21 August 2022
I’ve been reflecting on JFK’s “We choose to go to the Moon” speech:
We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win... -- John F. Kennedy
The most interesting part is how this will bring out the best of our energies and skills. An aspirational goal can really pull people together – the challenge displaces the petty everyday tussles we stumble into.
To achieve the moon goal, the US government made significant investments in science and technology. DARPA was founded in 1958, motivated by Sputnik, and was instrumental in the race to the moon, and has continued to generate incredible impact:
The Economist has called DARPA the agency "that shaped the modern world," and pointed out that "Moderna’s covid-19 vaccine sits alongside weather satellites, GPS, drones, stealth technology, voice interfaces, the personal computer and the internet on the list of innovations for which DARPA can claim at least partial credit." Its track record of success has inspired governments around the world to launch similar research and development agencies.
Viewed as a venture investor, DARPA and other government investments have been the best investments we’ve ever made, far outpacing the impact of private venture capital:
One investor funded the computer, the internet, speech recognition, last-mile distribution, mapping the human genome, the core technologies of fracking, and the first horizontal shale drill, and today it’s driving down the cost of solar and wind power below that of coal. -- Scott Galloway
We now face new sputnik-like challenges – innovation that is critical to future economic development, but where the US is failing to keep pace with other nations, now China. Consider our (potential) science gap with China:
Well, the point should be obvious now. When China has quantum computers a million times faster than Google’s, satellites that can talk securely with the Earth via quantum entanglement, quantum magnetometers that can (possibly) find our most secret submarines, and autonomous drone swarms that can fly through dense forests, Congress would have to be insane to worry about pinching a few pennies. -- Noah Smith
Responding to this challenge will generate new industries and new jobs for our children, just as DARPA did. Failing to respond will result in high value industries shifting to other nations, dragging down the ability of US citizens to enjoy a high standard of living.
I am glad to see the US has recently passed laws supporting semiconductor investment and renewables investment. Those are probably key industries going forward. But we haven’t articulated a moonshot goal. And we need one to help us all rise above the daily squabbles and focus on a positive future.
I am not sure what the right moonshot goal is, but it is not the Inflation Reduction Act – too prosaic, doesn’t lift us up. And it is not a Green New Deal – too abstract, too diffuse.