All posts tagged prizes


Aubrey de Grey has a good interview in Wired. I want to object to one claim:

You want prizes to be ways to attract people who get scared when you talk about science for more than ten seconds. So the language has to be very glitzy and superficial and populist. Whereas, a foundation that’s trying to get money to put toward research, you want to look really knowledgeable and responsible and low-key.

A ten second soundbite may be very important for the prize to get a widespread reputation, but there’s more to attracting large donors than that.

Aubrey later says a major hurdle to getting large donations for his research is

3) You’ve got to believe the organization you’re thinking of giving the money to actually has the ability to execute [a promising plan]

Anyone familiar with the difficulty of funding technology startups can see that even people who enjoy talking about science usually fail to predict how well an organization will implement a plan. This is exactly why wise people who understand Aubrey’s vision will mostly prefer to donate to prizes rather than his research. The knowledge required to predict whether the Methuselah Foundation will reward progress at slowing senescence is much less than the knowledge required to evaluate a research project. The prize should at least partly transfer the responsibility for spending the money wisely to the researchers who are most informed about their projects.

Ken Hayworth has created an interesting prize for Brain Preservation Technology, designed to improve techniques of relevance to cryonics and mind uploading, but intended to be relevant to goals that don’t require preserving individual identity (such as better understanding of generic brains).

Many of the prize criteria are well thought out, especially the ones concerning quality of preservation. But there a few criteria for which it’s hard to predict how the judges would evaluate a proposed technique, and they will significantly impair the effectiveness of the prize.

The requirement that it have the potential to be performed for less than $20,000 requires a number of subjective judgments, such as the cost of training the necessary personnel (which will be affected by the quality of the trainers and trainees).

The requirement that it “be absolutely safe for the personnel involved” would seem to be prohibitive if I try to interpret it literally. A somewhat clearer approach would be to require that it be at least as safe as some commonly preformed procedure. But the effort required to compare risks will be far from trivial.

The requirement that we have reason to expect the preserved brains to remain stable for 100 years depends on some assumptions that aren’t well explained, such as why a shorter time period wouldn’t be enough (which depends on the specific goals of preservation and on predictions about how fast technology progresses), and what we should look at to estimate the durability – I suspect the obstacles to long-term stability are different for different techniques.

(I noticed this prize in connection with the ASIM 2010 conference, although I didn’t get much out of the part of the conference that I was able to attend).

Some comments on last weekend’s Foresight Conference:

At lunch on Sunday I was in a group dominated by a discussion between Robin Hanson and Eliezer Yudkowsky over the relative plausibility of new intelligences having a variety of different goal systems versus a single goal system (as in a society of uploads versus Friendly AI). Some of the debate focused on how unified existing minds are, with Eliezer claiming that dogs mostly don’t have conflicting desires in different parts of their minds, and Robin and others claiming such conflicts are common (e.g. when deciding whether to eat food the dog has been told not to eat).

One test Eliezer suggested for the power of systems with a unified goal system is that if Robin were right, bacteria would have outcompeted humans. That got me wondering whether there’s an appropriate criterion by which humans can be said to have outcompeted bacteria. The most obvious criterion on which humans and bacteria are trying to compete is how many copies of their DNA exist. Using biomass as a proxy, bacteria are winning by several orders of magnitude. Another possible criterion is impact on large-scale features of Earth. Humans have not yet done anything that seems as big as the catastrophic changes to the atmosphere (“the oxygen crisis”) produced by bacteria. Am I overlooking other appropriate criteria?

