Idea Machines is a deep dive into the systems and people that bring innovations from glimmers in someone's eye all the way to tools, processes, and ideas that can shift paradigms.
We see the outputs of innovation systems everywhere but rarely dig into how they work. Idea Machines digs below the surface into crucial but often unspoken questions to explore themes of how we enable innovations today and how we could do it better tomorrow.
Idea Machines is hosted by Benjamin Reinhardt.
Scientific Irrationality with Michael Strevens
Professor Michael Strevens discusses the line between scientific knowledge and everything else, the contrast between what scientists as people do and the formalized process of science, why Kuhn and Popper are both right and both wrong, and more.
Michael is a professor of Philosophy at New York University where he studies the philosophy of science and the philosophical implications of cognitive science. He’s the author of the outstanding book “The Knowledge Machine” which is the focus of most of our conversation.
Two ideas from the book that we touch on:
1. “The iron rule of science”.
The iron rule states that “`[The Iron Rule] directs scientists to resolve their differences of opinion by conducting empirical tests rather than by shouting or fighting or philosophizing or moralizing or marrying or calling on a higher power` in the book Michael Makes a strong argument that scientists following the iron rule is what makes science work.
2. “The Tychonic principle.”
Named after the astronomer Tycho Brahe who was one of the first to realize that very sensitive measurements can unlock new knowledge about the world, this is the idea that the secrets of the universe lie in minute details that can discriminate between two competing theories. The classic example here is the amount of change in star positions during an eclipse dictated whether Einstein or Newton was more correct about the nature of gravity.
Michael’s Website The Knowledge Machine on BetterWorldBooks Michael Strevens talks about The Knowledge Machine on The Night Science Podcast Michael Strevens talks about The Knowledge Machine on The Jim Rutt Show
In this conversation. Uh, Professor Michael And I talk about the line between scientific knowledge and everything else. The contrast between what scientists as people do and the formalized process of science, why Coon and popper are both right, and both wrong and more. Michael is a professor of philosophy at New York university, where he studies the philosophy of science and the philosophical implications [00:01:35] of cognitive science.
He's the author of the outstanding book, the knowledge machine, which is the focus of most of our conversation. A quick warning. This is a very Tyler Cowen ESCA episode. In other words, that's the conversation I wanted to have with Michael? Not necessarily the one that you want to hear. That being said I want to briefly introduce two ideas from the book, which we focus on pretty heavily.
First it's what Michael calls the iron rule of science. Direct quote from the book dine rule states that the iron rule direct scientists to resolve their differences of opinion by conducting empirical tests, rather than by shouting or fighting or philosophizing or moralizing or marrying or calling on a higher power.
In the book, Michael makes a strong argument that scientist's following the iron rule is what makes science work. The other idea from the book is what Michael calls the Taconic principle. Named after the astronomer Tycho Brahe, who is one of the first to realize that very sensitive measurements can unlock new [00:02:35] knowledge about the world.
This is the idea that the secrets of the universe that lie into my new details that can discriminate between two competing theories. The classic example, here is the amount of change in a Star's position during an eclipse dictating whether Einstein or Newton was more correct about the nature of gravity.
So with that background, here's my conversation with professor Michael strengthens.
[00:02:58] Ben: Where did this idea of the, this, the sort of conceptual framework that you came up with come from?
Like, what's like almost the story behind the story here.
[00:03:10] Michael: Well, there is an interesting origin story, or at least it's interesting in a, in a nerdy kind of way. So it was interested in an actually teaching the, like what philosophers call that logic of co
Distributing Innovation with The VitaDAO Core Team
A conversation with the VitaDAO core team. VitaDAO is a decentralized autonomous organization — or DAO — that focuses on enabling and funding longevity research.
The sketch of how a DAO works is that people buy voting tokens that live on top of the Etherium blockchain and then use those tokens to vote on various action proposals for VitaDAO to take. This voting-based system contrasts with the more traditional model of a company that is a creation of law or contact, raises capital by selling equity or acquiring debt, and is run by an executive team who are responsible to a board of directors.
