Humanity is a planetwide force. We have the power to change our weather. We have the power to change the shape of the land. We have the power to selectively wipe a species from this earth if we choose. We’ve had this power for a while and we’re still coming to terms with it. Many of us even deny it.
With such power, what do we do? We have very few projects which are in line with our ability. Somewhere in the past few years, I feel like most of us have lost our audacity. We’ve culturally come to appreciate the safe bet too much. We pull the dreamers and doers down. We want to solve the small problems first, and see if we have time for the big problems later. We don’t dream big enough, and there is zero reason for this hesitation. We could leverage our planetwide power for planetwide improvements. Nothing is truly stopping us. No law, no government, nothing.
To put it simply, as far as technology goes, everything is still low-hanging fruit. We’ve barely done anything. Even some of our greatest accomplishments can happen randomly in nature. We’ve not left our planet in any numbers or for any length of time. Our cities are disorganized messes. In every single field today, the unexplored territory is orders larger than the explored. Yet despite this vast territory, there are very few explorers. People want to optimize the minutia of life. A slightly faster processor for a slightly smaller phone. It’s okay.
Yet that same small optimization applied to a larger effort could have vast positive impact. Those same microprocessors could catalog our planet or drive probes into space. The very same efforts we spend on micro upgrades could be leveraged if we just look at the bigger picture then get out of our own way. All that is lacking is ambition. Money, time, skill, industry, and people are all there, waiting. We have the need for and have the resources to support ten thousand Elon Musks, not just the one.
Big projects make us bigger than our cellphones and Facebook. When you see a rocket launch into the sky, suddenly, “the world” becomes, simply, “a world.” Order of magnitude improvements reduce the order of our perception of previously complex problems. They should be our highest goal. Whatever field you’re in, you should be trying to be ten times better than the top competitor.
However, there are some societal changes that have to occur before we can.
Nitpicking and Naysaying:
The first thing that happens when an enterprising individual proposes something big is that some “expert” will come out of the woodwork to write a self-congratulatory article on how smart they are for disproving the feasibility of the idea. Historically these people have been shown to be fantastically wrong.
There were articles about flight, electricity, and even the umbrella. People fly, the world is electric, and only my feet get wet in the rain. We’ve been to space. The moon isn’t ten-feet-deep with abrasive dust. The moon lander did just fine on its surface.
Yet despite this, we glorify the negative people. It’s easy to see why. Negative people get attention with no work. They seem smart without ever having to justify it. They put nothing forth, and the start up cost is low for anyone to jump on the bandwagon.
Every big idea is risky. Every risk has a thousand reasons why it will fail. Many ideas start out traveling in the wrong direction and end up solving something else along the way.
Here’s the truth. The world is getting better every day. We’ve never been richer, more peaceful, and with more power than we are now. It is time to be positive. Think critically, yes, but in a positive way. Every single negative thinker is nothing more than a whiner and a detriment to everyone.
For example. What about solar roadways? So what if they’ll likely never produce enough power to offset their cost? They’d still solve ultra-durable, easy to maintain glass roadways with active lighting, sensor networks, and underground utilities? Would that be so bad?
Sometimes it’s best to consider the value of what we could learn from a failure instead of just the success. Sometimes just the sheer effort of trying something big has a cascading effect on society, where another person sees their attempt and gets it right. Rarely do only negatives come out of an attempt.
Don’t Worry About the Money:
There is more money out there for investment in new tech and audacious problems than there has ever been. There is almost a trillion dollars floating around for start-up investment in tech alone. The amount of capital floating around to invest in big stuff is staggering.
If we waste a few billion it’s meaningless. A million dollars won’t even run the US government for a second.
Stop With the Concept Art. Start Doing:
We really have powerful visualization software at hand these days. We can tell the greatest stories ever told and do it singlehandedly on a modest computer. So it’s often tempting for someone to present their great idea to the world, plant a flag, get a lot of attention, and then drop it. However, only doers move us forward.
Rather than just concept art, try to do a concept. Start doing the math. Consult some experts. See if you can find a crack in reality where you can wedge your idea. The hyperloop is a good example of this, so is Elon Musk’s boring company. He has enough name power alone that a great rendering would be enough for some, but he does. He had the math worked out to prove the preliminary feasibility. He went out and bought a drilling machine with his billionaire money to see for himself if it can be done.
Stop With the One Man Shows:
We know that you have a great idea. However, true technological innovation has always happened as a team effort. When you read about the geniuses that filtered through Edison’s lab (which included Tesla) his list of accomplishments makes more sense. Being the lone war hero, spending night and day learning every skill needed aside from teamwork is just a waste of time. If you’re a good mechanical engineer, find someone who is good with electrons. If you’re not a good manager, find one. Woz needed Jobs.
Humility is not the hacker way. When you do something great, brag. When you are doing something great, tell people. Get people excited. Learn to be persuasive. We’ve come to despise the good salesmen, and when we see them trying something large we hate them even more, but one-upmanship is a driving force in technology. Brag so someone can oust you from your throne.
Find a Way to Make Money Doing It. Humanitarian Efforts Should Be Profitable.
