been what I call an outlier project: it always had a low probability of success, but an extraordinarily high payoff if it did work. Another outlier that should be reporting in this season is John Cramer‘s attempt to send a signal back in time to confirm his transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics. Both of these projects received their funding this year due to direct appeals to the public, rather than through the usual granting bodies. That’s because clear-eyed, sensible and conservative investors who actually expect a return on their investment wouldn’t touch such endeavors with a three-meter pole.

Technology foresight analysts and insurance statisticians both look into the future using the same lens: they pay more attention to the low-probability, high-impact scenarios than they do the high-probability, low-impact possibilities. This is in direct opposition to what your typical investor does. High-likelihood, low-payoff investments are a better bet than low-likelihood, high-payoff ones. The latter are called speculations and only the rich can indulge in them.

Of course they’re right to behave this way–at least, in any situation-normal era, they are. What happens, though, when humanity enters a period in which business-as-usual research and development can’t provide a necessary solution fast enough? The answer: fund the outliers.

We actually know how to do this and we’ve done it before; the problem is, the only context we have for thinking about such development is war. The Manhattan Project is the canonical example, to be held up next to the development of the V2 rocket, and the computers of Bletchley Park, as three outlier projects without which our civilization, technologically speaking, would probably still be stuck somewhere in the 1950s. There’s exactly one programme on that scale that happened during peacetime–the Apollo Project–and arguably that one was a wartime activity as well, since its real purpose was to beat a challenge presented by the Soviet.

Interestingly, I keep hearing people say that what we need now is an “Apollo Project for climate change.” I think people who propose this are thinking in the right direction, but are missing a more general principle. We shouldn’t be funding one outlier, or even funding a bunch of outliers to achieve one outcome. The benefits that result when outliers pay off so far outweigh the failures that as a matter of policy we should be funding them all.

We live in a fabulously rich society; we can afford it. The cost of developing a space elevator, for instance, would be about the same as the price of the average bridge-building megaproject. Can we really not afford that? Many of these projects (such as John Cramer’s) measure their costs in the thousands of dollars, not even the millions. Bussard only wanted five million or so to prove out his ideas, in contrast to the 15 billion the ITER project will suck up for similar results.

I loathe attaching the “war against” label to things. We’ve had the “war against drugs” and the “war against terror” (not terrorism?). It would be terribly unfortunate if we began a “war against climate change.” Rather than entering the psychological state necessary to fund outliers by pretending we’re at war, we should try to normalize such a state. One way to do that is to acknowledge that we are the wealthiest people who ever existed, and–if we do not respond in a timely fashion to changes now occurring–possibly the wealthiest people who will ever exist. No one will ever be in the position we are in. We have an historic opportunity and responsibility to transform our world for the better. But business-as-usual R&D will not win the day.

Fund the outliers.

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