Have you played the Civilization series by designer Sid Meier? A lot has changed over the years, but one of the constant hallmarks of the series is the tech tree. Why is it such a stable part of this game? Because it gives you a bird’s-eye view of the technological capabilities necessary to make progress on your audacious civilizational goals.
Compare this to our real civilization. If we wanted to, we could probably map out many of the technological capability paths that got us to where we are today. After all, our current tech stack is a model of a civilization’s tech tree. What if we could build a future-proof tech tree from now on? Arguably, reality is more complex than computer games. So, instead of mapping the entire civilization, maybe we can start with individual areas of technology and map them out one by one. Within a technology domain, one can decompose the main goal of the domain into the future capabilities required to achieve the goal, and work recursively back to the current capability stack.
Even if it were possible, what’s the point? The point is, in addition to being intellectually interesting, it’s likely to speed things up considerably. Imagine you are a funder, a talented postdoc, an entrepreneur in residence or an advocate looking to advance your chosen field of technology. Currently, it’s hard to figure out how to insert. Even after graduating in the field, digesting most of the literature, and drawing on interviews and online courses, it’s not very intuitive to understand how to connect the dots within a field. This will advance the field. There’s a lot of information out there, but without a scaffolding to map the context and dependencies of the different opportunities, one can only guess that the one you’re zooming in is actually a critical bottleneck in the field rather than a trivial detail. It will be solved through technological innovation upstream in this field.
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A dynamic overview of a field will make it easier to coordinate work, identify and fund undervalued fields, and determine how they can work together to unlock new capabilities and applications.
Tech Tree: Reality
So far so good, in theory. Does this work in practice? At Foresight Institute, we’re trying to find out. Foresight operates five technology projects:
Decentralized computing, focused on secure collaboration, chaired by Agoric Chief Scientist Mark S. Miller. Molecular Machines, with a focus on atomic precision, chaired by PARPA’s Ben Reinhardt. Biotech and health expansion, focused on rejuvenation, sponsored by 100 Plus Capital. Neurotech focuses on brain-computer interfaces and whole-brain simulation and is chaired by Randal Koene of CarbonCopies. Spacetech focuses on space exploration technologies and is chaired by Creon Levit of Planet Labs.
These projects are driven by the collaboration of expert groups of approximately 200 scientists, entrepreneurs and funders each to drive long-term progress, and are supported by workshops, fellowships and awards. In response to the growing number of new enthusiasts entering these fields, in early 2022 we decided to create tech trees to map each area.
Led by interviews with domain experts, this pioneering team is now building a technology tree for each domain, starting with the state-of-the-art and mapping each domain to long-term goals with conditional nodes, one branch at a time. At the end of Q1, we completed our first tech tree prototype.
Rather than adopting an armchair philosophy, our tech tree architects develop the tech tree through discussions with domain experts working on each node. The feedback loop will lead to iteration of the tree until we have a clear understanding of the field. Once v1 is complete, we will open up the trees to crowdsourcing.
Each node is clickable, allowing people to zoom in on any particular node to view related companies, advocacy groups, labs, and independent projects. Others will wonder which public challenges need to be incentivized by funding. Researchers can submit challenges to make progress in their field. We can set bounties and rewards for bottlenecks to incentivize progress.
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Tech Tree: Potential
The membranes that separate the trees may prove to be quite permeable. For example, computational trees with tools like privacy-preserving machine learning will have something to say about long-lived tech trees. The Molecular Machines technology tree with tools like unclonable polymers will be related to the cryptography stack in the computational tree. All of this will inform our future in space, from advances in materials and energy through molecular machines to enhanced human capabilities through longevity and neurotechnology.
The risks will also become more apparent as branches of the different tech trees start to nestle on top of each other. Advanced artificial intelligence will be a major revolution and risk carrier for all trees. But risk-mitigating technologies, such as computer security, will also become more visible and therefore easier to fund. This could increase funding for “differentiated technology development”—that is, the development of civilizational safety-enhancing technologies rather than those that are risky.
Some pioneers may have wanted to coordinate ideal paths through the forest, such as this map of civilizations proposed by Trent McConaughey. Others want to focus on advancing their local fields, companies or projects at the forefront, such as Balaji Srinivasan.
What comes after the VC thesis statement and portfolio page?
Tech tree. A constantly updated open source map of everything you want to fund, how they relate to each other, and what’s yet to be built. A clear vision of the future that can still accommodate uncertainty and creativity. pic.twitter.com/s4yyRvcV6Z
— Balaji Srinivasan (@balajis) November 4, 2021
The tech tree allows various pioneers to compare notes and accelerate overall progress.
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From where we are today, such a long-term project might sound naive. One reason is that our tools are less than ideal. To address this, we co-hosted a hackathon with Srinivasan of 1729.com to build an app to better crowdsource and crowdfund such maps; Evan Miyazono of Protocol Labs; Mike of Ocean Protocol Connor; Amir Banifatemi of XPrize; and Seda and Matthias Röder, and Andy Smolek of Sonophilia. Top commits are now collaborating on future roadmap work through MapsDAO.
Finally, trees take time to grow. But the sooner we sow them, the sooner we start the many iteration cycles required to harvest the fruit.
This article does not contain investment advice or recommendations. Every investment and trading move involves risk, and readers should do their own research when making a decision.
The views, thoughts and opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of Cointelegraph.
Allison Duettmann is President of the Foresight Institute, a powerful 38-year-old institution that supports the beneficial development of high-impact technologies that make great futures more possible. She leads projects in intelligent collaboration, molecular machines, health promotion, neurotechnology and space. She co-edited the book “Superintelligence: Coordination and Strategy” and co-authored “The Future of Gaming: Intelligent Voluntary Collaboration.” She holds an MSc in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics, with a focus on AI Safety, and a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from York University.