Sunday, November 02, 2014

The SpaceshipTwo Crash and the Pluses and Minuses of Prize-Driven and Incremental Development

SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic's ambitious new plane/spaceship, crashed Friday (two days ago), killing one pilot and seriously injuring another.

This is a human tragedy like every single death; and it's also the kind of thing one can expect from time to time in the course of development of any new technology.   I have no doubt that progress toward tourist spaceflight will continue apace: inevitable startup struggles notwithstanding, it's simply an idea whose time has come.   

Every tragedy is also an occasion for reflection on the lessons implicit in the tragic events.

(in the center picture, the SpaceShipTwo is shown in the center, 
between the motherships that provide its initial lift)

For me, watching the struggles of the Virgin Galactic approach to spaceflight has also been a bit of a lesson in the pluses and minuses of prize-driven technology development.   SpaceShipTwo is the successor to SpaceShipOne, which won the Ansari X-Prize for commercial spaceflight a decade ago.   At the time it seemed that the Ansari X-Prize would serve at least two purposes:
  1. Raise consciousness generally about the viability of commercial spaceflight, particularly of the pursuit of spaceflight by startups and other small organizations rather than governments and large government contractors
  2. Concretely help pave a way toward commercially viable spaceflight, via progressive development of the winning spaceflight technology into something fairly rapidly commercially successful
It seems clear that the first goal was met, and wonderfully well.  Massive kudos are due to the X-Prize Foundation and Ansari for this.   The press leading up to and following from the Ansari X-Prize made startup spaceflight into a well-recognized "thing" rather than a dream of a tiny starry-eyed minority.

Regarding the second goal, though, things are much less clear.    Just a little before the tragic SpaceShipTwo crash, a chillingly prescient article by Doug Messier was posted, discussing the weaknesses of the SpaceShipTwo design from a technical perspective.   If you haven't read it yet, I encourage you to click and read it through carefully -- the article you're reading now is basically a reflection on some of the points Messier raises, and a correlation of some of those points with my own experiences in the AI domain.

Messier's article traces SpaceShipTwo's development difficulties back to the SpaceShipOne design, on which it was based -- and points out that this design may well have been chosen (implicitly, if not deliberately) based on a criterion of winning the Ansari X-Prize quickly and at relatively low cost, rather than a criterion of serving as the best basis for medium-term development of commercial spaceflight technology.

As Messier put it,

It turns out that reaching a goal by a deadline isn’t enough; it matters how you get there. Fast and dirty doesn’t necessarily result in solid, sustainable programs. What works well in a sprint can be a liability in a marathon. A - See more at:
It turns out that reaching a goal by a deadline isn’t enough; it matters how you get there. Fast and dirty doesn’t necessarily result in solid, sustainable programs. What works well in a sprint can be a liability in a marathon.
It turns out that reaching a goal by a deadline isn’t enough; it matters how you get there. Fast and dirty doesn’t necessarily result in solid, sustainable programs. What works well in a sprint can be a liability in a marathon. - See more at:
It turns out that reaching a goal by a deadline isn’t enough; it matters how you get there. Fast and dirty doesn’t necessarily result in solid, sustainable programs. What works well in a sprint can be a liability in a marathon. A - See more at:

However, while I am fascinated by Messier's detailed analysis of the SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo technologies, I'm not sure I fully agree with the general conclusion he draws -- or at least not with the way he words his conclusions.   His article is titled "Apollo, Ansari and the Hobbling Effects of Giant Leaps" -- he argues that a flaw in both the Ansari X-Prize approach and the Apollo moon program was an attempt to make a giant leap, by hook or by crook.  In both cases, he argues, the result was a technology that achieved an exciting goal using a methodology that didn't effectively serve as a platform for ongoing development.

Of course, the inspirational value of putting a man on the moon probably vastly exceeded the technical value of the accomplishment - and the inspirational value was the main point at the time.    But I think it's also important to make another point: the problem isn't that pushing for Giant Leaps is necessarily bad.   The problem is that pushing for a Giant Leap that is defined for non-technical, non-scientific reasons, with a tight time and/or financial budget, can lead to "fast and dirty" style short-cuts that render the achievement less valuable than initial appearances indicate.
Apollo, Ansari and the Hobbling Effects of Giant Leaps - See more at:

That is: If the goal is defined as "Achieve Giant Leap Goal X as fast and cheap as possible," then the additional goal of "Create a platform useful for leaping beyond X" is not that likely to be achieved as well, along the way.   And further -- as I will emphasize below -- I think the odds of the two goals being aligned are higher if Great Leap Goal X emerges from scientific considerations, as opposed to from socially-oriented marketing or flashy-demonstration considerations.

It's interesting that Messier argues against Giant Leaps and in favor of incremental development.   And yet there is a sense in which SpaceShipOne/Two represents incremental development at its most incremental.    I'm thinking of the common assumption in the modern technology world, especially in Silicon Valley, that the best path to radical technological success is also generally going to be one that delivers the most awe-inspiring, visible and marketable results at each step of the way.   The following graphic is sometimes used to illustrate this concept:

On the surface, the SpaceShipTwo approach exemplifies this incremental development philosophy perfectly.   It's a spaceplane, an incremental transition between place and spaceship; and the spaceship portion is lifted high into the air initially by a plane.   It's precisely because of taking this sort of incremental approach that SpaceShipOne was able to win the Ansari X-Prize with the speed and relatively modest cost that it did.