Since technically nobody runs VitaDAO the way a CEO runs a company, I wanted to try to embrace the distributed nature and talk to many of the core team at once. This was definitely an experiment!
The members of the core team in the conversation in no particular order:
Tyler Golato Paul Kohlhaas Vincent Weisser Tim Peterson Niklas Rindtorff Laurence Ion Links
VitaDAO Home Page An explanation of what a DAO is Molecule Automated Transcript
In This conversation. I talked to a big chunk of the VitaDAO core team. VitaDAO is a decentralized autonomous organization or Dao that focuses on enabling and funding. Longevity research. We get into the details in the podcast, but a sketch of how a DAO works is that people buy voting tokens that live on top of the Ethereum blockchain.
And then they use those tokens to vote on [00:01:35] various action proposals for me to doubt to take. This voting based system contrasts with more traditional models of the company. That is a creation of law or contract raises capital by selling equity or acquiring debt, and is run by an executive team who are responsible to a board of directors.
Since technically, nobody runs for you to doubt the way it CEO runs the company. I wanted to try to embrace the distributed nature and talk to many of the core team at once. This was definitely experiment. Uh, I think it's your day. Well, Oh, well, but I realize it can be hard to tell voices apart on a podcast.
So I'll put a link to a video version. In the show notes. So without further ado, here's my conversation with Vita Dao.
What I want to do so that listeners can put a voice to a name is I want to go around everybody say your name and then you say how you would pronounce the word VI T a D a O. Tim, would you say your name and then, and then pronounce the word that [00:02:35] that's kind of how I've done it.
Yeah. And so I'm the longevity steward we can help kind of figure out deal flow on, edited out, so. Awesome. All right, Tyler, you're next on. It is definitively Vieta Dell. Yeah. And I also help out with the longevity steward group. I started starting longevity group and I'm the chief scientific officer and co-founder at molecule as well.
And then Nicholas you're next on my screen. It's definitely beats it out. And I'm also a member of the longevity working group in this science communication group and also currently initiating and laptop. Great. And then Vinson. Yeah. So it's the same pronunciation weeded out, but I'm helping on the side and also on kind of like special projects, like this incline where that I took around, we had recently and yeah, in Lawrence.
Lauren Sajjan Vieta thou. And I [00:03:35] also steward the deal flow group within the longevity working group. And I think we should all now say as a hive mind, Paul Paul has said at the same time, oh, sorry. I'm going to say bye to dad.
Mess with her in yeah. Hi everyone. My name is Paul cohost. I would say, be to down. I actually wonder what demographics says, Vida, like RESA. We should actually look into that. It's interest, interesting community metric. I'm the CEO and co-founder of molecule and one of the co-authors of the VW.
I also work very deeply on the economic side and then essentially help finalize deal structures. So essentially the funding deals that we've been carry through into molecule an
The Nature of Technology with Brain Arthur
Dr. Brian Arthur and I talk about how technology can be modeled as a modular and evolving system, combinatorial evolution more broadly and dig into some fascinating technological case studies that informed his book The Nature of Technology.
Brian is a researcher and author who is perhaps best known for his work on complexity economics, but I wanted to talk to him because of the fascinating work he’s done building out theories of technology. As we discuss, there’s been a lot of theorizing around science — with the works of Popper, Kuhn and others. But there’s been less rigorous work on how technology works despite its effects on our lives.
Brian currently works at PARC (formerly Xerox PARC, the birthplace of personal computing) and has also worked at the Santa Fe institute and was a professor Stanford university before that.
W. Brian Arthur’s Wikipedia Page
The Nature of Technology on Amazon
W. Brian Arthur’s homepage at the Santa Fe Institute
In this conversation, Dr. Brian Arthur. And I talk about how technology can be modeled as modular and evolving system. Commentorial evolution more broadly, and we dig into some fascinating technological hae studies that informed your book, his book, the nature of tech. Brian is a researcher and author who is perhaps best known for his work on complexity economics.
