Michael Frank Martin


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Michael Frank Martin's Shortform

Chaotic Progress

A book review in essay format I wrote to help nuance what I see as the unrealistic rhetoric on both sides of the political spectrum right now.


Making every researcher seek grants is a broken model

This is a brilliant article. My father used to work at IBM ARC back in the 1990s, and you're describing how things worked there, during a period in which numerous Nobels were earned working within a corporation.

The jack-of-all-trades approach to being a PI was also part of what drove me personally out of a Ph.D. program and into industry. I didn't want to be a solo entrepreneur constantly writing grants for peanuts. The most attractive jobs to me back then (early 2000s) seemed to be the government lab jobs that had no teaching responsibilities, and relatively less pressure to raise grant funding constantly.

We need to encourage more divisions of labor in the practice of scientific research.  This is a great diagnosis of some of the fundamental problems of our current system. Kudos, Jason!

I don't fault you for not mentioning it because it's definitely more speculative. But as a voiceover I would add to this pitch for block funding the observation that in many cases, getting a large enough group together seems to lead to a critical mass, whereby new ideas start to fission off of each other. I think we're seeing something like that now at the Flatiron institute, and probably because they're doing many of things you've prescribed.

Why Patents? The History and Evidence

Just found this tidbit in the biography of the first patent commissioner Henry Ellsworth:

"Acting as Patent Commissioner, Ellsworth made a decision that profoundly affected the future of Hartford and Connecticut. The young Samuel Colt was struggling to establish a firm to manufacture his new revolver. Ellsworth became interested in Colt's invention, and in 1836 made the decision to issue Colt U.S. Patent No. 138. On the basis of Ellsworth's decision, Colt was able to raise some $200,000 from investors to incorporate the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company of Paterson, New Jersey, the forerunner of the mighty Colt arms manufacturing empire."


+1 for the primacy of the role of patents as an institution for attracting capital that would otherwise be impossible to attract

Why Patents? The History and Evidence

We may have a legit disagreement about the role of patents in supporting the funding of at least certain types of R&D. The Bayh-Dole Act appears to have created a comparative advantage for universities and government labs in funding R&D. Is that the best model? There are reasonable arguments that it is not. But so long as universities and government labs have tech transfer offices, I'm dubious about curiosity driven R&D getting funded by for-profit corporations. Anyway the US market doesn't appear to support it the way it did before the 1980s. But if you believe startups are doing curiosity driven research, then we're talking about different things. For me, curiosity driven research is literally curiosity driven with no obvious expectation of commercial use. I don't believe patents are either necessary or sufficient to funding this kind of research, which is sometimes called basic science.

I was exaggerating the weight of the evidence of multiple inventions a little in arguing against the need for patents to support scientific discoveries, but not much. I note that even in responding to this point, you reach for the desire to "help[] companies attract financing or just providing more capital" as beneficial. But that's where we agree patents and licensing are socially beneficial. The question is whether they're necessary or beneficial to get to the point where attracting capital makes sense. I'm arguing no because the history of science and engineering demonstrates that fundamental breakthroughs are not predictable enough to be funded commercially. AT&T and IBM were able to do it because they were monopolies at a scale that hasn't been replicated since then.

So we agree that inventors invent because that's who they are. We both want to ensure we have inventors, and that they get compensated well enough to ensure we get the benefit of their work.

But who are these inventors? Are they scientists who we also want to teach and publish their discoveries? Are they engineers building the next great platform for human society to grow? If the former, why wouldn't government grants be sufficient? If the latter, why not venture capital? That seems like the right way to frame the potential disagreement here.

In the end, there just aren't many actual people who fit anywhere between these two archetypes. I actually have met a few of them, but they are exceptionally rare. And I don't know that we need to modify the institutions we have today to encourage more to follow in their footsteps. Maybe. But from where I sit today, I feel safer saying patents are best for society when used only as a mechanism for attracting capital to a venture capital startup or other for-profit corporation.

Why Patents? The History and Evidence

Wonderful summary of the history and analysis of the economic advantages and disadvantages to a patent system. I'm a patent lawyer who has been worrying about the question of whether patents promote progress for a couple of decades. https://www.symmetrybroken.com/whats-wrong-with-the-patent-system/

Lately, I've been partial to the model of progress articulated by North, Wallis, and Weingast (NWW) in Violence and Social Orders. https://www.symmetrybroken.com/what-the-patent-system-can-learn-from-violence-and-the-social-order/

Their observation is that a combination of free entry into political and economic competition has enabled adaptive efficiency, and hence promoted progress, in what they call open access societies.

Patents and corporations both began as royal prérogatives. The Venetian Patent Act is a historical anachronism, representing one of the first (if not the first) open access orders in human history. But it was circumscribed in geography (but not necessarily temporally!). NWW might say that Venetian patents opened access to Venetian markets for foreigners and non-elites who had improvements to the state of the art.

But more generally in view of NWW, I believe the question to ask is whether a given patent is necessary to formation of a corporation or not. Patents as a system of insurance (think third party debt collection for investors) is less appealing, although probably not as socially costly as critics of NPEs would have it. And note that some would distinguish between NPEs and PAEs (patent assertion entites) because universities, government labs, and others never intend to practice what they patent but also don't rely upon litigation and licensing as their primary source of revenue.