Kartik Gada described two humanitarian innovation prizes that bear some resemblance to a valuable approach to helping the world’s poorest billion people, but will be hard to turn into something with a reasonable chance of success. The Water Liberation Prize would be pretty hard to judge. Suppose I submit a water filter that I claim qualifies for the prize. How will the judges test the drinkability of the water and the reusability of the filter under common third world conditions (which I suspect vary a lot and which probably won’t be adequately duplicated where the judges live)? Will they ship sample devices to a number of third world locations and ask whether it produces water that tastes good, or will they do rigorous tests of water safety? With a hoped for prize of $50,000, I doubt they can afford very good tests. The Personal Manufacturing Prizes seem somewhat more carefully thought out, but need some revision. The “three different materials” criterion is not enough to rule out overly specialized devices without some clear guidelines about which differences are important and which are trivial. Setting specific award dates appears to assume an implausible ability to predict how soon such a device will become feasible. The possibility that some parts of the device are patented is tricky to handle, as it isn’t cheap to verify the absence of crippling patents.

There was a debate on futarchy between Robin Hanson and Mencius Moldbug. Moldbug’s argument seems to boil down to the absence of a guarantee that futarchy will avoid problems related to manipulation/conflicts of interest. It’s unclear whether he thinks his preferred form of government would guarantee any solution to those problems, and he rejects empirical tests that might compare the extent of those problems under the alternative systems. Still, Moldbug concedes enough that it should be possible to incorporate most of the value of futarchy within his preferred form of government without rejecting his views. He wants to limit trading to the equivalent of the government’s stockholders. Accepting that limitation isn’t likely to impair the markets much, and may make futarchy more palatable to people who share Moldbug’s superstitions about markets.

This post is a response to a challenge on Overcoming Bias to spend $10 trillion sensibly.
Here’s my proposed allocation (spending to be spread out over 10-20 years):

  • $5 trillion on drug patent buyouts and prizes for new drugs put in the public domain, with the prizes mostly allocated in proportion to the quality adjusted life years attributable to the drug.
  • $1 trillion on establishing a few dozen separate clusters of seasteads and on facilitating migration of people from poor/oppressive countries by rewarding jurisdictions in proportion to the number of immigrants they accept from poorer / less free regions. (I’m guessing that most of those rewards will go to seasteads, many of which will be created by other people partly in hopes of getting some of these rewards).

    This would also have a side affect of significantly reducing the harm that humans might experience due to global warming or an ice age, since ocean climates have less extreme temperatures, seasteads will probably not depend on rainfall to grow food, and can move somewhat to locations with better temperatures.
  • $1 trillion on improving political systems, mostly through prizes that bear some resemblance to The Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership (but not limited to democratically elected leaders and not limited to Africa). If the top 100 or so politicians in about 100 countries are eligible, I could set the average reward at about $100 million per person. Of course, nowhere near all of them will qualify, so a fair amount will be left over for those not yet in office.
  • $0.5 trillion on subsidizing trading on prediction markets that are designed to enable futarchy. This level of subsidy is far enough from anything that has been tried that there’s no way to guess whether this is a wasteful level.
  • $1 trillion existential risks
    Some unknown fraction of this would go to persuading people not to work on AGI without providing arguments that they will produce a safe goal system for any AI they create. Once I’m satisfied that the risks associated with AI are under control, much of the remaining money will go toward establishing societies in the asteroid belt and then outside the solar system.
  • $0.5 trillion on communications / computing hardware for everyone who can’t currently afford that.
  • $1 trillion I’d save for ideas I think of later.

I’m not counting a bunch of other projects that would use up less than $100 billion since they’re small enough to fit in the rounding errors of the ones I’ve counted (the Methuselah Mouse prize, desalinization and other water purification technologies, developing nanotech, preparing for the risks of nanotech, uploading, cryonics, nature preserves, etc).

