What are the biggest "moonshots" currently in progress?
post by Liron
score: 15 (7 votes) ·
This is a question post.
10 Yoav Ravid
You know, "moonshot" projects like:
- SpaceX's plan to colonize Mars
- SpaceX's plan to give the whole world fast satellite internet
- Tesla's plan to transition the world to sustainable energy
- Boom making commercial supersonic flight a thing again
Let's make a list!
E.g. does anyone know if China has some huge construction projects that could qualify for this?
answer by Spiracular
· score: 6 (3 votes) · LW
It's not quite moonshots, but here's wikipedia's list of Megaprojects.
When it comes to more classic architectural infrastructure projects, I'd be shocked if China (and maybe Singapore) don't have several. But I also expect them to lean towards the incremental-progress-is-visible model where they can. Because when you can, having assessable incremental progress really is almost always the better choice?
Serious New Physics seems to be full of nightmare-to-fund megaprojects. What's that upcoming telescope that's going to be able to test if weird extrasolar asteroids like 'Oumuamua passing by Earth are a common or rare event? Somebody's got to be building a new and more powerful collider, somewhere in the world. Who's working on fusion reactors? Who's working on crafting quantum computers?
Thinking of megaprojects & moonshots got me thinking of some information-infrastructure stuff that might or might not count, depending on definition. So I'm going to throw on a list of some tentative and disputable "Information Age Megaprojects" too...
- Someone back-of-envelope estimated that Wikipedia was the culmination of 100 mil hours of work in 2008, and assuredly more by today.
- While it's success feels predestined nowadays, when it first outdid formal and privately-funded attempts at online encyclopedias, that was a very surprising outcome to many
- If you loosen the restrictions, biology probably has tons of megaprojects. (BLAST, GenBank, PubChem... NIH is funding and maintaining vast databases, and all the infrastructure that makes them navigable. How much work that is probably depends on whether you include or exclude the work it took to extract the data they're peddling.)
- It feels almost-incoherent for me to think of biological projects as "moonshots"? There are interesting and novel things being done constantly (Many of them clever, irreplacable things. Some of them fundamental things! Some of them potentially high-impact!), and yet the term just does not seem to fit. Just about every interesting synthetic biology project nowadays has a "merely" moderately-large to large start-up cost, a measure of incremental progress, and a huge element of chance. Some of those could have huge impacts if they work. Should I call those moonshots? They're not really big enough for "megaprojects" to fit, cost-wise.
- Google (Alphabet? GoogleX?) seems to have a taste for this
- Google's book-scanning project (before it was shut down)
- Loon is their internet-access balloon project
- The Android Operating System?
- The Google search-engine itself?
- The Internet Archive?
- People building 3D models of entire cities, in games such as Second Life?
- Does Bitcoin count?
- I suspect not, but I couldn't really articulate why. If I wanted to argue one way or another with this one, I actually wouldn't know where to start.
answer by pixx
· score: 4 (3 votes) · LW
It's hard to find good English sources on this, but Africa's great green wall might count
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comment by Spiracular
· score: 6 (3 votes) · LW
Warning: Big pile of text, Decomposing definitions
I notice that there's a lot of disputably-relevant axes for assessing if something is a moonshot, and that was making me hesitant to answer. So... I'm going to be "that guy" who deep-dives defining terms. Hopefully this will be constructive?
Here are some disputable axes for assessing "moonshots" that popped to mind:
- How possible is it to profit off of incremental progress on this project's sub-goals?
- At the limit: Does it have to be completely unprofitable until you win, after which there is a steep, step-like function after which there are massive returns?
- But even space wasn't this extreme! There were rockets and missiles before there were rocket ships. And my loose understanding of the way Elon Musk is doing things is about as incremental as you can make space rockets and still have it be rocket science (admittedly: not very). Those many fancy landing-control tests don't make the final launch not a moonshot, though.
- At lower levels: At what point is this just the kind of "profitable-incremental-progress via selection" algorithm that capitalism encourages and supports just fine?
- How severe was the projects "start-up cost"? How much hard-to-consolidate infrastructure, intelligence, data, and resources were required before this project was even conceivable?
- For one reason or another, is the most plausible counterfactual that if this one group wasn't doing this, no group would be doing this? Or would be doing this much more poorly?
- Classically, megaprojects refer to large-scale works of architectural infrastructure, but we live in an information age. Do massive broadly-beneficial projects of informational infrastructure count, or not?
- How much of humanity needs to be impacted by the outcome of this project? Does the outcome need to be beneficial? Or is this really about affecting the narrative humanity has about itself, and not the effect it has on the day-to-day way that people experience their lives? (ex: space projects)
(And... interesting! ryan_b selected a almost completely different set of axes [LW · GW]. Maybe it's not a particularly consistently-defined concept?)
I feel conflicted about including any of these as requirements (several don't actually seem that desirable), but I think the normal way moonshots are thought of and defined tends to center around analogy to the Space Race. And therefore, tends to involve almost all of these features being present.
"No incremental progress measures" seems like a particularly key part of the definition, and yet a potentially negative thing to filter by. Whenever you can, good incremental progress assessment is usually a positive thing to add to a project.
Thought experiment: If you had to compare 2 identical cold-fusion projects, one of which came up with a bunch of intermediate steps and tested them, and one which didn't and just had one big "did you get everything right?" assessment right at the end... which one is the moonshot? But which one is probably the better project?
Under this lens, there's a pretty important distinction to be made between things that are being treated as moonshots, and problems that have to be approached as moonshots.
Maybe the right question is... "What are moonshot problems that someone is seriously tackling?" Or just dropping the moonshots framing, and getting a list of interesting megaprojects. Or just picking the 1-2 axes you most care about, and sorting on them explicitly.
(FWIW; any one of those is a valid thing to want, and it's a good question! That is part of why I put in the effort to try to break it down.)
P.S. Is there some way I should have used the Question-on-a-Question / Related Question function to do this? If so, could someone walk me through how that's supposed to work?
comment by ryan_b
· score: 3 (2 votes) · LW
By way of clarification:
Are we talking about biggest-projects-which-are-moonshots, which might tell us a lot about how to get funding or the things the public/governments like?
Are we talking longest-moonshots in the sense of furthest time horizon or least likely?
Are we talking biggest-moons-at-which-there-is-a-shot, in the sense of benefiting some aspect of civilization?
All of these seem reasonable, but might be worth distinguishing in answers.
comment by Liron
· score: 2 (1 votes) · LW
Ok, I mean which existing projects are the biggest and also have a significant chance of actually achieving their objective.
Having a long time horizon isn't a fundamental property of the answer, just a property that's correlated with being the biggest but anticorrelated with being likely to achieve their objective.
comment by Spiracular
· score: 1 (1 votes) · LW
I'm used to thinking of those more as "Megaprojects". "A List of Megaprojects" is a great goal, but I feel like it might be worth clarifying that in the question up-top a little bit.