This post captures the gist of a discussion at OODAcon 2023 between Michael Gibson, author of Paper Belt on Fire and founder of the 1517 Fund, and OODA CEO Matt Devost.
The key takeaways from the conversation between Michael and Matt included a discussion on disruptive innovation, the current state of technology, the importance of maintaining societal trust, and the role of leadership and collective commitment in ethical action and risk mitigation within the tech ecosystem. The conversation highlighted the importance of fostering innovation from unconventional avenues and the role that everyone within the tech ecosystem plays in harnessing potent technologies for challenging missions – with a caution of not conflating credentials with character or capability, and the importance of backing mavericks and mad scientists to drive innovation.
Michael Gibson’s comments focused on the current state of disruptive innovation and how unconventional channels, such as non-institutional entrepreneurs, mad scientists, and hackers, could contribute to the emergence of the next generation of solutions. There was also an emphasis on the need to be more courageous in learning and embracing failure, encouraging a risk-taking culture – which is essential for fostering innovation and problem-solving.
“‘Setting the paper belt of fire’ must include non-institutional entrepreneurs and the need to embrace unconventional approaches to drive innovation.”
Michael Gibson’s Background and Origin Story: The 1517 Fund is also known as the “anti-Rhodes scholarship” and the Thiel Fellowship. He was training for an academic career in Philosophy when a chance meeting with Peter Thiel created the opportunities that gave birth to the 1517 Fund.
The 1517 Fund: Gibson looks for applicants who possess qualities such as socio-emotional intelligence and the ability to perform “in the wild”. Home schooling has also emerged as a common experience of many applicants. He believes that the application process is similar to fruit, where freshness matters and watching people over time is important and the importance of pattern recognition and pattern matching in identifying talent. Gibson also discusses the lack of progress in the world of atoms versus bits and the rate of innovation.
Follow-on Funding for Frontier Knowledge is Difficult: Matt and Michael discussed the challenge of follow-on funding for frontier knowledge projects, particularly those without degree credentials – acknowledging that it is tough to secure funding without such credentials. Gibson emphasized the importance of identifying individuals who can perform well in unconventional settings and possess socio-emotional intelligence to inform management and leadership decision making. While he acknowledges the difficulty in securing follow-on funding for research, he has not yet figured out a solution to this challenge.
Economist Benjamin Jones On “Greatest Achievement” Framing: The work of economist Benjamin Jones was discussed, with Michael stating that Jones has done amazing work on the impact of longer timeframes for academics to reach their “frontier field”, which slows down progress and ambition. Michael also pointed out the importance of Jones’s research in looking at how the window of creativity has shrunk, leading to decreased innovation. Studies show that the same 48 years old and older cohort for NIH and NSF grants receive the majority of those grants on a YoY basis. As a result, younger people trying new things and failing are perceived as “failed scientists” at an early age. Michael’s lager point was to point out Jones’ contributions to understanding the dynamics of academic progress and innovation – which has informed his strategies at the 1517 Fund.
What is the Paper Belt?: “Paper Belt on Fire” was discussed in various contexts, as it explores disruptive innovation and unconventional channels for solutions. The book highlights the decline in trust and increasing costs faced by traditional ‘paper’ institutions (higher education in Boston, high finance in New York) – which are all located in the Northeastern Corridor of the United States – The Paper Belt. Michael quipped that sitting in D.C. for OODAcon: “Here we are in the heart of the Paper Belt.” In the end, there are strong headwinds for “Paper Belt”institutions on the East Coast: DC, Delaware, NYC, Boston – and “setting the paper belt of fire” must include non-institutional entrepreneurs and the need to embrace unconventional approaches to drive innovation. The book also delves into generational cycles and predicts future events – offering insights into the challenges and opportunities in today’s rapidly changing world.
…corruption and incompetence contribute to the declining performance of institutions.”
Disruptive Technology: Paper Belt on Fire explores various aspects of disruptive technology. The book highlights the importance of socio-emotional intelligence and other character traits in identifying potential disruptive innovators. It also raises concerns about the decline in trust and performance of institutions, and the need for intervention in education to promote disruptive technologies.
The Networked State and The Networked State Conference: The Networked State is a concept that represents a shift towards interconnectedness and the need to address the changing dynamics of governance and technological advancements. While it was a passing reference by Gibson during the discussion, foundational research about the network state (and communities of practice that are launching efforts, for good and for ill, based on the influence of these theories) from OODA Loop this year includes:
- Blockchain Meets Bio: The Recent Synthetic Biology Summit and “Sustainable Biomanufacturing for Future Network States”: The new framing and systems thinking that came out of this conclave are kind of mindblowing – and exciting. This community of practice is eating the future whole. As a result, critical paths to the future and solutions for the future are emerging in this space – and they are more clearly drawn than the mixed promise of the future offered by other industry verticals.
