Venture Altruism

What if Oppenheimer and Fermi had made the plans for the atomic bomb available to everyone?

In the near term, there would have been public discussion over whether their idea could work or not, and then crowd-sourcing would have taken over (as much as it could in 1938-39), and the Atomic Age would have arrived a lot faster.  And possibly in Germany.

Or the Allies may have gotten the bomb faster and more publicly, and stopped the Axis much earlier.

Maybe it’s not quite as earth-shattering, but this month a billionaire decided to give the world his plans for a better train.

Not just a better train for the rich, but a $20-a-ride super-subway that will make its own power through solar.


The Hyperloop is Elon Musk’s idea for a “fifth mode of travel” from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 35 minutes, built at a fraction of the cost of the proposed high-rail line making the same trek.  While Americans are debating the specs he posted, it’s possible that China is building one between Shanghai and Nanjing. The Russians might consider one between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Maybe hajjis will ride the Medina – Mecca Hyperloop in a few years.  After all, the Saudis can handle the cost and the Chinese are fantastic about taking other people’s ideas (and sometimes refining them).

When a genius gives his IP to the world for free, those governments or corporations willing to invest in disruptive innovation will be able to accelerate past the poorer ones at a rate not seen since the Industrial Revolution.  They will also accelerate past the rich but timid ones.

American engineering was never just about refinement of others’ ideas: It was about proving that the old world could be left behind, that audacious marvels could become everyday conveniences by only embracing them and their inventors. – Joel Johnson on Gizmodo

In Accelerando, Charles Stross imagines a “venture altruist” named Manfred Macx.  Whenever Macx had a workable and useful idea, he’d upload it to the net (via the patent registry) immediately.  Individuals, governments, or corporations could implement it if they chose.  I’m stealing the term for geniuses like Musk who have ideas they feel could best be implemented by “the crowd” or which should be implemented by someone other than the Idea Guy.  California needs to own the Hyperloop; if Musk builds it for them it will have no value.

I suspect that we will see more of this Venture Altruism.  Musk’s X-Prize has been a model for crowd-sourcing innovation (including Spark), and “Idea Guys” (like Bill Gates, who currently keeps his work internal to his foundation and partners) are going to realize there are too many problems, too many good ideas, and not enough time.  It just makes sense to leverage the crowd to build, refine, implement, and own them.

Looks like Tin-Tin, thinks like Tesla
Looks like Tin-Tin, thinks like Tesla

What makes Elon Musk different?  He’s consistently had one foot in traditional development and one foot in open innovation.  His interests are broad, but he’s been willing and able to go deep, to put real money on real projects.

Like the best idealistic innovators, he’s all about proving that entrenched systems can be changed:  SpaceX has shown that commercial spaceflight can improve on launch costs over what NASA can provide through other contractorsTesla has the first top-rate electric car and has a shot of bringing the technology mainstream. PayPal is open in another tab as I write this, because I use it all the time.

Fortunately for us, his character sheet says “Philanthropist” rather than “Supervillain.” This is the guy the movie version of Tony Stark was based on, after all.  (And in a bit of life imitating art, Musk announced on August 26 that he’s built a gesture-based interface):

musk tweets

So yeah, we’re going to see more science peer-reviewed in public, more Big Ideas thrown to the crowd to implement, and more venture altruism.  Let’s just hope the supervillains continue to fail at innovation.



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