Reasonable Rx

Book review: Reasonable Rx: Solving the Drug Price Crisis by Stan Finkelstein and Peter Temin.
This book provides a mediocre analysis of what is wrong with drug prices, and presents a solution that is probably a nontrivial improvement on the status quo, but isn’t the most thoughtful solution I’ve seen.
The most important complaint of the book boils down to the fact that knowledge about drug safety and effectiveness is a public good, and the current method of rewarding drug companies for producing that knowledge is mediocre (although the book presents it less clearly than that and seems as interested in blaming drug companies’ lack of altruism as it is in analyzing the incentives).
For example, it is sometimes possible to identify biomarkers which indicate that a drug will be ineffective in a patient, but that would often reduce sales of the drug.
They complain that the current focus on producing a few very profitable drugs is an obstacle to creating personalized treatments. But they do little more than imply that drug companies are misjudging the available opportunities, without presenting any clear evidence that the authors’ have better judgment about what’s feasible.
Their proposed changes to the drug industry involve separating drug development and drug marketing/manufacturing into two different sets of companies, and using a combination of subsidies and contractual price controls (negotiated by a government sponsored nonprofit) to lower the prices of drugs.
They didn’t convince me that splitting drug companies will produce any significant benefits, although I also don’t see it producing harm.
The subsidies and price controls are likely to help mitigate some of the problems created by the patent system. Their attempts to show that this solution is better than Kremer’s patent buyout proposal suggest they don’t understand how much harm patent monopolies cause. Their subsidy mechanism isn’t clearly tied to benefits (unlike proposals for prizes based on Quality Adjusted Life Years). They claim drug prize proposals set arbitrary values for drugs and that their auction system produces a less arbitrary market price, but the subsidy part of their part of their system is at least as arbitrary, and their market based prices reflect the value of an arbitrary patent duration.
Their claim that Medicare savings will pay for their subsidies seems deceptive. When estimating the Medicare savings, they appear to rely on an assumption that prices of existing drugs will drop by a large amount. Yet when estimating the subsidy costs, they appear to count only the costs of subsidizing newly introduced drugs.
They are too quick to complain about drug companies medicalizing conditions that are mere inconveniences. E.g. they say Flomax does nothing more important than reduce sleep disturbances. This ignores the evidence that sleep disturbances cause significant health problems.
The chapter “Are Drug Companies Risky?” is pointless because it only evaluates the most successful companies (i.e. those whose gambles have already paid off).

Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) has introduced a bill to create prizes for carbon sequestration:

This is how it would work. There would be four different levels of prizes. The first level award would go to the public or private entity that could first demonstrate a design for a successful technology that could remove and permanently sequester greenhouse gases. Second, there would be a prize for a lab scale demonstration project of the technology that accomplishes the same thing. Third, there would be an award for demonstrating the technology to remove and permanently sequester greenhouse gases that is operational at a larger, working model scale. Finally, there would be an award for whoever could demonstrate the technology to remove and permanently sequester greenhouse gases on a commercially viable scale.

It sounds like many important details would be decided by a federal commission. The prizes could have many of the promises and drawbacks of Virgin Earth Challenge.
The first three levels of the prizes appear to create incentives to create designs with little regard for commercial feasibility. If those prizes are large, they might end up rewarding technologies that are too expensive to be worth using. Small prizes might have little trouble with this due to inventors not wanting to spend much money to win the prizes, but I’d still have concerns about inventors paying little attention to reliability and maintenance costs. The fourth level appears more promising.
Bureaucrats are likely to put more effort into clarifying prize rules that the Virgin Earth group did. But it’s unclear whether any approaches that a government agency is likely to recommend will do a decent job of translating the “commercially viable” goal into a clear enough set of rules that inventors will be able to predict how the prizes will be awarded.
My advice for the commission, should it be created, is that it tie the prizes to actual amounts of carbon removed from the atmosphere over some pre-specified period, or to estimates of those amounts derived from a prediction market.
(HT Jim Manzi).

