Sunday, January 05, 2020

The T Prize

Someone in Washington DC asked me how the government's R&D agenda could re-invigorate the US wireless manufacturing sector.

While the stated goal is reinvigorating the manufacturing of cellular equipment, I imagine the political imperative is creating well-paying jobs for poorly educated white men in the Midwest. I know hardly anything about the former, and nothing about the latter – but here's an opinion anyway.

If one isn’t to fight the last war, “manufacturing” can’t mean just metal-bashing. Sure, it’s assembling atoms, but the real value added comes from knowledge – which increasing comes packaged in bits. Both bits and atoms* are just ways to turn ideas into objects. (In the 5G case one needs to add photons to the atoms; but to a physicist, they’re all just Standard Model quantum fields :-) The US’s comparative advantage, I think, is creating unconventional ideas, and turning them into objects that customers want.

Regarding education and jobs: the US perennially underperforms compared Asia in PISA scores, and there’s no prospect of improvement. The glass-half-full response would be to ask: What are we good at that PISA doesn’t measure? One possibility is risk-taking and persuasion; another is the Matthew Principle.

Combining those two leads me to a competition that awards humongous prizes for radical developments. Let’s call it the T Prize; something like X Prize meets DARPA Grand Challenge meets the Gates Foundation. (“T” stands for “Transformation” of course. No Big Egos here, oh no.) It would be awarded to start-ups that radically transform manufacturing and the value of people (not just machines) in the process, but only in cases where the market won't step in.

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