When is a first strike not a first strike?
When it's Anticipatory Retaliation.

January 18, 2005

Of What Use?

Bravo Romeo Delta

In a recent post on the landing of the Huygens probe on the surface of Titan, a lamentable, if predictable response was left in the comments, about how this provides value for the taxpayer. I guess the thing of note that this was posted on a blog, which is directly made possible by basic research done by the then Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) which led to the creation of the Internet. It is, of course, debatable whether or not the internet would have arisen without the aid of ARPA, but it is undeniable that, in the history that has unfolded, ARPA has played a significant role.

And this, in particular, was an irony that I just couldn't pass up.

Just about every time mankind reaches a new pinnacle of achievement, there is a member of the peanut gallery who chimes in with something along the line of "Is this worth taxpayer dollars?" or "Why spend money on this when there is XYZ that needs funding?"

This begs the immediate question of why it is worth the taxpayer dollar to conduct fundamental research on science and technology. The first problem that we encounter in determining the future value of research is that it is often unpredictable to the point of being a complete guessing game.

Sometimes, the application is evident only once certain other, heretofore unknown enabling technologies rise to the fore. For instance, the binary counting system (apologies for lack of reference here), was referred to in a very early 20th century mathematical dictionary as being a curiosity devoid of practical application. And, outside of some Boolean logical exercises, it had no use, until its utility in computation was later discovered.

Similarly, sometimes a technology may exist without being useful until a larger infrastructure exists to successfully exploit that technology. Many of you are familiar with the DVD and its earlier predecessor, the VHS and BETA tapes. Some of you may even remember the earlier attempt at DVDs, known as the Laserdisc. But before that, was the RCA SelectaVision Video Disc system, marketed during the early 80's, which captured color video and sound on a grooved vinyl disc. But long, long before that were the Phonovison discs produced during the late 20's and early 30's, which likewise recording moving images and sound on a grooved disc.

In all of these cases, at which point would one be able to effectively predicted that this particular iteration of an idea would be successful and how long after development the concept would become useful. And if this specific attempt was foredoomed to failure, when would the idea catch on? The next attempt? The third? Tenth? When? In retrospect there has never been a completely reliable way to forecast in all cases, without fail, when the next next thing would arrive. The killer app, quite often, is apparent only in hindsight.

I hope that these examples have illustrated that the concept that any given bit of research or exploration today will yield unknown dividends. But, along with that is the notion that the vast, vast majority of discoveries and technological advances are not lost, but become part of the technological genome of the species as a whole.

How does this all tie back to the question of whether or not it is worth it? Well, one has to ask why should the government do anything at all? When does a government effort become a good use of taxpayer dollars? The answer lies in organization. If you require widespread, neat, and organized theft - have a government do it (they call it taxes). If you want a whole lot of people killed and things broken - ask the government in (they call it warfare). Looking for a massive strong-arm protection racket - the government's your guy (also known as law enforcement).

There are simply some ways to increase the net total of human knowledge that can be accomplished most quickly (not necessarily most efficiently) through the application of organized, centralized effort of the kind in which governments specialize.

Why is this a more worthy pursuit than any other organized undertaking? Simply because research and scientific advancement, on average produce a higher, more reliable rate of return for mankind over the long run. Moreover, technological development often benefits the first, wide-scale adopter the most. While, as we've seen above, not all early development equals early profitable adoption, it's is universally understood to be hard to play catch up when someone else is the lead dog. So, if you want to maximize your odds of being the front runner, be willing to accept that occasionally the cutting edge of technology is the bleeding edge.

To compare, look at one of the most common suggestions about where money should be spent, if not on science: social programs. I think that social programs are, on average, of dubious value on a pure accounting basis. But this still doesn't address the broader moral good of looking out for the weakest in your society. While looking out for the weak few does have an unquestionable moral benefit, I would also submit that propelling mankind ahead as a whole also has a strong moral component, a benefit that won't expire in a lifetime.

Or, to look at it another way, I would say that the broader benefit to be derived from expanding human knowledge is a general benefit that must be weighed against the transitory benefit of money spent on late-night basketball or social programs of questionable value targeted at those who may or may not benefit from such efforts.

Not unlike, I suppose, the opposite proposition of how much we will rely on the few (the rich) to bear the burden, through taxation, for the funding of programs to produce benefits for the greater society.

Except that research is tangible and has a long shelf life. Warm and fuzzy feelings about shaking down Bill Gates to put new computers in an inner-city school with horrific dropout rates really donít have much shelf life at all.

(Simultaneously launched by Bravo Romeo Delta from Demosophia, The Jawa Mercury, & Anticipatory Retaliation)

Launched by Bravo Romeo Delta at January 18, 2005 07:59 PM
Ľ The Jawa Report Retaliates with: Walk-Ins

Retaliatiory Launches


Posted by: Cybrludite at January 19, 2005 02:35 PM

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