AlphaGo Zero shows that corporate R&D has starved basic research in favor of safe bets and tinkering at the margins


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But, but, but I thought that Capitalism Unleashed would bring about the ideal engine by which to usher in a new era of scientific progress and innovation!? /sarcasm


So much for exciting new alloys and high-speed passenger rail from the private sector. On the positive side we won’t be subject to 50-page radio addresses by pissy tycoons broadcast from the middle of nowhere.


While I agree that we aren’t living in the golden age of corporate research anymore where IBM, Xerox, and AT&T invested millions upon millions of dollars into basic research, and that modern CEOs are far too focused on short-term profits to think about what will yield products in future decades, this is a really weird example to focus on. The transition of AI research from making grandiose systems that supposedly would “comprehend” things (but never did) to machine learning techniques which actually work is in no way a bad thing. If anything, it was too bad it didn’t happen earlier – symbolic AI attempts were a dead end.


Agreed. You can’t produce “comprehension” unless you know how to build it out of something that isn’t comprehension, that isn’t mysterious. You have to build it from math.


I am probably rather disproportionately angry at this whole take, but:

  • Everything is cyclic. There will be times of greater and lesser investment in R&D, by mathematical necessity.

  • Everything is cyclic. At some points you focus on basic research, at other points on practical application of that research.

  • We have more new infant technology than we know what to do about (drones, autonomous cars, smart grids, blockchain etc. etc.) And plenty of bellyaching about the horrors of this inhuman, inexorable progress. A lot of it right here.

  • It’s not your money. If you want more basic, open-ended research, why don’t you finance it?


Back then there was also an understanding between monopolistic companies like IBM and AT&T and the government that as long as they kept up basic research that benefited society they would avoid scrutiny by anti-trust laws.


Because the best means by which we have for doing so–government grants–are being diverted into Trump’s accounts in Russia.


emphasis added


I believe one term for this situation is Stagnation.


I don’t mind government grants and innovation prizes, but this is still fundamentally people spending nothing of their own complaining about other entities and individuals not spending enough. How about you donate some money to MIRI or malaria research?

And that list doesn’t even have Ethereum, VR, 3D printing, cloud applications and reusable rockets on it. Quite some stagnation.


Outside of Uber and possibly Kickstarter, I would not notice if precisely all of the items on that list were to disappear tomorrow.


I think that’s a distraction from the conversation that’s being had. Obviously the current system is set up in a way that corporations get to allocate their budget as they see fit. The question for us as citizens who (in theory, at least) govern ourselves, is whether that current setup is really benefiting. I have no right to tell a corporation how to spend their budget, I have every right to support a new legal framework where there are no corporate budget to spend.


I think the Soviets tried that, with mostly disappointing results outside of narrow military applications.


Agreed. There is a role for government sponsorship of basic research. Once something moves into the production phase though, the business model needs to survive on its own merits, subsidy free.


And comfortable dachas for those in charge.


Not even that. The “luxury” for the apparatchiks was pretty dismal by capitalist standards.


I think the US has been trying the let-the-rich-decide-how-to-spend-their-money with mostly disappointing results for decades now. This Business Insider story about how America has achieved nearly 0% median wage growth over an 18 year period begins with the line, “The Middle Class is booming.”


The US approach is hardly ideal either, but: As long as we are talking research and innovation, it beats the state-run model 100:0; and: There are other countries on this planet which have not nationalized all their economy and yet manage to deliver quite reasonable and broadly shared economic results to their citizens.


My point is that your counter of “why don’t you spend money on basic research” isn’t really so much of a counter of the point being made but a point in support of it. The current system is one in which basic research is being eschewed in favour of marginal optimizations. If I’m also not directing my money to basic research then that just further shows the system doesn’t support basic research.

I think as an actor in this society it makes far more sense for me to use my political influence to seek a solution to than my economic influence, since (again, in theory) politically I am equal to everyone else in the population, but economically, as a non-billionaire, I’m far more of a bit player.

My ideas being terrible ones that should never be implemented is all the more reason why we need proper democratic controls of corporations rather than focusing on my ability to spend my money as a way of expressing my will (by donating to basic research myself). If I was a billionaire who could exert outsized influence to get my ideas implemented, that would be a real mess.