a black swan energy prize

by Joris 8mo28th Mar 20193 min read9 comments

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OPP's excellent thread on Hits-Based giving triggered a question from one community member on the potential role prizes might play in that space. This post seeks to pursue that line of thought, with a specific focus on energy.

New to this forum, I'm afraid my formulations may not be as rigorous as those from seasoned EA practitioners, but I am nevertheless encouraged by the guidelines stating "we’d rather hear an idea that’s presented imperfectly than not hear it at all".

Summary

  • Finding a new source of energy is somewhat of an existential opportunity
  • The likelihood of finding one is much higher than commonly assumed
  • A challenge prize is proposed as a effective intervention in this space

The quest for new sources of energy

There’s a non-zero chance that humanity will one day discover and master a fundamentally new energy source that will significantly alter the future of our species. If that were to happen, it would amount to what Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes as a black swan event : largely unforeseen but highly impactful, likely to be rationalised after the fact with the benefit of hindsight.

By "fundamentally new" I mean the sort of energy source that would require us to revise part of our current understanding of physics. By default, most scientists today would reject such technology as impossible, or at least attribute a vanishingly small probability to a discovery in that space. Cold fusion is a good example ; a breakthrough in this realm could spark a scientific revolution of unimaginable impact. But the scientific consensus today rejects the possibility of its existence, let alone the existence of other even more exotic sources of energy.

Virtually no public R&D funding is available in this field because innovators are working outside the established scientific paradigm and therefore highly unlikely to obtain consensus from any academic funding board. The scarce private funds that are available tend to come from individuals willing and able to make direct funding decisions largely by themselves. In the particular case of cold fusion, we are just starting to see a few examples of established funding sources entering the field (Mitsubishi Estate, Woodford funds).

Overall, this cause area has a very high potential impact, a tractability that is widely perceived to be close to zero and as a result, a high degree of neglectedness. John Halstead summed it up nicely :

the invention of a perpetual motion machine would be extremely valuable and is very neglected, but also appears to be impossible. Therefore, extra work on this problem is unlikely to be valuable.

Reassessing tractability

The EA community has an important precedent in looking at areas that are extremely unlikely, but do have a large potential impact : existential risk. In a symmetrical way, a new abundant clean energy source could be described as an existential opportunity, something that can materially alter the future trajectory of man. Sam Altman stated some time ago that if you could choose one single technological development to help the most people in the world, radically better energy generation is probably it. Two recent EA research reports, at Let's Fund and Founders Pledge, conclude that increased investment in clean energy R&D ranks among the most promising interventions to address climate change.

When the stakes are so high, it may be worthwhile diving a bit deeper into tractability. "Appears impossible" does actually leave some room for further analysis : what can we say about the chances of anything working ?

In a recent article, professor Huw Price makes a pretty convincing case that - at least as far as cold fusion is concerned - the field is actually worth serious attention. Based on an iceberg of evidence from a multitude of sources, it seems reasonable to attribute a percentage chance to the phenomena described being genuine : we're no longer talking a one-in-a-billion possibility. If we accept such evidence and the conclusion on the likelihood of success, then this could conceivably alter the priority of the quest for new energy on the EA agenda.

Effective intervention, however, is tricky when you are seeking to challenge conventional wisdom, as adequately described in Holden Karnofsky's blog post mentioned at the top of this article. If grants flow through layers of decision-making then such funds are unlikely to reach the type of innovators working on controversial new energy science.

This has led OPP to take the route of direct funding for high-risk/high-impact research, with a decision structure somewhat adapted to assessing non-consensus proposals (unfortunately, energy is not currently on their list of investigated causes). But direct funding of research requires significant time-involvement to seek out the most promising proposals, which can feel much like searching for the needle in the proverbial haystack.

A prize

One instrument to accelerate the process of scientific discovery here is to launch an inducement prize contest. As economist Tim Harford describes in his book Adapt : "Despite their early successes, innovation prizes were firmly supplanted by direct grants. Grants, unlike prizes, are a powerful tool of patronage. Prizes, in contrast, are open to anyone who produces results... Finally, after almost two centuries out of fashion, prizes are now enjoying a renaissance - thanks to a new generation of entrepreneurs and philanthropists who care more about getting solutions than about where they come from."

Whilst prizes certainly aren't a panacea for all domains, the particular field of finding energy black swans might lend itself well to a prize. In particular, it may reach innovators who would not easily show up on the radar screen of venture capitalists or venture philanthropists. The 1714 Longitude Prize was not won by a highly respected astronomer, but by a part-time watchmaker. Similarly, whilst some innovators today are clearly successful raising private money, not every genius inventor is also a genius entrepreneur able and/or willing to convince private investors. A prize is a complementary instrument to investment, casting as wide a net as possible over the solution space defined by the prize rules.

The concept of launching a 10-20 mln$ black swan energy prize has been floating around in several circles. It has been more or less seriously investigated at least twice in recent history (Forbidden Energy XPrize pitch 2014, Abundant Clean Energy XPrize design contest 2017), but seems to have stranded. Following those earlier developments, the undersigned is currently pitching such a prize through an independent foundation - hoping to avoid some of the common pitfalls associated with prizes.

A properly designed and executed black swan energy prize seems to be a relatively effective way to address tractability. Only the operational budget to launch and execute a prize needs to be committed, the actual prize is basically a success fee due only if and when winning technologies have been vetted by an international jury of scientists. Once won, the recognition that comes with the prize is expected to unlock further funding not only for the winner(s), but for what might become an entire new industry, as was the case for the Ansari XPrize for private space travel.

From a societal risk-management perspective, it would appear prudent to launch challenge prizes to ensure we are not missing out on existential opportunities such as new energy sources : the cost of false-negatives is simply too high.

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