Tech trees to fund ambitious science and tech

Have you ever played the game series Civilization, created by designer Sid Meier? Through the years, much has changed, but one of the unchanging hallmarks of the series has been the technology tree. Why has it been such a stable component of this game? Because it allows you, on one look, to get a bird’s-eye view of the technological capabilities necessary to make progress on your audacious civilizational goals. 

Compare this with our real civilization. If we wanted to, we could probably map the many technological capability paths that got us to where we are today. After all, our current tech stack is what the Civilization tech tree is modeled after. What if we could build a tech tree that was future-facing, starting now? Reality is, arguably, more complex than a computer game. So, rather than mapping civilization at large, perhaps we could start with individual technology areas and map those out, one by one. Within technology domains, one could break down the main goals for the field into future capabilities required to get there and recursively work ourselves backward to the present capability stack.

Even if it’s possible, what’s the point? The point is that, apart from being an intellectually interesting endeavor, it may well dramatically speed up progress. Imagine you’re a funder, or talented postdoc, an entrepreneur in residence, or an advocacy leader looking to advance your technology area of choice. Currently, it’s pretty difficult to figure out how to plug in. Even after graduating in that field, digesting much of its literature, drawing on interviews, and online courses, it’s not very intuitive to see how to connect the dots within an area in a way that would advance the field. There is plenty of information out there, but without a scaffold to map the context and dependencies of different opportunities, one can only guess that the one you’re zooming in on is actually a crucial bottleneck in the field rather than an irrelevant detail that stands to be solved by an approaching technological innovation upstream from that area.

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A dynamic overview of a field would make it…