- The First $500M, 10,0000 GPU, AI Sovereign Territory – with Nation-state as a Service Offerings?: Vice News best captured the import of this story: “But there’s one glaring issue: Del Complex is not a real AI company, and its barge is similarly fake.” So, it is all a fictional scenario – which is also highly effective use of storytelling to point out the potential future of “technological sovereignty” – and the future unintended consequence of organizations looking to skirt global regulation efforts. The BlueSea Frontier Compute Cluster was engineered as a means of offering nation-state-as-a-service. This movement has been brewing for decades, and has been thoroughly articulated by Balaji Srinivasan’s The Network State, and his recent conference on the topic.
Satoshi Nakamoto on the Decline of Paper-based institutions: Matt and Michael discussed Satoshi Nakamoto’s analysis of paper-based institutions – and the decline of their performance over time. Satoshi Nakamoto’s analysis of institutions, particularly paper-based ones, inspired Michael during the writing of his book. Nakamoto’s observation that institutions authenticate and validate paper documents resonated with Gibson, who also saw a decline in the performance of such institutions. This led Gibson to think about the future of decentralization and technology, foreseeing how decentralizing technologies could disrupt paper-based industries and institutions. Nakamoto’s influence sparked Gibson’s interest in exploring decentralization and its potential impact on various sectors, including finance and education. Overall, Nakamoto’s ideas prompted Gibson to consider the role of technology in challenging traditional systems and institutions.
Performance, Corruption, Incompetence and the Decline in Trust?: Michael framed the decline in performance of paper-based institutions due to corruption or incompetence. He mentions the Federal Reserve as an example, where their tools may not be precise or reliable. Satoshi Nakamoto’s analysis also highlights the need for institutions to authenticate paper as validation of quality, emphasizing the decline in performance over time (i.e. diplomas from higher education institutions. Are they worth the paper they are printed on?) Overall, these sources suggest that corruption and incompetence contribute to the declining performance of institutions.
- Trust in institutions have declined – finding themselves in a tough situation vis a vis:
- Corruption; and
Trust is declining, while the price price for the paper-based validation from these institutions is increasing (i.e. a U.S.-based college education).
What is the Frontier of Knowledge in Your Field of Inquiry?
The concept of Frontier Knowledge touches upon the need for intervention in education to explore further knowledge. It is the mavericks and mad scientists of the world who push the boundaries of knowledge. Not doing so contributes to decline. There are unsolved problems in every domain, what are they and what needs to be done to push further?
What do I need to know about this tough problem?
Gibson discussed various aspects related to the tough problems in question. He mentioned his approach of engaging with technologists and seeking their expertise. He emphasized the importance of finding the right solutions and trusting in the right ideas when he sees them. Additionally, he expressed interest in infectious diseases as a potential area for future advancements and problem-solving. While he acknowledged the potential risks associated with advanced technologies, he showed less concern about a Skynet-like scenario and more about responsible use and accountability. Overall, Gibson’s insights highlight the need for collaboration, identifying promising solutions, and addressing pressing challenges in fields like infectious diseases. Researchers and entrepeneurs need to start to see problems as something that can be solved
Really Challenging Research Areas:
Michael Gibson’s list of really challenging research problems encompassed various scientific and technological fields. Some of these problems included energy creation, specifically focusing on fusion and the containment of fusion. Another area of interest was computing, with a specific emphasis on error correction in quantum arrays and the rapid decline of entanglement. Additionally, there was a mention of the need for more specialization in GPUs for computing purposes. The list also addressed the topic of infectious diseases, highlighting the importance of developing universal vaccines. Finally, defense systems and cybersecurity were recognized as critical areas requiring attention. While the specific details of the entire list were not provided, these examples demonstrate the breadth and depth of the challenging problems Michael Gibson explored in his research:
Energy creation – fusion: How do we contain fusion? Magnets
Examples from computing: Error correction in Quantum arrays, entanglement – declines quite rapidly
Compute: More specialization in GPUs
Contrarian view: Specialized computing over general AI
Michael and Matt also mentioned their interactions with technologists to find something interesting – without trying to predict trends. Additionally, they acknowledged the geopolitical component and the importance of confronting challenges in the world.
For the program notes for this conversation between Matt and Michael. see OODAcon 2023 – Keynote Conversation: Backing the Mavericks and Mad Scientists the Nation Needs Now.
The full agenda for OODacon 2023 can be found here – Welcome to OODAcon 2023: Final Agenda and Event Details – including a a full description of each session, expanded speakers bios (with links to current projects and articles about the speakers) and additional OODA Loop resources on the theme of each panel.