a black swan energy prize

OPP’s ex­cel­lent thread on Hits-Based giv­ing trig­gered a ques­tion from one com­mu­nity mem­ber on the po­ten­tial role prizes might play in that space. This post seeks to pur­sue that line of thought, with a spe­cific fo­cus on en­ergy.

New to this fo­rum, I’m afraid my for­mu­la­tions may not be as rigor­ous as those from sea­soned EA prac­ti­tion­ers, but I am nev­er­the­less en­couraged by the guidelines stat­ing “we’d rather hear an idea that’s pre­sented im­perfectly than not hear it at all”.


  • Find­ing a new source of en­ergy is some­what of an ex­is­ten­tial opportunity

  • The like­li­hood of find­ing one is much higher than com­monly as­sumed

  • A challenge prize is pro­posed as a effec­tive in­ter­ven­tion in this space

The quest for new sources of energy

There’s a non-zero chance that hu­man­ity will one day dis­cover and mas­ter a fun­da­men­tally new en­ergy source that will sig­nifi­cantly al­ter the fu­ture of our species. If that were to hap­pen, it would amount to what Nas­sim Ni­cholas Taleb de­scribes as a black swan event : largely un­fore­seen but highly im­pact­ful, likely to be ra­tio­nal­ised af­ter the fact with the benefit of hind­sight.

By “fun­da­men­tally new” I mean the sort of en­ergy source that would re­quire us to re­vise part of our cur­rent un­der­stand­ing of physics. By de­fault, most sci­en­tists to­day would re­ject such tech­nol­ogy as im­pos­si­ble, or at least at­tribute a van­ish­ingly small prob­a­bil­ity to a dis­cov­ery in that space. Cold fu­sion is a good ex­am­ple ; a break­through in this realm could spark a sci­en­tific rev­olu­tion of uni­mag­in­able im­pact. But the sci­en­tific con­sen­sus to­day re­jects the pos­si­bil­ity of its ex­is­tence, let alone the ex­is­tence of other even more ex­otic sources of en­ergy.

Vir­tu­ally no pub­lic R&D fund­ing is available in this field be­cause in­no­va­tors are work­ing out­side the es­tab­lished sci­en­tific paradigm and there­fore highly un­likely to ob­tain con­sen­sus from any aca­demic fund­ing board. The scarce pri­vate funds that are available tend to come from in­di­vi­d­u­als will­ing and able to make di­rect fund­ing de­ci­sions largely by them­selves. In the par­tic­u­lar case of cold fu­sion, we are just start­ing to see a few ex­am­ples of es­tab­lished fund­ing sources en­ter­ing the field (Mit­subishi Es­tate, Wood­ford funds).

Over­all, this cause area has a very high po­ten­tial im­pact, a tractabil­ity that is widely per­ceived to be close to zero and as a re­sult, a high de­gree of ne­glect­ed­ness. John Halstead summed it up nicely :

the in­ven­tion of a per­pet­ual mo­tion ma­chine would be ex­tremely valuable and is very ne­glected, but also ap­pears to be im­pos­si­ble. There­fore, ex­tra work on this prob­lem is un­likely to be valuable.

Re­assess­ing tractability

The EA com­mu­nity has an im­por­tant prece­dent in look­ing at ar­eas that are ex­tremely un­likely, but do have a large po­ten­tial im­pact : ex­is­ten­tial risk. In a sym­met­ri­cal way, a new abun­dant clean en­ergy source could be de­scribed as an ex­is­ten­tial op­por­tu­nity, some­thing that can ma­te­ri­ally al­ter the fu­ture tra­jec­tory of man. Sam Alt­man stated some time ago that if you could choose one sin­gle tech­nolog­i­cal de­vel­op­ment to help the most peo­ple in the world, rad­i­cally bet­ter en­ergy gen­er­a­tion is prob­a­bly it. Two re­cent EA re­search re­ports, at Let’s Fund and Founders Pledge, con­clude that in­creased in­vest­ment in clean en­ergy R&D ranks among the most promis­ing in­ter­ven­tions to ad­dress cli­mate change.

When the stakes are so high, it may be worth­while div­ing a bit deeper into tractabil­ity. “Ap­pears im­pos­si­ble” does ac­tu­ally leave some room for fur­ther anal­y­sis : what can we say about the chances of any­thing work­ing ?

