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Fueling Innovation With Greed
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Hey, it's a pretty damned fine approach, if you ask me. SpaceShipOne just blasted off to try its first flight for the $10 million X-Prize.

Glenn Reynolds notes why offering big-ass monetary awards for significant technological achievements is a swell idea:

First, the people involved aren't bureaucrats. Political criticism isn't such an issue for them. Second, the very nature of a prize competition presupposes that some people -- all but one, in fact -- will "fail." Instead of asking "why didn't you deliver what you promised," we tend to respond "better luck next time." And why shouldn't we? It's not our money at risk, but theirs.

I expect that SpaceShipOne will be successful, whether or not it's on schedule. And I wouldn't be surprised if several of the X-Prize competitors manage to fly successfully, even though only one can win the prize. I also expect that even those who don't win will demonstrate technologies and approaches that someone else is likely to find useful.

It's hard to structure government programs so that they produce this kind of an effect, and even harder to maintain them in the face of a political and media environment when learning from failure is seen as indistinguishable from failure alone. But in all sorts of areas -- from space and jet aviation in the 1950s and 1960s, to computers in the 1970s and 1980s, to the X-Prize today -- it seems that we make faster progress when we have lots of parallel efforts, with freedom to experiment, and to fail. Sometimes we got that sort of thing within a government program; other times it happened outside. But it seems to be an important formula for success. That's something we might want to keep in mind.

That's true. Damn near everybody had a good time trashing the efforts of the unmanned ground vehicle race sponsored by DARPA earlier this year, but as this CNN article notes:

Nobody won. Nobody even came close.

But that didn't stop organizers of the DARPA Grand Challenge from declaring an unusual race across the Mojave Desert a spirited success.

"We are an agency that takes risks, to push technology beyond what anybody thinks is possible," said Tom Strat, deputy program manager of the DARPA Grand Challenge.

"One of the best ways to motivate engineers is to tell them that there's something that can't be done. And what you saw today was people taking on that challenge and saying nah, it's not impossible, I'm gonna try."

"Even though nobody got more than about 5 percent of the way through the course, this has made these engineers even more determined," he said.

So Reynolds is right...we often learn a lot more from failure than from success, and it can often be more motivating.

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