On A Mission To Make Science Fiction A Reality

A couple of months ago, Ben Reinhardt announced the launch of Speculative Technologies, a new nonprofit research organization with the mission to create an abundant, wonder-filled future by unlocking powerful materials and manufacturing technologies that don’t have a home in other institutions. The organization has been funded by Patrick Collison, Malcolm Handley, Protocol Labs, Schmidt Futures, The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and a number of smaller donors

The future is full of possibilities. If history is a lesson, there are incredible possibilities we can’t yet imagine. But this future is fragile. We need new institutional structures for research.

Two centuries of explosive growth, invention, and discovery have given technological and scientific progress the guise of natural laws. It’s easy to think that trends will inevitably continue up and to the right. In reality, those trends depend on a delicate ecosystem: a combination of culture, institutions, and extraordinary effort by individuals acting far beyond reason. This ecosystem has growing cracks: 44% of researcher’s time is spent writing and administering grants; 78% percent of researchers at top institutions would change their research direction if they were unconstrained; extraordinary numbers of PhDs in science or physical engineering don’t work in technical areas at all; we wonder whether ideas themselves are getting harder to find.

Ben Reinhardt is on a mission to make science fiction a reality. For the last two years he’s been working full time on the implementation of his own advice gathered in the “Private ARPA User Manual.”

How can we enable more science fiction to become reality?

DARPA, alongside golden age industrial labs like Bell Labs, DuPont Experimental Station, GE Laboratories, and others, developed many technologies at the core of the modern world — from transistors and plastics to lasers and antibiotics. These labs all enabled certain activities that are heavily constrained in the modern ecosystem.

After digging into why DARPA works, Ben asked the follow-up question: how could you follow DARPA’s narrow path in a world very different from the one that created it?

These are his main conclusions:

  • A critical niche in the innovation ecosystem once occupied by industrial labs is unfilled.
  • The current innovation ecosystem — academia, startups, and modern corporate R&D — do not cut it.
  • A private organization that riffs on DARPA’s model could fill this niche.
  • Private ARPA (PARPA) will de-risk a series of hypotheses and go through three major evolutionary phases before it looks like its namesake.
  • There are many tensions and incentive traps along the path to building any innovation organization. Describing them as precisely as possible may enable PARPA and other organizations to sail past them safely.

And this, in short, PARPA’s master plan:

  • Create and stress-test unintuitive research programs in a systematic (and therefore repeatable) way.
  • Use that credibility to run a handful of research programs and produce results that wouldn’t happen otherwise.
  • Use that credibility to run more research programs and help them “graduate” to effective next steps.
  • Make the entire cycle eventually-autocatalytic by plowing windfalls into an endowment.

Why DARPA and not Bell Labs?

This was actually the question which initially attracted my attention to this essay. The answer is not easy, or even conclusive. Ben Reinhardt thinks that Bell Labs was a product of its time and a set of unique conditions that no longer exist or cannot be easily replicated today. Not even Google (Alphabet) with its Moonshots and Google X. DARPA, on the other hand, seems able to work in today’s world just fine, However, 21st-century DARPA-riffs should be private.

The essay is full of interesting reflection, valuable references, and those delicious naïve figures… Those are the kind of images that populate my own fantasy and my lessons, and (for me) the proof that Ben Reinhardt is on the right mission for our time (more in the coming months).

Good Journey Ben, and good luck!


Featured Image: Ben Reinhardt, “Shifting the impossible to the inevitable. A private ARPA User manual” (licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.)

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