Money is leverage. It lets you buy human time and creative output. It buys machines, capital. It’s the only way to get rocket fuel. Doing it on the cheap won’t get you anywhere. So find a way to make money. Find a way to make lots of money. Very few things deserve to exist on merit alone.
The truth is that the best people in the world have one life to live. They aren’t going to work at your nonprofit for $30,000 a year. They’re going to work in a place where they can leverage millions and make millions. If that means they’re optimizing the marketing metrics for someone’s lame app instead of helping you revolutionize the world in some way, that’s your fault. Given a choice almost all the best people in the world would choose to work on something that’s a net positive for everyone. That is human nature. We want what’s best for each other. If we didn’t then the world would have already ended.
When it comes down to it, big things can’t be done on the cheap. Rockets and robot cars cost millions, just turning the lights on in a building leverages trillions of man hours and trillions of dollars in capital. Don’t make the mistake of artificially limiting yourself. The rest of the world hasn’t.
On top of that, if an idea can make money, then it can spread. Then it has real validity. If you can find a way to feed the world that doesn’t beg, then you have something.
The key idea here is that it must create wealth. There is a strange misconception floating around that there is only a fixed amount of wealth in the world and doing one thing means another won’t have enough, but this simply isn’t true. More wealth is created every day. Something being able to make money is literally that. It’s the ability to insert into the world’s reserve of good things more than there was before.
Plus, if you can prove that it makes money people will give you as much money as you need to do it.
Though, let’s not confuse this with people who only masquerade as wealth creators; these are easy to spot given enough time. While some people unfairly walk away with a prize they didn’t earn, it’s not unexpected or anomalous as any statistical distribution will tell you. There’s no need to obsess over it.
I’ve already mentioned the solar roads, but another ambitious project I really like is Megabots. Right now, non-research robotics fits into two categories, something simple that can fit on a retail shelf, or something that is optimized for some sort of industry.
Megabots is building a 30 ft fighting robot like those from Japanese cartoons, and they’re trying to start a giant robot fighting league. Now, some might argue that Megabots is a stupid idea, that no one will ever happily spend two million dollars per robot just to watch it get destroyed, but it’s not that far off from the money spent on NASCAR. Some might argue that we could be spending that money on some other, better, purpose. After all, what’s the possible benefit to humanity?
Yet, think about it, people have wanted giant robot exoskeletons for years and years. The problem is that there’s no market that can really afford the rapid experimentation and failure of developing such technology. Sure, construction, disaster relief, agriculture, and more would love such a thing, but it’s just not economically feasible to pursue. Yet, if we’re pitting them against each other, testing and rapid development is assured. New actuators, control methods, and more could all come out of an ambitious idea like this. Just like racing made our automobiles safer, unreasonably large robots that punch each other could change the way we do a lot of things.
They’re also a good example because they do all the things. They’re positive about their project, they don’t tear down others. They work in a team. They brag constantly and people are starting to respond. A Chinese team has weighed in with their own robot now. Best of all, they found a way to make money with it. You can have all the government funded research you want, but if Megabots succeeds, a sports league of impractical flashy robots will be the driving force in a new field of tech.
Another technology that’s grand in scale, naturally, has the master of grand-in-scale ceremonies, Elon Musk behind it. The Boring Company, his hobby project, promised a network of claustrophobic tunnels underneath cities that scoot cars around on electric sleds. If we can solve this problem, despite how ridiculous it seems, it would have far-reaching positive impact. When you start to read on the actual impact of cars on our society, it’s truly a single-edged sword. Even if you ignore pollution, it’s just negative all around. The increase in traffic means wider streets. The wider streets mean faster cars and less foot traffic. It decreases community, commerce, and pedestrian safety and it’s here to stay until we figure out a solution.
If we reduce the need for car ownership and can move most of the traffic out of sight yet still retain mobility, then we can return to how cities used to be: with more community, more green space, and better commerce. The amount of pollution will decrease and cars will become a shared, rented resource, rather than a necessary capital every household is forced to invest in. On top of that, becoming better tunnel builders will help us in all regards, from space colonies to mining.
Many of the benefits of huge projects aren’t so esoteric either. For example, the Large Hadron Collider is helping us understand our universe, and as a side-effect it has dramatically improved KiCAD. The experience from building super towers in Dubai has improved technology across the board. Just the advances in elevators alone will save lives for years to come, and make the world more accessible for those with mobility issues.
I really think that hackers should wake up tomorrow and think about what they’d really like to see in the world. They should keep in mind that SpaceX developed and built their first rocket for less than Gillette spent to develop that face scraper they’re so proud of. Don’t set your sights low. Get a team of friends and build something big because it’s the human thing to do. Pick something vastly ambitious. See if you can beat Amazon to Drone deliveries, see if you can 3D print a building or organs better than the labs have managed. Be the first supplier of space station modules to the public sector. There are no limits other than the artificial ones we dream up for ourselves.
Also, if we don’t we’re probably going to die holding our phones, when we could be zooming around the galaxy in snazzy red spandex onesies.