Once upon a time, very substantial spinoffs from investments in military technology were fairly common. This trend is not new: for example, John Wilkinson developed a technique for boring iron guns from guns from a solid piece, which led directly to boring precision cylinders for James Watt’s steam engines.

In WWII and the Cold War generated many spinoffs. The cavity magnetron was developed for centimetric radar, but later made an even greater contribution by warming up pizza [microwave ovens]. The diesel-electric transmission used for US submarines also had an application in locomotives. The development of military rockery and ICBMs led to civilian applications such as comsats and weather satellites.

Work in military jet engine technology has often had civilian payoffs.

Integrated circuits were not at first cost-competitive in most commercial applications, but the Air Force wanted them, for Minuteman guidance systems, where reliability and miniaturization were of utmost value: that market helped them get started.

One of the more famous and lucrative spinoffs was the KC-135. The Air Force wanted long-range bombers, and the RAND corporation showed that this could be done more efficiently using aerial refueling [ saved something like $20 billion]. The 707 was a derivative of the KC-135 design, and made Boeing gobs and gobs of money.

Packet switching was developed by the USAF, in search of a system that might survive a nuclear attack.

In the past few decades such spinoffs have become less common. Around 1980, people began to notice that military semiconductor technology was slipping behind civilian semiconductor technology – in part because DOD is bureaucratic and slow, partly because of specialized miltech requirement [radhard] , but for other reasons as well. There were some effort to catch up [VHSIC, the NSA’s support of a superconducting-switch computer] but it didn’t happen. Although if someone gets a quantum computer working, the NSA will have come through.

Today, cutting edge computing technology builds on devices whose original purpose satisfied gamer lust for high-resolution depictions of exploding zombies [GPUs], people searching for porn, and viewing gossip. Nothing wrong with that. Still, it would be nice if we got more civ value out of military research, the way we once did, since we’re going to be doing a lot of military research in any event. Twofers like the KC-135 would be good for the US economy. And unless I’m mistaken, there was a certain tendency for the spinoffs of military R&D to be more ‘real’ than today’s porn&gaming spinoffs.

How can we produce more cool civilian spinoffs from military research?

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130 Responses to Spinoffs

  1. atp says:

    How good is current military research, relative to the past? Could this lack of civilian spinoffs be a hint that it just isn’t much good?

    • ursiform says:

      There is comparatively more commercial investment than there used to be, and it is more consumer focused. Military investment is now more specific-need focused rather than foundational.

    • engleberg says:

      Since WWII it’s been career suicide for a serving officer to write a punchy smart article in the Navy’s Proceedings or the Army War College journals. Army Air Force journals were smart and innovative, but when they became The Air Force with a big budget at risk they got scared and dumb. After the Revolt of the Admirals the Navy journals got especially dumb and safe, and the Army journals dumbed down to avoid annoying JFK after the Bay of Pigs.

  2. Chez grey says:

    Wasn’t DARPA largely behind autonomous vehicle development?

  3. sflicht says:

    The military pretty much mastered UAVs in the 1990-2010 period. Outside of war zones, civilian applications of the tech have been hampered by excessively risk-averse regulators.

    • ursiform says:

      Being risk-averse isn’t automatically excessive.

      The military maintains command and control of drones, because they know they have to.

      Allowing people to fly drones anywhere and any way they want has real implications for air traffic, fire fighting, and law enforcement activities, as well as simple deconfliction between private parties. It’s not an easy problem to solve.

  4. ursiform says:

    Cyber defenses come to mind. The military cares way more about being hacked than commercial software companies care about their customers being hacked. That doesn’t mean they’ve solved the problem. And they will want to keep what they have done supersecret until it no longer addresses a real threat.

  5. jamesd127 says:

    Military technology has gone to crap the way NASA has gone to crap. Obama defined NASAs job as making Muslims proud of their intellectual lead over infidels. Today, our military is to build girls’s schools in Afghanistan in order to raise female self esteem. To this end, marines are forced to march in high heels.

    Today, if you want your science project funded, you don’t tell the military it will be good for turning the enemy into smoking radioactive grease spots, you tell them it will be good for the self image of transexuals and will stop the oceans from rising.

