Funding the Fantastic

The stranger edges of science and technology are generally couched in the terms of the impossible, the unlikely, or at the very least the under-funded and thus considerably delayed. As someone who cares perhaps a little too much about those edges, it is disheartening to see the plans written up for truly outrageous futures without any real hope of having them be realized. But it is understandable; there’s only so much funding to go around, and a lot of research to do that has a lot more utility now.

All of this makes the recent announcement that an asteroid mining venture, Planetary Resources, not only plans to be operational within half a decade, but also has sufficient funding to do so, something of a shock. The concept is straight out of mid-20th-century science fiction – the huge, mineral-laden rocks that clutter up space broken open and the valuable elements within put to use – and the plausibility comes from about the same place; that is to say, purely theoretical and not a little bit unrealistic. Or so I would have said before a cadre of the ultra-wealthy, including Google executive Lawrence Page and filmmaker James F. Cameron, put their collective economic weight behind the project, turning it from an impossibility to a mere risk.

Yet as much as the project, its aspirations, and even the ideology behind it (a sort of unbridled techno-optimism, and the idea that the human species not merely can but should leave the gravity well of Earth for the final frontier) appeal, it has aspects that are less than ideal. The idea that the ‘one percent’ are going to be the driving force behind the fringe of technology and science is problematic, for numerous reasons. Planetary Resources is maybe the most benign example one could name: who would be against the exploration and exploitation of space, on principle? But the venture is never going to be anything but private; the technologies developed, developed as the ideals of a small clutch of people and in the name of private enterprise. This is not to say it won’t do tremendous good, or even that those people aren’t a good fit for the job, but it is worth considering what this means for science and technology.

Consider, for example, the case of Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal. He has been involved in funding multiple initiatives aimed at promoting his vision of the future; one such project received over a million dollars to fund seasteadings, offshore artificial islands maintaining political independence from the mainland. Seasteading is an unabashedly libertarian exercise in political experimentation that has been failing to successfully set sail for decades now; it is an area of questionable technological priorities that exists only for political reasons.

But even if seasteading were successful, the technologies developed would go purely towards forwarding the aims of the small community on those artificial islands. In a certain light, asteroid mining looks uncomfortably similar, a venture funded not because of public need but because some handful of highly influential and almost obscenely wealthy investors jumped for it. And this kind of millionaire-backed science project seems to be getting more prominent, as various governmental agencies find their budgets reduced, or focus on more prosaic, more immediately practical research.

One of the strong arguments in favor of this new model is that investors can fund less immediately practical, more long-term technological ventures that a government simply cannot at the moment. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the military thinktank responsible for a considerable number of outrageous, boundary-pushing projects, is just that: a military thinktank, with military priorities. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration simply could not justify the expense of this sort of thing; the awful burden of public accountability shuts down the more outlandish possibilities.One of the strong arguments against relying on these privately funded initiatives is their easy avoidance of that burden of accountability. If this becomes the accepted method of funding the more fringe projects, then the interesting edges of science will be a plutocracy, directed towards projects more in line with these individuals’ considerations than the public good. It’s an uncomfortable image, the few and the rich getting into orbit while the rest of the planet can only watch; one small step for investors, one giant leap for investor-kind.

However, despite these misgivings, the deranged millionaire funding scheme has an unbeatable advantage: it’s the only game in town. It may not have a positive effect on the infrastructure of science and technology, but at the moment, there’s no way to fund these initiatives without recourse to the ranks of the forward-thinking one-percenters. All we mere mortals can do is sit back and hope they make good decisions, and try to support them when they do. Asteroids won’t mine themselves, and for now, we’ll be looking to those with a few million to spare to get the job done; we should keep aware of the trend, but for now it looks like trickle-down technology is the only way to go.

Benjamin P. S. Klug ‘14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history and science concentrator in Currier House.