a black swan energy prize

post by Joris · 2019-03-28T23:34:59.762Z · score: 0 (6 votes) · EA · GW · 9 comments


  The quest for new sources of energy
  Reassessing tractability
  A prize

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".


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.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by cole_haus · 2019-03-30T04:25:57.222Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

It looks like the case you're making in the "a prize" section is that prizes are more open to "outsiders" than grants which seems generally plausible to me. On the other hand, grants can actually fund the research itself while contestants for a prize need some source of funding. If it's capital-intensive to mount a serious attempt at the prize, this creates a funding and vetting problem again (contestants will need money to bankroll their attempt).

comment by Joris · 2019-04-02T13:00:37.274Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

This is a good point, that is often made. There are several aspects to this :

1. a Prize in this space is seen as a complementary instrument to direct funding, not replacing it.

2. Prizes are known to have leveraged money flowing into the field. The Ansari XPrize was 10 mln$, but inspired 100mln$ collective funding into the companies vying for the prize. Similarly we'd expect the existence of a Prize to galvanise momentum for exotic energy research.

3. The Prize design will select for relatively low-complexity solutions. E.g. it's unlikely that Tri-Alpha, a 500mln$ fusion startup, will participate in this Prize. Instead, it is geared towards the smaller, much more accessible lab setups all the way down to individuals in their garage. This maximises the chances that *if* something is found, it is likely to start low on the cost-curve and hence be useful to society.

4. There is also a possibility that the winning technology is already (almost) out there, and really just needs a small nudge to meet the Prize criteria.

comment by cole_haus · 2019-03-30T04:25:32.132Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

I'm not convinced that a prize is particularly helpful in this case. I think of prizes as useful for inducing investment in things like public goods where private returns are limited. That doesn't seem to be the case here; successfully creating "radically better energy generation" seems like it would be wildly remunerative. The promise of vast wealth seems like it ought to be sufficient incentive regardless of a prize.

OTOH, that's all very first-principles and the history of innovation prizes doesn't seem to really pay much attention to this line of criticism. Maybe prizes make particular problems more salient, etc.

comment by Joris · 2019-04-02T13:44:56.431Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Another good point, though the relative neglectedness of the field suggests we could use the help of a Prize to "awaken possibility" with potential innovators and investors. Challenging them to think about (and act on) ideas that they've never allowed themselves to further develop.

Paradoxically, vast wealth can also be an inhibitor for sharing one's progress once attained. Especially when innovators come from unusual backgrounds, discussions with possible investors may never be successful due to a lack of trust and/or an overwhelming difficulty of "putting a price" on an invention. There are precedents of this ; some potentially valuable inventions have never made it beyond the lab of the original inventor for such reasons.

Perhaps the true value of the Prize, however, is scientific recognition. There are several inventors / startups today who struggle to find investors despite promising technological advances. If any of those were able to win the prize, which implies thorough scientific scrutiny, then raising subsequent capital would become much easier. (A sizeable cash amount would still be needed to give the Prize sufficient standing).

It is also possible that the winning technology is not (yet) sufficiently commercially interesting for private investment, but sufficiently convincing to warrant a major international research effort.

Finally, a Prize is also about simply trying something new. If clean energy is one of our greatest challenges, then formally asking the question whether anyone has some potentially important technology would seem to be a rational thing to do.

comment by agdfoster · 2019-03-29T14:02:42.516Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

I drafted but didn’t publish a post yesterday titled “where are all the ideas?”. Really glad to see a contribution of this type.

comment by Joris · 2019-04-02T12:11:02.155Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Thank you, I wasn't sure whether posting something relatively specific, as opposed to the more meta-discussions, would be appreciated on this forum. It's good to see some discussion around the subject.

comment by alexrjl · 2019-03-29T19:50:25.089Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

The idea of a prize for a spectacular breakthrough in the area of energy seems promising but I remain unconvinced that cold fusion, however repackaged, is the basket to put our eggs in here.

Cheap, high-capacity batteries which could be recharged arbitrarily many times could have as transformative an effect on our energy production and consumption as anew fuel source, by allowing a 100% renewable grid to be feasible, as well as making electric vehicles far more attractive. A breakthrough in high-temperature superconductivity could be similarly transformative.

I think sometimes it's too easy to get caught up in the excitement of finding a highly neglected idea, and in doing so miss the fact that it may be highly neglected for extremely good reasons.

comment by Joris · 2019-04-02T12:46:18.068Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

This a good illustration of why a prize in this space might add value.

The majority of people "remain unconvinced" about cold fusion and other forms of breakthrough energy, and they are statistically more likely to be right than wrong. The crux is to understand whether that makes the search for new energy "highly neglected for extremely good reasons". How high would the probability of success need to be in order for that search to be worthwhile ? One-in-a-thousand, one-in-a-hundred, one-in-ten ?

A prize, in particular, is for the unconvinced. Would it not be reasonable for society to commit 5 mln$ (+ a success fee) for a 10% chance to find a new energy source ?

Energy storage technology is indeed also of interest, though of a different order than finding completely new energy sources. Moreover, the area of battery research is much less neglected, with billions flowing into the field every year.