Uh, but I wanted to talk to him [00:01:00] because of the fascinating work he's done, building out theories of technology. Uh, as we discussed in the podcast, there's been a lot of theorizing around science, you know, with the works of popper and Kuhn and other. But there's has been much less rigorous work on how technology works despite its effect on our lives.
As some background, Brian currently works at park formerly Xerox park, the birthplace of the personal computer, and has also worked at the Santa Fe Institute and was a professor at Stanford university before that. Uh, so without further ado, here's my conversation with Brian Arthur.
Mo far less interested in technology. So if anybody asks me about technology immediately search. Sure. But so the background to this is that mostly I'm known for a new framework and economic theory, which is called complexity economics. I'm not the [00:02:00] only developer of that, but certainly one of the fathers, well, grandfather, one of the fathers, definitely.
I was thinking one of the co-conspirators I think every new scientific theory like starts off as a little bit of a conspiracy. Yes, yes, absolutely. Yeah. This is no exception anyways. So that's what I've been doing. I'm I've think I've produced enough papers and books on that. And I would, so I've been in South Africa lately for many months since last year got back about a month ago and I'm now I was, as these things work in life, I think there's arcs, you know, you're getting interested in something, you work it out or whatever it would be.
Businesses, you [00:03:00] start children, there's a kind of arc and, and thing. And you work all that out. And very often that reaches some completion. So most of the things I've been doing, we've reached a completion. I thought maybe it's because I getting ancient, but I don't think so. I think it was that I just kept working at these things.
And for some reason, technologies coming back up to think about it in 2009, when this book came out, I stopped thinking about technology people, norm they think, oh yeah, you wrote this book. You must be incredibly interested. Yeah. But it doesn't mean I want to spend the rest of your life. Just thinking about the site, start writing this story, like writing Harry Potter, you know, it doesn't mean to do that forever.
Wait, like writing the book is like the whole [00:04:00] point of writing the book. So you can stop thinking about it. Right? Like you get it out of your head into the book. Yeah, you're done. So, okay. So this is very much Silicon valley and I left academia
Philosophy of Progress with Jason Crawford
In this Conversation, Jason Crawford and I talk about starting a nonprofit organization, changing conceptions of progress, why 26 years after WWII may have been what happened in 1971, and more.
Jason is the proprietor of Roots of Progress a blog and educational hub that has recently become a full-fledged nonprofit devoted to the philosophy of progress. Jason’s a returning guest to the podcast — we first spoke in 2019 relatively soon after he went full time on the project . I thought it would be interesting to do an update now that roots of progress is entering a new stage of its evolution.
Roots of Progress
So what was the impetus to switch from sort of being an independent researcher to like actually starting a nonprofit I'm really interested in. Yeah. The basic thing was understanding or getting a sense of the level of support that was actually out there for what I was doing.
In brief people wanted to give me money and and one, the best way to receive and manage funds is to have a national nonprofit organization. And I realized there was actually enough support to support more than just myself, which had been doing, you know, as an independent researcher for a year or two.
But there was actually enough to have some help around me to basically just make me more effective and, and further the mission. So I've already been able to hire research [00:02:00] assistants. Very soon I'm going to be putting out a a wanted ad for a chief of staff or you know, sort of an everything assistant to help with all sorts of operations and project management and things.
And so having these folks around me is going to just help me do a lot more and it's going to let me sort of delegate everything that I can possibly delegate and focus on the things that only I can do, which is mostly research and writing. Nice and sort of, it seems like it would be possible to take money and hire people and do all that without forming a nonprofit.
So what what's sort of like in your mind that the thing that makes it worth it. Well, for one thing, it's a lot easier to receive money when you have a, an organization that is designated as a 5 0 1 C three tax status in the United States, that is a status that makes deductions that makes donations tax deductible.
