Leo Szilard—the physicist who first conceived of the nuclear chain reaction and who urged the US to undertake the Manhattan Project—also wrote fiction. His book of short stories, The Voice of the Dolphins, contains a story “The Mark Gable Foundation,” dated 1948, from which I will present to you an excerpt, without comment:

“I’m thinking of setting up a trust fund. I want to do something that will really contribute to the happiness of mankind; but it’s very difficult to know what to do with money. When Mr. Rosenblatt told me that you’d be here tonight I asked the mayor to invite me. I certainly would value your advice.”

“Would you intend to do anything for the advancement of science?” I asked.

“No,” Mark Gable said. “I believe scientific progress is too fast as it is.”

“I share your feeling about this point,” I said with the fervor of conviction, “but then why not do something about the retardation of scientific progress?”

“That I would very much like to do,” Mark Gable said, “but how do I go about it?”

“Well,” I said, “I think that shouldn’t be very difficult. As a matter of fact, I think it would be quite easy. You could set up a foundation, with an annual endowment of thirty million dollars. Research workers in need of funds could apply for grants, if they could make out a convincing case. Have ten committees, each composed of twelve scientists, appointed to pass on these applications. Take the most active scientists out of the laboratory and make them members of these committees. And the very best men in the field should be appointed as chairmen at salaries of fifty thousand dollars each. Also have about twenty prizes of one hundred thousand dollars each for the best scientific papers of the year. This is just about all you would have to do. Your lawyers could easily prepare a charter for the foundation. As a matter of fact, any of the National Science Foundation bills which were introduced in the Seventy-ninth and Eightieth Congresses could perfectly well serve as a model.”

“I think you had better explain to Mr. Gable why this foundation would in fact retard the progress of science,” said a bespectacled young man sitting at the far end of the table, whose name I didn’t get at the time of introduction.

“It should be obvious,” I said. “First of all, the best scientists would be removed from their laboratories and kept busy on committees passing on applications for funds. Secondly, the scientific workers in need of funds would concentrate on problems which were considered promising and were pretty certain to lead to publishable results. For a few years there might be a great increase in scientific output; but by going after the obvious, pretty soon science would dry out. Science would become something like a parlor game. Some things would be considered interesting, others not. There would be fashions. Those who followed the fashion would get grants. Those who wouldn’t would not, and pretty soon they would learn to follow the fashion, too.”


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My interpretation of the joke is that the Szilard is accusing the NSF of effectively slowing down science, the opposite of their claimed intention. Personally I have found that the types of scientists who end up sitting in grant-giving chairs are not the most productive and energetic minds, who tend to avoid such positions. Still funny though.

The NSF was founded in 1950, two years after this story was published. The story was published when people were discussing founding the NSF.

So the joke is that Szilard expects the NSF to slow science down.

Or that he believes this is what it would actually accomplish in practice, but couldn't directly say it.

The point about incouraging safe over innovative research is on spot though. Although the main culprits are not granting agencies but tying researcher careers to the number of peer reviewed papers imo. The main problem with the granting system is the amount of time wasted in writing grant applications.

I don't think it would work to slow down AI capabilities progress. The reason is that AI capabilities translate into money in a way that's much more direct than "science" writ large--they're a lot closer to engineering.

Put differently, if it could have worked (and before GPT-2 and the surrounding hype, I might have believed it) it's too late now.

It might depend on whether or not radically new paradigms are needed to get to true AGI or whether just scaling up the existing tech is enough.

If scaling up the existing tech isn't enough such a project could focus all the money on transformers and their applications while shutting down the pursuit of radically new paradigms. 

I think you are missing the joke, Szilard was probably describing a landscape very much similar to the extant one

Not missing the joke, just engaging with a different facet of the post.

Related: The Dead Past, an Isaac Asimov story in which research is deliberately suppressed through bureaucracy. Here is the first online copy I found (a scanned magazine).

That was quite different though (spoiler alert)

A benevolent conspiracy to hide a dangerous scientific discovery by lying about the state of the art and denying resources to anyone whose research might uncover the lie. Ultimately failing because apparently unrelated advances made rediscovering the true result too easy.

I always saw it as a reply to the idea that physicists could have hidden the possibility of an atomic bomb for more than a few years.

It is a nice thought experiment, but I've noticed that many AI researchers are devoted to their labour to the point of being comparable to religious fanaticism (on either camp, really). I don't think a fat pay check will make them stop their research so readily.

lol, I think Jason Crawford was coming at this from the opposite perspective of "this is already happening in lots of places and it's bad", rather than as a how-to manual. (But, I too am interested in it as a how-to manual)

I have quipped that if you really wanted to slow down AI progress, you should create a Federal AI Initiative and give it billions of dollars in funding.

Or: “An old saw says that if the government really wanted to help literacy and reduce addiction in the inner cities, it would form a Department of Drugs and declare a War on Education.” (from Nanofuture by J. Storrs Hall, who also wrote Where Is My Flying Car?)

Man, that Hall guy is great. Should invite him to the progress forum.

Yes. We did invite J. Storrs Hall to be a keynote speaker at the LessWrong Community Weekend in Berlin a while ago where his speech was basically the content of the Where Is My Flying Car? book before that was published. 

Taking this as a serious proposal:

  • my guess is that it pays less well than industrial AI research for the most part
  • so probably it mostly ends up increasing the number of grad students + professors in AI
  • you could potentially use this to increase the noise:signal ratio in the field
  • this could also break conferences by flooding them with papers to review and decreasing the average quality of the reviewer pool
  • ideally this would happen before we get good AI tools for reviewing papers

I always thought Hall's point about nanotech was trivially false. Nanotech research like he wanted it died out in the whole world, but he explains it by US-specific factors. Why didn't research continue elsewhere? Plus, other fields that got large funding in Europe or Japan are alive and thriving. How comes?

That doesn't mean that a government program which sets up bad incentives cannot be worse than useless. It can be quite damaging, but not kill a technologically promising research field worldwide for twenty years.