An NBER paper from 2015 tracks the decline in corporate spending on basic science in R&D, which has become a practical, application-focused line-item in corporate budgets, creating a safe, predictable, and slow cycle of innovation.
Deepmind's AlphaGo Zero -- which taught itself to play a remarkable game of Go in just 72 hours -- is an ironic poster child for this phenomenon. AlphaGo is part of a long-term shift in AI research from generating machine comprehension to "machine learning" that is just a fancy form of statistical analysis, a brute-force approach that relies on ingesting lots of human decisions and making statistical observations that can be used as predictions about the future.
At the same time, universities have also become more short term and more focused on practicalities rather than basic science.
Perhaps it is naive to simply exhort companies to spend more on fundamental research — but somebody has to. One interesting approach is for governments to fund “innovation prizes” for breakthroughs. Such prizes mobilise public funds and public goals while deploying the agility and diversity of private sector approaches. But such prizes only work in certain situations.
Professional sport has made fashionable the practice of “marginal gains” — rapid optimisation in search of the tiniest edge. It turns out that corporate research took the same turn decades ago. There is nothing wrong with marginal improvements, but they must not be allowed to crowd out more speculative research. Science is a deeper, messier practice than sport. We must continue to devote time, space and money to bigger, riskier leaps.
What AlphaGo Zero teaches us about what’s going wrong with innovation
(Image: Michael Branson Smith)
Anthony Atala, director of Wake Forest University’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine, is developing techniques to 3D print human organs for transplant using an individual’s own cells as the “ink.” That way, the transplanted organ won’t trigger the patient’s immune system to reject it as a foreign body. From National Geographic: (For example,) to create an […]
A Scottish team of animal biotechnologists announced this week they successfully introduced human stem cells into sheep embryos. Perhaps one day we will all have our very own baaing organ donors. The team are currently allowed to let the chimeric embryos develop for 28 days, 21 of which are in the sheep. While that might […]
I can’t believe I have to write this, but maybe jamming other people’s shit up your ass isn’t a great idea. When done by medical professions, under very specific circumstances, a fecal transplant can mean the difference between life and death: implanting feces containing healthy gut microbiome into a patient’s body has been used by […]
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