Follow-up on the Discussions about Knowledge for Knowledge’s Sake

I’ve been enjoying the discussion around Patek’s recent video argument for knowledge for knowledge’s sake in several forums. I thought I’d summarize my arguments here. To me it looks all pretty straightforward.

From a principled stance, as to funding research, it is the funder’s prerogative who to fund. Often, grant proposals (funding requests) exceed available funds, so the funder needs to rank-order the grant proposals and typically will fund those ranked highest until the funds are exhausted. A private funder may use whatever criteria they deem appropriate. Public funding, i.e. taxpayer money, is more tricky as this is typically the government agencies setting policies that somehow rank-order funding proposals for a particular fund. It seems rather obvious to me that taxpayer money should be spent on something that benefits society. Hence, a grant proposal must promise some of that benefit. How it does this, can vary. I see at least two dimensions along which to argue: Immediacy (or risk) and impact. Something that believably provides benefits sooner is preferable to something that provides benefits later. Something that believably promises a higher impact is preferable to something that provides lower impact.

Thus, research that promises to cure cancer today is preferable over research that explains why teenage girls prefer blue over pink on Mondays and are generally unapproachable that day. Which is not to say that the teenage girl question might not get funded: Funders and funding are broad and deep and for everything that public agencies won’t fund there is a private funder whose pet peeve would be solving that question.

The value of research is always relative, never absolute, and always to be viewed within a particular evaluation framework.

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The Downside of the “Knowledge for Knowledge’s Sake” Argument

On the PBS Newshour Duke University biologist Sheila Patek just made a passionate plea for “why knowledge for the pure sake of knowing is good enough to justify scientific research” using her own research into mantis shrimp as an example. While I support public funding for basic research, Patek makes a convoluted and ultimately harmful to her own case argument.

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An Alternative View of Funding for Innovation

My rant on what’s wrong with Industrie 4.0 argued that it focuses too narrowly on too incremental a domain.

The real tectonic change of the last 20-30 years in my opinion is the speed of innovation that software gives you over any other technology domain. Whatever the gadget or concept, if you can add software to it, you can speed up innovation by a major factor. The reason for this is that software can be modified and brought to market within seconds, rather than weeks or months. This is the result of the last ten years of development of “continuous delivery”.

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What’s wrong with Industrie 4.0?

Short answer

A lot. The overly narrow focus on a particular domain of innovation starves the support for innovation is other domains, making Germany lose out in those domains.

This has been bugging me for some time now.

Longer answer

Somehow German politics declared “Industrie 4.0” (industry 4.0) to be a major area of innovation for Germany. Focus, attention, and funding followed. Industrie 4.0 is supposed to be the next evolutionary step in industrial production based on the convergence of the various technology streams we are currently witnessing (software, biotech, hightech, what have you).

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Some Progress on Wikipedia Editing

Wikipedia has long been suffering from its rather raw “wiki markup” editing experience. The reason is that the underlying software is stuck in the mud and any progress is slow and painful. Right now there is some excitement over progress on the “visual editor” of Mediawiki. As you can see in the video below the look and feel is 2016, while the functionality is still 1999. How we will catch-up with Google Docs or Medium or any reasonable editing experience this way remains a mystery to me.

I want my computer to be as easy to use as my rice cooker

There is a (by now oldish) saying, attributed to Bjarne Stroustrup:

I have always wished for my computer to be as easy to use as my telephone; my wish has come true because I can no longer figure out how to use my telephone.

I used to riff on this with the following variant:

For the sake of my parents, I want their computer to be as easy to use as my rice cooker.

My wish now has come true, as the WSJ reports about the new Mi rice cooker (local copy), which is controlled by a mobile app and needs resetting using a small pin.

The Internet is Eating the Things

A lot of my industry talks emphasize the value of software over hardware because of the significantly higher speed of innovation. In a well run continuous software engineering (DevOps) organization, you can go from commit to production within seconds. Try that with hardware! The feedback you can gather from customers and the market is at least a power of ten faster in software than in hardware, creating a whole new layer of product innovation on top of existing hardware platforms.

I use the following slide to drive home the point, kind of abusing Marc Andreesen (though I bet he would like it), for this purpose.

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