Ideas for sale

There’s a long article in the New Yorker about Nathan Myhrvold, former Microsoft exec, and his new company Intellectual Ventures. The article is fascinating on multiple levels. For one thing, there is the intriguing business model behind IV itself – they get a lot of smart people in a room, get them talking and free-associating, and then patent whatever ideas they come up with. They then license those patents for revenue. Just one example of the kind of potentially world-changing ideas they have licensed: nuclear micro-reactors that use spent nuclear waste as their fuel:

“Teller had this idea way back when that you could make a very safe, passive nuclear reactor,” Myhrvold explained. “No moving parts. Proliferation-resistant. Dead simple. Every serious nuclear accident involves operator error, so you want to eliminate the operator altogether. Lowell and Rod and others wrote a paper on it once. So we did several sessions on it.”

The plant, as they conceived it, would produce something like one to three gigawatts of power, which is enough to serve a medium-sized city. The reactor core would be no more than several metres wide and about ten metres long. It would be enclosed in a sealed, armored box. The box would work for thirty years, without need for refuelling. Wood’s idea was that the box would run on thorium, which is a very common, mildly radioactive metal. (The world has roughly a hundred-thousand-year supply, he figures.) Myhrvold’s idea was that it should run on spent fuel from existing power plants. “Waste has negative cost,” Myhrvold said. “This is how we make this idea politically and regulatorily attractive. Lowell and I had a monthlong no-holds-barred nuclear-physics battle. He didn’t believe waste would work. It turns out it does.” Myhrvold grinned. “He concedes it now.”

As Myhrvold notes, he has more engineers working on nuclear power technology than G.E., which is both impressively cool and depressingly scary if you think about it.

But the deeper subtext to the article is the idea that ideas themselves are commodities. It’s long been known that some of the greatest scientific triumphs in history weren’t the product of isolated genius but rather arose simultaneously in many inventors’ minds, simultaneously. The article delves into the history of this in some depth. The provocative conclusion that can be made is that genius inventors are great at synthesis, not invention – and synthesis only requires that the supporting ideas be known. It’s something that can be replicated by brute force:

Insight could be orchestrated: that was the lesson. If someone who knew how to make a filter had a conversation with someone who knew a lot about cancer and with someone who read the medical literature like a physicist, then maybe you could come up with a cancer treatment. It helped as well that Casey Tegreene had a law degree, Lowell Wood had spent his career dreaming up weapons for the government, Nathan Myhrvold was a ball of fire, Edward Jung had walked across Texas. They had different backgrounds and temperaments and perspectives, and if you gave them something to think about that they did not ordinarily think about—like hurricanes, or jet engines, or metastatic cancer—you were guaranteed a fresh set of eyes.
In the nineteen-sixties, the sociologist Robert K. Merton wrote a famous essay on scientific discovery in which he raised the question of what the existence of multiples tells us about genius. No one is a partner to more multiples, he pointed out, than a genius, and he came to the conclusion that our romantic notion of the genius must be wrong. A scientific genius is not a person who does what no one else can do; he or she is someone who does what it takes many others to do. The genius is not a unique source of insight; he is merely an efficient source of insight.

So, since geniuses are rare, just replace them with a lot of smart people, and you shoudl be able to replicate most of the insight. It’s analogous to parallel, multi-core computing instead of the old days of a single gigahertz chip.

A truly thought-provoking article indeed.

6 thoughts on “Ideas for sale”

  1. There are no words to express my disgust and, not to put too fine a point on it, hate of Myhrvold and his despicable scheme. Aside from traditional patent trolling and packet racket, Myhrvold also tries to establish a more subtle rent-seeking scheme by buying enough patents to jump-start a “marketplace”. It was a miracle that Novell donated patents covering Mono to OIN instead of selling them to Myhrvold. Others (e.g. hacking on things other than Mono) are not going to be so lucky, so Myhrvold is a major net detriment to innovation. The propaganda articles like the one you linked claim the opposite; not unexpected.

  2. “A scientific genius is not a person who does what no one else can do; he or she is someone who does what it takes many others to do. The genius is not a unique source of insight; he is merely an efficient source of insight.”

    I highly doubt that the above quote to be anything more than pure fantasy.

    For if it were truth, corporate America would be in much, much better shape with its current top-heavy, committee-driven, butt-kissing, over-paid management. Time and time again I have witnessed brilliant ideas be drowned and ignored while a group of normally intelligent people parade around with the lowest common denominator as if it were the golden idol of group-think.


    To counteract the above coherent thought, I give you…
    “ma-ma-my chipolte! ma-ma-my chipolte! MY-MY-MY-WOW!!!!!”

  3. Having worked for many years as a development engineer in several different disparate industries, I can tell you something most people don’t know: ideas are easy. There are lots of ideas out there. Ideas aren’t actually worth very much.

    The father of us all, Edison, said that invention was 2% inspiration, 98% perspiration. Implementation is the tough part, and that doesn’t require genius.

  4. I really don’t see this as insidious, especially since Myhrvold is not taking someone else’s ideas or engaging in patent litigation (like RAMBUS from a few years back). The process here seems focused on bringing ideas to implementation and some of them are pretty exciting, especially the nuclear one. Others, like the subcutaneous xray one, are almost obvious in hindsight.

    Corporate group think is not what the process is about, either. There, you have a bureaucracy, here you have a focused group of experts. In the former you end up with an echo chamber, in the latter a cross-pollination.

    The article may be propaganda of sorts but it made its case rather well. Maybe I am missig something but it hardly seems a theft or an exploitation, but rather a systamatic approach to problem solving.

  5. It would be great if it all wasn’t just a big cover-up story.

    Look, Mussolini made trains run on time. His detractors say the didn’t, but he did (by killing commie strikers who prevented the trains from running on time). Hitler built wonderful roads. Hamas and Hezbollah run hospitals. Nothing of it makes any of them worth admiration whatsoever.

  6. well, I agree about Hamas, Mussolini, et al, but how are they related to Myhrvold? Who has Myrhvold shot and killed? I’m not being willfully ignorant here, I just don’t grok the objection. I understand that the story is one sided so show me the other side.

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