Whereas other donations to other types of nonprofits are not I had had issues in the past. One organization would want to [00:03:00] give me a grant as an independent researcher, but they didn't want to give it to an individual. They wanted it to go through a 5 0 1 C3. So then I had to get a new.
Organization to sort of like receive the donation for me and then turn around and re grant it to me. And that was just, you know, complicated overhead. Some organizations didn't want to do that all the time. So it was, it was just much simpler to keep doing this if I had my own organization. And do you have sort of a broad vision for the organization?
Absolutely. Yes. And it, I mean, it is essentially the same as the vision for my work, which I recently articulated in an essay on richer progress.org. We need a new philosophy of progress for the 21st century and establishing such a philosophy is, is my personal mission. And is the mission. Of the organization to just very briefly frame this in the I, the 19th century had a very sort of strong and positive, you know, pro progress vision of, of what progress was and what it could do for humanity and in the [00:04:00] 20th century.
That optimism faded into skepticism and fear and distrust. And I think there are ways in which the 19th century philosophy of progress was perhaps naively optimistic. I don't think we should go back to that at all, but I think we need a, we need to rescue the idea of progress itself. Which the 20th century sort of fell out of love with, and we need to find ways to acknowledge and address the very real problems and risks of progress while not losing our fundamental optimism and con
Fusion, Planning, Programs, and Politics with Stephen Dean
In this conversation, Dr. Stephen Dean talks about how he created the 1976 US fusion program plan, how it played out and the history of fusion power in the US, technology program planning and management more broadly, and more.
Stephen has been working on making fusion energy a reality for more than five decades. He did research on controlled fusion reactions in the 60s and in the 70s became a director at the Atomic energy commission which then became the Energy Research and Development Administration which *then* became the department of energy. In 1979 he left government to form the consultancy Fusion Power associates, where he still works.
In 1976, he led the preparation of a report called “Fusion power by magnetic confinement” that laid out a roadmap of the work that would need to be done to turn fusion from a science experiment into a functional energy source.
Fusion Power by Magnetic Confinement Executive Summary Volume 1 Volume 2 Volume 3 Volume 4 Fusion Power Associates The notorious fusion never plot Adam Marblestone on technological roadmapping My hypotheses on program design (which were challenged by this conversation!) Fusion Energy Base (a good website on fusion broadly) ITER Transcript
(Machine generated, so please excuse errors)
In this conversation, Dr. Steven Dean, and I talk about how he created the 1976 S fusion program plan, how it played out in the history of fusion power in the U S technology program, planning and management more broadly, and even more things. Steven has been working on making fusion energy a reality for more than five decades.
He did research on control, fusion reactions in the 1960s and seventies, he became a director [00:01:00] at the atomic energy commission, which then became the energy research and development of administration, which then became the department of energy in 1979. He left government to form the consultancy fusion, power associates, where you still want.
In 1976, he led the preparation of a report called fusion power by magnetic confinement that laid out a roadmap of the work that needed would need to be done to turn fusion from a science experiment, into a functional energy source. And if I can sort of riff about this for a minute, the thing is. Unlike what I sort of see as modern roadmaps, it lays out not just the sort of like plan of record to getting fusion, to be a real energy source, but lays out all the different possible scenarios in terms of funding, in terms of new technology that we can't even think of being created and lays everything.
Yeah. In a way that you can actually sort of make decisions off of it. [00:02:00] And I think one of the most impressive things is that it has several different what it calls logics of funding, which is like different, different funding levels and different funding curves. And it actually, unfortunately, accurately predicts that if you fund fusion below a certain level, even if you're funding it continually you'll never get to.
An actual useful fusion source because you'll never have enough money to build these, these demonstrator missions. And so in a way it's sort of predicts the future. This, this document is super impressive. If you haven't seen it you should absolutely check it out there. There are links in the show notes and it's sort of, one of the reasons I wanted to talk to Dr.
