We don’t know far more than we do

Posted on 17 November 2007


…and sometimes, this means that we need to realize our projections of ROE, sales, etc. are pointless. Consider this example: the Apollo program is estimated to have cost (in inflation-adjusted 2006 US Dollars) $135 Billion. That’s nine zeros, ok? A lot. But let’s look closer:

the outcome of WWII -> cold war -> minuteman missile systems -> the Apollo program and the Saturn V rocket-> integrated circuits -> microprocessors -> PCs -> the Internet.

Of course, not all of these items directly led to the genesis of the next; the point is that the outcome would have been different had outcomes been different at earlier points. We’ve been so spoiled by the industrial revolution–we just assume that once technology takes off, it automatically becomes exponential in growth.

If you haven’t heard of it, you should check out The Last Samurai by Helen De Witt. (It has nothing to do with the Tom Cruise movie of the same name, apart perhaps from some parasitic marketing.) One of the minor characters in the novel is supposed to be a famous mathematician and physicist; one of his comments regards the possibility of continued space exploration (and technological growth in general) in the face of the exhaustion of cheap and easy energy from fossil fuels.

So, why didn’t the industrial revolution and the explosion of science happen earlier? Were people that much more stupid or lazy? No. While I’m not a historian and I’m sure that there are several hundred million factors contributing to this phenomenon, it seems to me that part of the problem was simply one of funding. It’s the same reason we don’t understand protein folding more completely than we do, and the same reason that we don’t have a cure for AIDS or a better treatment for cancers:

We just haven’t spent that much money on it yet.

Why? Because we’re not able to reliably calculate the net present value of what we spend our money on. Maybe we can forecast out a year or two…which is equivalent to exactly peanuts. What we’re evaluating is a tiny fraction of the total, and in retrospect will probably be buried in rounding error.

We happened to benefit from advances made thanks to alternate applications from military technology that was never used as it was originally intended, apart from its deterrent effects.

How many more times can we expect this fortune to smile upon us? Who knows?

And, to get to the point that I was originally aiming for, why is it so hard to get to a standardized protocol for electronic medical records? Jesus, I mean we can do it with ATM machines and credit cards…We can get Russian-made docking equipment to mate to US made equipment mounted to a 20 year old platform in free-fall 220 miles above the surface of the Earth but we can’t get healthcare IT guys sitting in a conference room in San Jose or wherever to agree upon the file structure of a health record?