    There is also the factor that government scientists seem markedly dimmer than they used to be, for example the tritium crisis is putting some large part of our nuclear weapons out of commission, and the Plutonium 238 crisis that caused us to launch a space craft with half flat batteries. They just cannot maintain and operate the systems that their predecessors built.

    • pyrrhus says:

      It’s all the Russians fault! They stopped selling us PU-238 as part of a conspiracy to elect Trump….or something.

    • cthulhu says:

      This is utter bullshit.

      First, it’s not government scientists and engineers who make the breakthroughs; it’s engineers and scientists working for private companies who may be pursuing defense contracts, but also may be paying for it on their own dime – lots of private R&D in the aerospace and defense industry.

      But the major reason why military spinoffs are less nowadays is that military technology is getting more and more specialized. There’s no commercial market for stealth aircraft coatings, for example. Civilian markets are the drivers for computer technology, such as chip fab technology, machine learning, advanced networking, low power computing, etc.

      The biggest military spinoff of the last 30 years is undoubtedly navigation in general and GPS specifically, but the miniaturization of GPS receivers was driven by commercial markets such as surveying and timekeeping, culminating in GPS being ubiquitous in our cars and phones. Widely available differential GPS corrections for the civilian C/A code were driven largely by agricultural users. The military is driving a lot of innovation in GPS, but it’s all oriented at the military-exclusive Y and upcoming M codes and will not trickle down to the civil codes.

      One recent military/space aviation spinoff – but it’s really specialized – is fly-by-wire technology. All of the experience and expertise for this came out of Apollo (the LEM was the first digital fly-by-wire aerospace vehicle), the NASA digital fly-by-wire F-8, which was the first digital fly-by-wire aircraft and which also pioneered multiple redundant channels (triplex in this case), and subsequent digital fly-by-wire military aircraft, with the B-2 and the F-18 as the exemplars. (Fun fact: one of the principals of the NASA digital F-8, Albert Myers, was hired by Northrop to be the architect of the B-2 quad-redundant fly-by-wire system.) Fly-by-wire has bought its way onto commercial aircraft because it can enable configuration optimizations that pay off in better fuel economy (fuel is usually either the biggest or second biggest expense of an airline) but would, in the absence of FBW, unacceptably degrade handling qualities.

      • jamesd127 says:

        For a while NASA was working on a Stirling engine that would run for a very long time at high efficiency, having no sliding surfaces to wear. Had they finished that project, would have had lots of spinoffs, but they abandoned it, in part because they were out of Pu238.

        Similarly, Pu238 itself has major spinoffs. Surgery to change the batteries in your pacemaker is extremely dangerous and harmful. It would be great if pacemakers had Pu238 batteries.

        The major reason we are not getting civilian value out of military research is that we are not getting military value out of military research. It is crap.

    • ursiform says:

      I second utter bullshit.

      The tritium and Pu238 shortages resulted from bureaucratic and political inertia, not from a lack of technical prowess.

      Getting girls into school in Afghanistan goes back to the Bush administration. Why is it bad for girls to go to school?

      Your assertions are nonsense.

      • jason says:

        I am pretty sure “diversity and inclusion” are now actual metrics that often take the place of anything real.

      • jamesd127 says:

        Getting girls into school in Afghanistan goes back to the Bush administration. Why is it bad for girls to go to school?

        You win by killing the enemy and destroying things he values. You set his girls on fire, you don’t send them to school.

        Once you have victory, peace, order, and law, then you can worry about sending girls to school.

        • Ursiform says:

          The girls we are sending to school aren’t the daughters of the Taliban. The enemy doesn’t value the girls we are sending to school at all.

          And they don’t much value their own daughters. Pretty willing to kill them themselves if they are displeased with them.

          I think you just like the idea of setting girls on fire.

          • ziel says:

            I personally would really love it if the USA got completely out of the business of sending Afghani girls to school AND setting them on fire, though particularly the latter.