Dean is because this, this document. Is one of the pieces of evidence behind my hypothesis. That to some extent, program design and program management for advanced technologies is a bit of a lost art. And so I wanted to learn more about how he thought about it and built [00:03:00] it. So without further ado, here's my conversation with Steven Dean.
To start off, what was the context of creating the fusion plan? Well, I guess I would have to say that it started a few years earlier in a sense that in 1972 the I was in the fusion office and in the atomic energy commission and the office of men
Policy, TFP, and airshiPs with Eli Dourado
Eli Dourado on how the sausage of technology policy is made, the relationship between total factor productivity and technological progress, airships, and more.
Eli is an economist, regulatory hacker, and a senior research fellow at the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University. In the past, he was the head of global policy at Boom Supersonic where he navigated the thicket of regulations on supersonic flight. Before that, he directed the technology policy program at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University..
Eli on Twitter
In this conversation, Eli Durado. And I talk about how the sausage of technology policy has made the relationship between total factor productivity and technological progress, airships, and more Eli is an economist regulatory, hacker, and senior research fellow at the center for growth and opportunity at Utah state university.
In the past, he was the head of global policy at boom supersonic, [00:01:00] where he navigated the thicket of regulations on superstar. Before that he directed the technology policy program at the Mercatus center at George Mason university. I wanted to talk to Eli because it feels like there's a gap between the people who understand how technology works and the people who understand how the government works.
And Isla is one of those rare folks who understands both. So without further ado my conversation with Eli Dorado.
So just jump directly into it. When you were on a policy team, what do you actually do? Well that depends on which policy team you're on. Right. So, so in my career you mean, do you mean the, in sort of like the, the public policy or like the research center think tanks kind of space or in, in, in a company because I've done both.
Yeah, exactly. Oh, I didn't even realize that you do like that. It's like different things. So so like, I guess, like, let's start with [00:02:00] Boom. You're you're on a policy team at a technology company and. Yeah. Yeah. So when I, when I started at boom so we had a problem. Right. Which was like, we needed to know what landing and takeoff noise standard we could design too.
Right. Like, so, so we needed to know like how loud the airplane could be. And how, how quiet it had to be. Right. And, and as a big trade off on, on aircraft performance depending on that. And so when I joined up with boom, like FAA had a, what's called a policy statement. Right. Which is, you know, some degree of binding, but not really right.
Like that they had published back in 2008 that said, you know, we don't have standards for supersonic airplanes, but you know, like when we do create them they, you know, they're during the subsonic portion of flight, we anticipate the subsidy Arctic standards. Right. So, so for, [00:03:00] for, for landing and takeoff, which is like the big thing that we are concerned about, like that's all subsonic.
So we, you know, so that sort of the FAA is like going in position was like, well, the subsonic standards apply to, to boom. And so I kind of like joined up in early 2017 and sort of my job was like, let's figure out a way for that, not to be the case. Right. And so it was, it was basically, you know, look at all the different look at the space of actors and try to figure out a way for that, not to be true.
And so, and so that's like kind of what I did. I started, you know, started talking with Congress with FAA. I started figuring out what levers we could push, what, what what angles we could Work work with to ensure that that, that we have we've got to a different place, different answer in the end.
And, and so the, like, so basically it's just like this completely bespoke process of [00:04:00] totally like, even trying to figure out like what the constraints you're under are. Exactly. Right. So, so yeah, so it was, there's like a bunch of different, different aspects of that question, right? So there will you know, there's, there
Consistently compelling content!
A new favorite in my feed! It’s obvious that Ben puts extraordinary effort into finding guests that are authentic and truly care about being a positive force in this world. No matter the episode, you’re guaranteed to walk away with a handful of golden nuggets - can’t recommend Idea Machines enough 🙌
So excited for more!
Really sharp podcast -- I replaced a depressing politics podcast to make room for this inspiring one
Excellent - lead edge tech with people you can’t find in any other forum.