Have you ever played the Civilization game series, created by designer Sid Meier? Over the years, a lot has changed, but one of the unchanging distinguishing features of the series was the technology tree. Why was it a stable element in this game? Because it allows you, at a single glance, to gain a comprehensive view of the technological capabilities needed to advance your bold civilizational goals.
Compare this with our real civilization. If we wanted to, we could probably map out the many pathways of technological capabilities that got us where we are today. After all, our current tech suite is what the civilization technology tree was designed after. What if we could build a future-facing technology tree, starting now? The reality is arguably more complex than a computer game. So, instead of mapping civilization in general, maybe we can start with and map individual areas of technology, one by one. Within technology domains, one can break down the domain’s main goals into the future capabilities required to get there and work iteratively backwards to the current set of capabilities.
Even if it was possible, what’s the point? The point is that, apart from being an intellectually interesting endeavor, it may greatly speed up progress. Imagine you are a funder, talented postdoc, entrepreneur in residence, or advocacy leader looking to advance your chosen technology field. At the moment, it is very difficult to know how to connect. Even after graduating in this field, absorbing a lot of the literature in the field, and relying on interviews and online courses, it is not very easy to figure out how to connect the dots in an area in the way that would advance the field. There is a lot of information out there, but without a scaffold to set the context and dependencies of the various opportunities, one can only guess that the person you are zooming in on is actually the critical bottleneck in the field rather than the irrelevant details that stand to be resolved by approaching upstream technological innovation from that region.
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A dynamic overview of the field makes it easy to coordinate efforts, find and fund areas of least value, and determine how they together unlock new potential and applications.
Technology trees: reality
So far good in theory. Can this work in practice? At the Foresight Institute, we’re trying to find out. Forsight operates five technical programs:
Decentralized computing, focused on secure collaboration, is headed by Mark S Miller, chief scientist at Agoric.
Molecular Machines, focused on atomic precision, headed by Ben Reinhardt, PARPA.
Biotechnology and Health Extension, focused on regeneration, sponsored by 100 Plus Capital.
Neurotech, focused on brain-computer interfaces and whole-brain simulation, is headed up by Randall Quinn, CarbonCopies.
Spacetech, which focuses on space exploration technology, is headed by Creon-Levitt, Planet Labs.
These programs come with expert groups of nearly 200 scientists, entrepreneurs, and financiers for each group collaborating to advance long-term progress, supported by workshops, fellowships, and awards. To face the problem of accommodating the growing number of new enthusiasts coming into these areas, in early 2022 we decided to create technical trees to map each area.
Led by interviews of domain experts, this pioneering team is now building technology trees for each domain, starting with the latest technology, mapping each to long-term goals with conditional nodes, one branch at a time. At the end of the first quarter, we completed the prototyping of the technical tree.
Rather than getting caught up in the armchair philosophy, our technology tree engineers develop technical trees through discussions with domain experts working on each node. The feedback cycles will result in iterations of the tree until we have a clear picture of the field. Once version 1 is complete, we will open the trees to crowd sourcing.
Each node will be clickable, allowing people to zoom in on any given node to see related companies, advocacy groups, labs, and independent projects. Others will want to know about open challenges that need to be stimulated through funding. Researchers can present challenges to make progress in their field. We can identify rewards and prizes in bottlenecks to stimulate progress.