On the other hand, Messier favors a different sort of incremental spacecraft development -- not incremental steps from plane to plane/spacecraft to spacecraft, but rather ongoing incremental development of better and better materials and designs for making spacecraft, even if this process doesn't lead to commercial space tourism at the maximum speed.   In fact, scientific development is almost always incremental -- the occasional Eureka moment notwithstanding (and Eureka moments tend to rest on large amounts of related incremental development).

It seems important, in this context, to distinguish between incremental basic scientific/technological progress and incremental business/marketing/demonstration progress.   Seeking incremental scientific/technological progress makes sense (though other issues emerge here, in terms of pathologies resulting from trying too hard to quantitatively and objectively measure incremental scientific/technological progress -- I have discussed this in an AGI context before).   But the path of maximally successful incremental business/marketing/demonstration progress often does not involve the most sensible incremental scientific path -- rather, it sometimes involves "fast and dirty" technological choices that don't advance science so much at all.

In my own work on AGI development, I have often struggled with these aspects of development.    The incremental business/marketing/demo development approach has huge commercial advantages, as it has more potential of giving something money-making at each step of the way.   It also has advantages in the purely academic world, in terms of giving one better demos of incremental progress at each step of the way, which helps with keeping grant funding flowing in.   The advantages also hold up in the pure OSS software domain, because flashy, showy incremental results help with garnering volunteer activity that moves an OSS project forward.

However, when I get into the details of AGI development, I find this "incremental business/marketing/demo" approach often adds huge difficulty.  In the case of AGI the key problem is the phenomenon I call cognitive synergy, wherein the intelligence of a cognitive system largely comes from the emergent effects of putting many parts together.   So, it's more like the top picture in the above graphic (the one that's supposed to be bad) rather than the bottom picture.    Building an AGI system with many parts, one is always making more and more scientific and technological progress, step by step and incrementally.   But in terms of flashy demos and massive commercial value, one is not necessarily proceeding incrementally, because the big boost in useful functionality is unlikely to come before a lot of work has been done on refining individual parts and getting them to work together.

Google, IBM and other big companies recently redoubling their efforts in the AI space are trying to follow the bottom-picture approach, and work toward advanced AGI largely via incrementally improving their product and service functionalities using AI technology.  Given the amount of funding and manpower they have, they may be able to make this work.   But where AGI is concerned, it's pretty clear to me that this approach adds massive difficulty to an already difficult task.

One lesson the SpaceShipOne/Two story has, it seems to me, is that aggressive pursuit of the "maximize incremental business/marketing/demo results" path has not necessarily been optimal for commercial spaceflight either.   It has been fantastically successful marketing-wise, but perhaps less so technically.

I've been approached many times by people asking my thoughts on how to formulate a sort of X-Prize for AGI.   A couple times I put deep thought into the matter, but each time I came away frustrated -- it seemed like every idea I thought of was either

  • "Too hard", in the sense that winning the prize would require having a human-level AGI (in which case the prize becomes irrelevant, because the rewards for creating a human-level AGI will be much greater than any prize); OR
  • Susceptible to narrow-AI approaches -- i.e. likely end up rewarding teams who pushed toward winning the prize quickly via taking various short-cuts, using approaches that probably wouldn't be that helpful toward achieving human-level AGI eventually

The recently-proposed AI TED-talk X-Prize seems to me likely to fall into the latter category.   I can envision a lot of approaches to making AIs to give effective TED talks, that are basically "specialized TED talk giving machines" designed and intensively engineered for the purpose, without really having architectures suitable as platforms for long-term AGI development.   And if one had a certain fixed time and money budget for winning the AI TED-talk X-Prize, pursuing this kind of specialized approach might well be the most rational course.   I know that if I myself join a team aimed at winning the prize, there will be loads of planning discussions aimed at balancing "the right way to do AGI design/development" versus "the cleverest way to win the prize."

On the other hand, as a sci-tech geek I need to watch out for my tendency to focus overly on the technical aspects.  The AI TED-Talk X-Prize, even if it does have the shortcomings I've mentioned above, may well serve amazingly well from a marketing perspective, making the world more and more intensely aware of the great potential AI holds today, and the timeliness of putting time and energy and resources into AGI development.

I don't want to overgeneralize from the SpaceShipTwo crash -- this was a specific, tragic event; and any specific event has a huge amount of chance involved in it.    Most likely, in a large percentage of branches of the multiverse, the flight Friday went just fine.    I also don't want to say that prize-driven development is bad; it definitely has an exciting role to play, at very least in helping to raise public consciousness about technology possibilities.  And I think that sometimes the incremental  business/marketing/demo progress path to development is exactly the right thing.   As well as being a human tragedy, though, I think the recent terrible and unfortunate SpaceShipTwo accident does serve as a reminder of the limitations of prize-driven technology development, and a spur to reflect on the difficulties inherent in pursuing various sorts of "greedy" incremental development.


Bill Lauritzen said...

Excellent analysis.

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