In a re­cent ar­ti­cle, pro­fes­sor Huw Price makes a pretty con­vinc­ing case that—at least as far as cold fu­sion is con­cerned—the field is ac­tu­ally worth se­ri­ous at­ten­tion. Based on an ice­berg of ev­i­dence from a mul­ti­tude of sources, it seems rea­son­able to at­tribute a per­centage chance to the phe­nom­ena de­scribed be­ing gen­uine : we’re no longer talk­ing a one-in-a-billion pos­si­bil­ity. If we ac­cept such ev­i­dence and the con­clu­sion on the like­li­hood of suc­cess, then this could con­ceiv­ably al­ter the pri­or­ity of the quest for new en­ergy on the EA agenda.

Effec­tive in­ter­ven­tion, how­ever, is tricky when you are seek­ing to challenge con­ven­tional wis­dom, as ad­e­quately de­scribed in Holden Karnofsky’s blog post men­tioned at the top of this ar­ti­cle. If grants flow through lay­ers of de­ci­sion-mak­ing then such funds are un­likely to reach the type of in­no­va­tors work­ing on con­tro­ver­sial new en­ergy sci­ence.

This has led OPP to take the route of di­rect fund­ing for high-risk/​high-im­pact re­search, with a de­ci­sion struc­ture some­what adapted to as­sess­ing non-con­sen­sus pro­pos­als (un­for­tu­nately, en­ergy is not cur­rently on their list of in­ves­ti­gated causes). But di­rect fund­ing of re­search re­quires sig­nifi­cant time-in­volve­ment to seek out the most promis­ing pro­pos­als, which can feel much like search­ing for the nee­dle in the prover­bial haystack.

A prize

One in­stru­ment to ac­cel­er­ate the pro­cess of sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery here is to launch an in­duce­ment prize con­test. As economist Tim Har­ford de­scribes in his book Adapt : “De­spite their early suc­cesses, in­no­va­tion prizes were firmly sup­planted by di­rect grants. Grants, un­like prizes, are a pow­er­ful tool of pa­tron­age. Prizes, in con­trast, are open to any­one who pro­duces re­sults… Fi­nally, af­ter al­most two cen­turies out of fash­ion, prizes are now en­joy­ing a re­nais­sance—thanks to a new gen­er­a­tion of en­trepreneurs and philan­thropists who care more about get­ting solu­tions than about where they come from.”

Whilst prizes cer­tainly aren’t a panacea for all do­mains, the par­tic­u­lar field of find­ing en­ergy black swans might lend it­self well to a prize. In par­tic­u­lar, it may reach in­no­va­tors who would not eas­ily show up on the radar screen of ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists or ven­ture philan­thropists. The 1714 Lon­gi­tude Prize was not won by a highly re­spected as­tronomer, but by a part-time watch­maker. Similarly, whilst some in­no­va­tors to­day are clearly suc­cess­ful rais­ing pri­vate money, not ev­ery ge­nius in­ven­tor is also a ge­nius en­trepreneur able and/​or will­ing to con­vince pri­vate in­vestors. A prize is a com­ple­men­tary in­stru­ment to in­vest­ment, cast­ing as wide a net as pos­si­ble over the solu­tion space defined by the prize rules.

The con­cept of launch­ing a 10-20 mln$ black swan en­ergy prize has been float­ing around in sev­eral cir­cles. It has been more or less se­ri­ously in­ves­ti­gated at least twice in re­cent his­tory (For­bid­den En­ergy XPrize pitch 2014, Abun­dant Clean En­ergy XPrize de­sign con­test 2017), but seems to have stranded. Fol­low­ing those ear­lier de­vel­op­ments, the un­der­signed is cur­rently pitch­ing such a prize through an in­de­pen­dent foun­da­tion—hop­ing to avoid some of the com­mon pit­falls as­so­ci­ated with prizes.

A prop­erly de­signed and ex­e­cuted black swan en­ergy prize seems to be a rel­a­tively effec­tive way to ad­dress tractabil­ity. Only the op­er­a­tional bud­get to launch and ex­e­cute a prize needs to be com­mit­ted, the ac­tual prize is ba­si­cally a suc­cess fee due only if and when win­ning tech­nolo­gies have been vet­ted by an in­ter­na­tional jury of sci­en­tists. Once won, the recog­ni­tion that comes with the prize is ex­pected to un­lock fur­ther fund­ing not only for the win­ner(s), but for what might be­come an en­tire new in­dus­try, as was the case for the An­sari XPrize for pri­vate space travel.

From a so­cietal risk-man­age­ment per­spec­tive, it would ap­pear pru­dent to launch challenge prizes to en­sure we are not miss­ing out on ex­is­ten­tial op­por­tu­ni­ties such as new en­ergy sources : the cost of false-nega­tives is sim­ply too high.