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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Brian Wang > Technological and social choices where technological progress is accelerating

Brian Wang
Z1 Consulting

If technological progress is accelerating then what would be a better strategy for increasing the social and technogical returns from private and government research budgets?

April 20th, 2008

Technological and social choices where technological progress is accelerating

Individuals and groups who manage large private and government research budgets need to have a portion of the budget allocated to high risk and high reward projects. It does not matter if one believes a particular technological proposal will succeed or not. It does not matter what the ultimate impact will be for something like greater than human artificial general intelligence, which is the basis of the technogical Singularity concept. As part of the portfolio of research the high risk and high reward project will increase overall returns while reducing overall risk.

The justification for having a portion of a research budget in high risk and potentially high reward projects is the same principle used to justify alternative investments as 5-20% of a financial portfolios and the success of Google's approach of supporting their employees who spend 20% of their time on any project that they want. Both approaches have produced higher returns with lower overall risk.

This is particularly valid in a world where the rate of technological progress is accelerating. With technological acceleration more and more of the high risk projects would pay off. Some of the high risk projects will pay off in a very big way, and the risk would be in not having participated in any of the new technology.

Public funds also should have tighter accountability and more results-based award components (prizes for goals achieved) then more efficiency could be wrung out of the resources and budgets. Pork and waste sustains nothing useful.

A broader view of possible societal solutions should be maintained. There is a connection between transportation, energy, construction, industry and technology.

An example of solutions for transportion and energy which seem worthwhile to perfect and develop: platooning cars so that they have computer control and are able to draft off of lead vehicles could save up to 50% of the fuel used by trailing cars and trucks. There have been pilot programs for this concept. Dual mode (part car/part train) vehicles and transportation systems could bring further transportaion efficiency.

A society would also benefit by helping to enable more people to have access to resources which could be used to perform the initial development and validation of ideas. A system of open, free or low-cost access to shared public tools and resources would allow passionate people to work to get more ideas to a fundable stage.

For nanotechnology, this would be access to supercomputer time for computational chemistry, AFMs and other tools for experimental validation and other fabrication tools, labs and personnel.

Fortunately developments in 2007 with
Nvidia Tesla personal multi-teraflop supercomputers, build your own AFM parts and automated 3d nanoscale manufacturing with AFMs is lowering the cost bar.

Societal systems should enable more attempts at innovation at lower cost, higher quality attempts, more measurement of results and rewards for measured progress. There is too much follow on funding for large expensive projects that are clearly underdeliverying based on investment. I would include the Space shuttle, the international space station and the ITER fusion projects in this category.

Trillions of dollars will be needed to upgrade the energy distribution and generation infrastructure. International Energy Agency estimated in 2006 that $20 trillion would be needed to upgrade the world energy infrastructure from 2006 to 2030. I think a portion of those funds should be devoted to many alternative technology studies and pilot implementations. The Energy equivalent of DARPA would be a useful means of coordinating such a research effort. Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency would develop advanced technology for energy generation, distribution, pollution reduction, energy efficiency and conservation. A funding level comparable to the $3.2 billion for DARPA seems appropriate.

In summary, I believe an effective approach to research and development budgets is to have a broader view of possible solutions, with impartial rewarded results with funding increases, reductions in funding and elimination of underperforming programs and with a portion devoted to high risk and high return projects.

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