"As Simon Rifkind, the Co-Chairman of the 1967 United States President’s Commission on the Patent put it, 'the patent system is more essential to getting together the risk capital which it required to exploit and to develop and to apply the contributions of the genius inventor than to provide a stimulus for the actual mental contribution'"

Nothing has changed in over 50 years in this regard. The best reason to file a patent is because without one nobody reasonable is going to feel comfortable investing. But what fields remain in which this is true except for those in which regulatory approval is required before revenue?

"The question, then, is whether patents are associated (1) with more inventing activity overall, and (2) with more productive uses of the inventions once they are invented. In economic terms, we are more looking for evidence that patents facilitate capital formation and technology diffusion, both of which are well-studied and associated with economic growth."

The evidence for multiple inventions is devastating to the case that patents are required for (1).

NWW have the right framework for analyzing (2), which is directly relevant to the first part of the economic terms you identify. The second part (diffusion) is more subtle, but best understood (I believe) through comparisons to alternative institutions of open source licensing and trade secret torts. Patents look favorable relative to trade secrets in many cases, but not to open source licensing in most.

The overarching theme seems to be what do we need the get people to work together toward bringing some technical dream to market after it has been demonstrated as possible by scientists? In the case of drugs or medical therapy, there's no question that exclusive rights are required to attract capital. In the case of software, it's less clear, and the dead weight costs of the system look more dubious.

Thanks again for the wonderful summary of a complex and nuanced question.

Accelerating science through evolvable institutions

I agree with that. But having seen IBM ARC up close in person in the 1990s, my gut is that there is some critical mass of curiosity -- a threshold number of curious researchers all working in the same place -- that leads to a kind of magic you don't see when the same people are more distributed geographically.

Neither EA nor e/acc is what we need to build the future

Hadn't seen that. Too bad he's misrepresenting facts.

But that hints at what might be worth reevaluating in EA. Jung had this notion of individuation, in which we have to incorporate into our personality conflicting aspects of ourselves in order to fully realize our capabilities. EA seems very academic or analytical in its approach to promoting progress whereas e/acc is more political or emotional. I believe it will take both to realize a future in which progress is accelerated in a way that benefits even the most vulnerable members of society.

Accelerating science through evolvable institutions

I love the work you're doing. I believe there are dysfunctions in the way curiosity-driven academic research gets funded that have and will continue to have major implications for technological progress and economic development. I'm also sympathetic to the sketch of possible reforms. Increasing competition and closing feedback loops on the performance of funding decisions would likely produce tangible benefits.

What I'm wondering about more these days is how things work at the micro level. In my experience, there is a very clear and observable difference between the kinds of researchers who are driven by curiosity and the kinds of researchers who are driven by a desire to see their work have a tangible impact on the world during their lifetime. VC funding has done plenty for the latter. How can we encourage and help the former?

There is probably a baseline level of curiosity driven research that will happen no matter what we do. There always has been. Many of the people who do curiosity driven research do it despite having to make huge personal sacrifices. Mostly what we need to do for them is keep other people out of their way.

But people are people, and very few can live as hermits forever. I believe that in many cases, the curiosity driven research accelerates as the curiosity-driven researchers find a community of kindred spirits in which they can share their ideas freely. When fear of being scooped and losing funding is replaced by a infinite, positive-sum game of seeing who can come up with the coolest new theories or results, the work tends to accelerate and multiply in a combinatorial way.

Where are those physical environments today? Bell Labs had one. IBM ARC had one. I feel like the Flatiron Institute has one. Where else?

In the end, funding is only part of the answer here. 

Neither EA nor e/acc is what we need to build the future

I can understand why you say what you say about falsification. The way the e/acc community is operating right now is more crusade than critical. But I haven't seen the evidence for lack of integrity that you appear to have seen. Not saying it's not there; just I haven't seen it.

I wouldn't write off the people behind e/acc just yet, however. In the end, the scientific mindset may win out over the short term desire to score points and dunk on a competing vision that has been embarrassed in various ways.

If there were any part of e/acc that you might find worth incorporating into EA, what might it be?

Neither EA nor e/acc is what we need to build the future

There is an argument to be made that e/acc is the Jungian shadow to EA. 

There is a fundamental difference in principles between the two movements in that EA gradually and then suddenly fell into a paternalistic disregard (if not disdain) for the negative feedback that the market provides -- e.g., Helen Toner's belief that the dissolution of OpenAI was an acceptable alternative to resolving differences with the CEO. But with this exception, most of the principles espoused by EA (scientific mindset, openness to falsifying evidence, integrity, and teamwork) are shared by e/acc.

But EA started with philosophical principles and became a mass movement. e/acc more or less has begun as a mass movement, and is only gradually and haltingly identifying its principles.

Both EA and e/acc reflexively repress the valid differences they have in their approach to promoting progress. While e/acc is now on the ascendant and EA on the ropes, until e/acc or EA can integrate their shadow, both will fall short of their potential in activating human energy in service of progress. 

What would a fully integrated vision of progress look like? It would acknowledge the valid view of e/acc that markets generally provide the best mechanism for gathering and processing information about the needs of dispersed groups of individuals while at the same time acknowledging and grappling with the reality that there are some important needs that cannot be met by markets (either because the preconditions for market formation have not been or cannot be met).

But I would be very careful posting this sort of essay online right now. You are either for or against at the moment. Anybody trying to nuance things is likely to be sidelined.

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