As a breath of fresh air after the previous post, I recommend reading this article. I strongly recommend reading this article. A brief excerpt gives the flavor of the contents.
“In the Air – Who says big ideas are rare?“, Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker (12 May 2008)
Nathan Myhrvold met Jack Horner on the set of the “Jurassic Park” sequel in 1996. Horner is an eminent paleontologist, and was a consultant on the movie. Myhrvold was there because he really likes dinosaurs. Between takes, the two men got to talking, and Horner asked Myhrvold if he was interested in funding dinosaur expeditions.
… In Montana, which is prime dinosaur country, people had been hiking around and looking for bones for at least a hundred years. But Horner wanted to keep trying. So he and Myhrvold put together a number of teams, totalling as many as fifty people. They crossed the Fort Peck reservoir in boats, and began to explore the Montana badlands in earnest. They went out for weeks at a time, several times a year. They flew equipment in on helicopters. They mapped the full dinosaur ecology-bringing in specialists from other disciplines. And they found dinosaur bones by the truckload.
… People weren’t finding dinosaur bones, and they assumed that it was because they were rare. But-and almost everything that Myhrvold has been up to during the past half decade follows from this fact-it was our fault. We didn’t look hard enough. … “Our expeditions have found more T. rex than anyone else in the world,” Myhrvold said. “From 1909 to 1999, the world found eighteen T. rex specimens. From 1999 until now, we’ve found nine more.”
… In 1999, when Nathan Myhrvold left Microsoft and struck out on his own, he set himself an unusual goal. He wanted to see whether the kind of insight that leads to invention could be engineered. He formed a company called Intellectual Ventures. He raised hundreds of millions of dollars. He hired the smartest people he knew. It was not a venture-capital firm. Venture capitalists fund insights — that is, they let the magical process that generates new ideas take its course, and then they jump in. Myhrvold wanted to make insights-to come up with ideas, patent them, and then license them to interested companies. He thought that if he brought lots of very clever people together he could reconstruct that moment by the Grand River.
… How useful is it to have a group of really smart people brainstorm for a day? When Myhrvold started out, his expectations were modest. Although he wanted insights like Alexander Graham Bell’s, Bell was clearly one in a million, a genius who went on to have ideas in an extraordinary number of areas-sound recording, flight, lasers, tetrahedral construction, and hydrofoil boats, to name a few. The telephone was his obsession. He approached it from a unique perspective, that of a speech therapist. He had put in years of preparation before that moment by the Grand River, and it was impossible to know what unconscious associations triggered his great insight. Invention has its own algorithm: genius, obsession, serendipity, and epiphany in some unknowable combination. How can you put that in a bottle?
But then, in August of 2003, I.V. held its first invention session, and it was a revelation. “Afterward, Nathan kept saying, ‘There are so many inventions,’ ” Wood recalled. “He thought if we came up with a half-dozen good ideas it would be great, and we came up with somewhere between fifty and a hundred. I said to him, ‘But you had eight people in that room who are seasoned inventors. Weren’t you expecting a multiplier effect?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but it was more than multiplicity.’ Not even Nathan had any idea of what it was going to be like.”
The original expectation was that I.V. would file a hundred patents a year. Currently, it’s filing five hundred a year. It has a backlog of three thousand ideas.
… One of the sessions that Gates participated in was on the possibility of resuscitating nuclear energy. “Teller had this idea way back when that you could make a very safe, passive nuclear reactor,” Myhrvold explained. “No moving parts. Proliferation-resistant. Dead simple. Every serious nuclear accident involves operator error, so you want to eliminate the operator altogether. Lowell and Rod and others wrote a paper on it once. So we did several sessions on it.”
The plant, as they conceived it, would produce something like one to three gigawatts of power, which is enough to serve a medium-sized city. The reactor core would be no more than several metres wide and about ten metres long. It would be enclosed in a sealed, armored box. The box would work for thirty years, without need for refuelling. Wood’s idea was that the box would run on thorium, which is a very common, mildly radioactive metal. (The world has roughly a hundred-thousand-year supply, he figures.) Myhrvold’s idea was that it should run on spent fuel from existing power plants. … It was a long-shot idea, easily fifteen years from reality, if it became a reality at all. It was just a tantalizing idea at this point, but who wasn’t interested in seeing where it would lead? “We have thirty guys working on it,” he went on. “I have more people doing cutting-edge nuclear work than General Electric.
… Insight could be orchestrated: that was the lesson.
The last line leads to the most important part of the essay, which provides a basis for optimism about both America and humanity’s future in the 21st century. We have just started our long climb into the future.
1. An earlier profile of “The Microsoft Provocateur“, Ken Auletta, The New Yorker (12 May 1997)
2. More information about Myhrvold’s company, Intellectual Ventures: “Patent Firm Lays Global Plans“, Wall Street Journal (12 November 2007) — “Intellectual Ventures Is Seeking $2 Billion As Strategy Shifts”
3. Another perspective on this concept: “Gladwell amongst the patent trolls“, Information Processing blog (8 May 2008) — Excerpt:
If you read this blog often, you know my opinion about Gladwell: he has a good nose for interesting topics, but not enough brainpower or common sense for reliable analysis. The same is true here: he produces an interesting profile of Myhrvold (although see here for a much better one from 1997 by Ken Auletta) and friends, but seems to entirely miss a number of important points. Intellectual Ventures is not about real inventions, but about patenting around ideas so that they have a future claim on the ones that turn out the be useful. In other words, they are patent trolls. Gladwell does not seem to realize the difference between rampant speculation and true invention: the hours of painstaking work in the lab required to convert an idea into reality.
Here’s an excerpt about how the “invention” process works — get some smart guys in a room and let them talk (every theory group lounge is a fount of commercializable ideas ;-). Yes! if your inventors are smart enough, they can produce 36 new inventions at dinner! Is this a statement about real innovation, or about what a patent attorney might manage to get the understaffed, overburdened USPTO to approve? It makes a mockery of what real inventors and innovators do. Why start a company and hire engineers to build a prototype? Just get a few lawyers and patent everything in sight.
…For the cognoscenti out there, yes, the Wood mentioned in the article is none other than Star Warrior Lowell Wood, former head of the zany (useless?) O Group (NYTimes 1984) at Livermore. Wood is perfect for Myhrvold’s purposes — for decades his group bamboozled the US defense establishment with wild ideas that cost taxpayers billions of dollars. Follow the link to the Times article and tell me how many of the ideas mentioned turned into something useful, now almost a quarter century later.
… Let me close with my usual observation (specifically aimed at venture capitalists, research lab directors and university administrators) concerning an asymmetry in cognitive depth: yes, physicists can casually read the New England Journal of Medicine and come up with interesting insights, but, no, biologists and medical doctors cannot read Physical Review.
4. A company doing something similar, but with more emphasis on carrying ideas through development to commercialization: Idealab.
Founded in in 1996 to create and operate pioneering technology companies. Our companies are based on ideas that challenge the status quo, and change the way people think, live, and work. The structure of Idealab has allowed us to test many ideas at once and turn the best of them into companies, attracting the human and financial capital necessary to bring them to market.
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