Bernie Sanders has introduced a bill to replace patent monopoly protection for drugs with awards based in part on Quality Adjusted Life Years added by the drugs.
This would eliminate the harm due to monopoly pricing. It might also cause some research to be redirected from “me-too” drugs to more innovative drugs. But I suspect that it’s common enough for what initially looks like a “me-too” drug to end up having valuable advantages that such an effect will be minor.
It would probably be a bigger help to people in developing nations than all the government spending misleadingly labeled as foreign aid.
Because politics will ensure that the idea is implemented suboptimally, I would prefer that something similar (e.g. patent buyouts) be implemented by a more responsible institution such as the Gates Foundation. But the patent system has enough problems that even this imperfectly written bill might improve on the status quo.
One strange effect of political reality is that the rewards are apportioned according to either benefits to U.S. patients or world patients, and the bill provides an awfully vague description of which rule will apply to which drug.
The bill allocates 10% of the rewards to orphan drugs, presumably because the lives of people with those diseases are worth more than those with common diseases.
The bill claims generics cost 85% less than patented drugs, but gets that figure from comparing overall generic prices with overall patented prices. If the cost of manufacturing drugs differs for old and new drugs, that will be misleading. The estimates I’ve found for same-drug price declines after generic competition starts suggest the price decline is more like 30% to 50%. So the bill’s claim that it can be financed by the reduced Federal government drug spending appear to be fiction.
Besides, if it were self-financing that way, wouldn’t it indicate a big reduction in the rewards to drug development? I want to see a good analysis of why $80 billion a year is adequate to substitute for patent exclusivity. My crude attempts at analyzing it suggests it’s too low, but not by a large amount.
(HT Alex Tabarrok)

The Virgin Earth Challenge would be a great idea if we could count on it being awarded for a solution that resembles the headlines it’s been getting (e.g. $25M Bounty Offered for Global Warming Fix).
But the history of such prizes suggests that even for simple goals, describing the terms of a prize so that inventors can predict what will qualify for the award is nontrivial (e.g. see the longitude prize, where the winner appeared to have clearly met the conditions specified, yet wasn’t awarded the prize for 12 years because the solution didn’t meet the preconceptions of the board that judged it).
Anyone who looks past the media coverage and finds the terms of the challenge will see that the criteria are intended to be a good deal more complex than those of the longitude prize, that there’s plenty of ambiguity in them (although it’s possible they plan to make them clearer later), and that the panel of judges could be considered to be less impartial than the ideal one might hope for.
The criterion of “commercial viability” tends to suggest that a solution that required additional charitable donations to implement might be rejected even if there were donors who thought it worthy of funding, yet I doubt that’s consistent with the intent behind the prize. This ambiguity looks like simple carelessness.
The criterion of “harmful effects and/or other incidental consequences of the solution” represents a more disturbing ambiguity. Suppose I create nanobots which spread throughout the biosphere and sequester CO2 in a manner that offends some environmentalists’ feelings that the biosphere ought to be left in its natural state, but otherwise does no harm. How would these feelings be factored into the decision about whether to award the prize? Not to mention minor ambiguities such as whether making a coal worker’s job obsolete or reducing crop yields due to reduced atmospheric CO2 counts as a harmful effect.
I invite everyone who thinks Branson and Gore are serious about paying out the prize to contact them and ask that they clarify their criteria.

Social Security was created based on the premise that people of certain ages are unable to support themselves due to poor and declining health. Yet Aubrey de Grey has made a fairly strong argument that this bad health can be cured (see Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence), so that the elderly will be as healthy as the young.
Since it’s probably inevitable that the government will end up paying for the initial round of anti-aging treatments, why not make government payments for such treatments conditional on the beneficiary leaving the Social Security system? This would probably save the government enough that it would be worthwhile for it to speed the research up by offering a few billion dollars in prizes for people who complete milestones such as extending the lifespans of lab animals.
There’s a good deal of doubt as to how many decades it will take to produce a good enough cure (and some ambiguity as to how good a cure would need to be to qualify). But the a combination of Aubrey de Grey’s arguments and those of Rob Freitas and Eric Drexler suggest that there’s a very good chance that it can be done before Social Security is expected to collapse. And anyone who thinks Congress might turn Social Security into a system that is certain to remain solvent is drastically overestimating the reliability of demographic forecasts and/or the far-sightedness of Congress.