Friday, November 05, 2004

Miss Cleo Beams Up

I have this great idea. If you’ve ever watched Star Trek (the later ones), you’d notice that they have these things called “replicators.” They’re machines about the size of refrigerators that can make anything you want; all you have to do is ask. Want a cheese sandwich, a semiautomatic rifle, late-nineteenth century period clothing or a ten-foot steel beam with 7-degree curve? Just tell the replicator to make you one and it transforms energy into whatever matter form you wish. I could sell each one for millions.

Granted, I’m no “physicist,” but I don’t see why this can’t happen. Energy turns into matter everyday. So I’m offering you, the reader, a unique opportunity—invest in this technology and I promise you that you’re never have to worry about money for the rest of your life. Any takers?


Well, too bad the Pentagon isn’t reading this; I could retire by now. USA Today reported in their latest paper that the Air Force already tried investing in another Trek technology: transporters. You read that right: transporters. Wait, it gets better because they’re not just any transporters; they’re psychic transporters. Star Trek doesn’t even have these. According to a report the Air Force paid $25,000 for,
This study was tasked with the task of collection information describing the teleportation of material objects, providing a description of teleportation as it occurs in physics, its theoretical and experimental status, and a projection of potential applications…Contemporary physics, as well as theories that presently challenge the current physics paradigm were investigated.

Thank God they didn’t limit themselves to science; it would have stopped them from referencing UFO sightings and Soviet and Chinese studies of the paranormal. (Not a joke.)

Now I’m all for pushing the boundaries of our knowledge. Challenging the established and accepted norm is at the heart of the dynamic world libertarians revel in. I wouldn’t even mind some scientist claiming he can turn lead into gold or overcome the laws of gravity through sheer force of thought; I just don’t want to pay for it.

The bedrock of a dynamic society is creative destruction. Lots of people try to pull off something. The winners get piles of cash; the losers go into debt and are forced to stop their work. We get more of the winning idea and less of the ones that don’t work. It’s a messy process, full of trial and error, but it works. So when an organization takes people’s money by force and gives it to some crackpot idea, it ruins the whole process of creative destruction. A spokesman for the Air Force Research Lab—Ranney Adams—justified the spending saying, “If we don’t turn over stones, we don’t know if we have missed something.” It’s that kind of stupid, all or nothing logic that’s so popular when turning over a stone costs nothing. Adams would look for an aircraft carrier under a million separate pebbles, “just to be sure.”

So call me crazy, but I think the funding is better off in hands of the people who have a vested interest in making it work. Time and money are scare resources—it doesn’t make sense to turn over every rock, to explore each idea thoroughly. That’s not what creative destruction is about. Scientific progress goes through many stages: idea to theory to proof to more proofs to planning to building to rebuilding to testing to rebuilding to adjusting to more planning to more testing… Knowing when to give up and try another avenue requires a great deal of tacit and local knowledge. Every successful investor of technology has to know a lot about the research in question. Every successful scientist has to be brutally honest and open with themselves in order to get funding. Governments are neither.

If the Air Force really wants transporters, try holding a prize, Ansari X-Prize style. You want a faster way to deploy and reploy troops? Try offering the $7.5 million the report recommends for “psychic transportation” as prize money instead. Sure, you won’t be beaming any where but at least the new technology will actually work.

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