      • savantissimo says:

        “Why is it bad for girls to go to school?”
        Wouldn’t tubal ligation be cheaper? Take a hard look at the effects of social engineering and you can deduce the goals. Having women be most of the college student population ensures there aren’t enough men of higher status for those women to marry. Women pursue higher education and career because they implicitly believe that status will make them more attractive, they project their own desires on men, who don’t care about status nearly as much as looks and personality. Women depress the value of labor by flooding the market, making one-earner households impractical for all but a few. Women are led to waste their fertile years doing make-work instead of becoming mothers. This depresses the fertility rate of the more able and conscientious, who no coincidentally are largely White. The porn, no-responsibility divorce, normalization of perversion, miscegenation propaganda in advertising and mass immigration all are aimed at the same target. The effect is an exponentially decreasing population of responsible citizens and an exponentially increasing population of client proles.

        Consumerism is women. Women receive 40% of wages but control 80% of consumer spending, which means women are six times as valuable a target for advertising as men. Men produce, women consume. The entire system is set up to encourage them to consume more. In the workplace women are still more consumers than producers and they are still pandered to by 90% female HR just as much as they are by advertisers.

        Women – that is, consumers – displacing and impeding producers – men – is the root of the “bureaucratic and political inertia” that prevents men from accomplishing as much as they did before women moved in and made themselves comfortable (miserable) in the workplace.

        • savantissimo says:

          On second thought that should be “four times as valuable a target for advertisers”. Six times is the production/consumption ratio, women spend twice as much as they earn, men earn three times as much as they spend. The M:F ratio of spending that might be shifted by advertising should be higher than four, though, since female spending has a greater fraction of luxuries.

          • Ursiform says:

            Can’t get a date?

            • savantissimo says:

              I have gone through all the paperwork in a few dozen contested divorces, mostly custody disputes representing fathers. A man in a relationship with a woman is taking huge risks, she’s got a legal gun pointed at his head and can pull the trigger at any time. That time the mom sold our clients’ infant son / grandson in New York and we couldn’t stop it was a big eye-opener. So no, I’m not looking for “dates” as you so quaintly put it.

    • Yudi says:

      Not EVERYTHING has been ruined by PC. Just a good number of things.

    • Thiago Ribeiro says:

      “Military technology has gone to crap the way NASA has gone to crap. Obama defined NASAs job as making Muslims proud of their intellectual lead over infidels. Today, our military is to build girls’s schools in Afghanistan in order to raise female self esteem.”
      I kew it was Muslims and scholgirs. And, by blaming Obama (Black), you made 3/3.

    • Thiago Ribeiro says:

      “Military technology has gone to crap the way NASA has gone to crap. Obama defined NASAs job as making Muslims proud of their intellectual lead over infidels.”

      Oh, God,

      • gcochran9 says:

        ” In a June 2010 interview with Al Jazeera, Bolden said that the top three goals he was tasked with by President Obama were to help re-inspire children to want to get into science and math, to expand NASA’s international relationships, and, “perhaps foremost”, “to reach out to the Muslim world… to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science… and math and engineering”.[17][18] ”

        Even the White House thought it sounded stupid, which is saying something.

  6. engleberg says:

    We haven’t got anything from Bell Labs since Jimmy Carter’s judge broke it. NASA stopped giving us new tech after the Democrats cut it off after the moon shot. We stopped getting new light airplane tech when the Democrats made it too easy to sue manufacturers. We will stop getting new tech from videogames when the Democrats break them.

    • ursiform says:

      We probably wouldn’t have the smartphone technology we have today if AT&T had kept its phone monopoly. The antitrust case was filed under the Nixon/Ford administrations (Republicans).

      Apollo was ended under Nixon. (A Republican.) Both Republicans and Democrats have run hot and cold over NASA.

      Maybe you should learn some history rather than just sputter that Democrats ruined everything.

      • ursiform says:

        By the way, the Democrats started the Apollo program.

        • engleberg says:

          By the way, the Reverend Abernethy cut NASA funding. I liked Bell Labs. How do you know there’s an alternate history where smartphones never got developed? Not fact. I know we used to have Bell Labs and now we don’t. Fact. I don’t praise Republicans, who are to blame for some things. But breaking America’s industrial base is mostly the Democrats fault.

        • Toddy Cat says:

          Yeah, they did, but that was then. There’s a huge difference between FDR/HST/JFK and the current manifestation of Democrats squealing about microagressions and Putin Plots. It’s the difference between the Old Left and the New. The Old Left was usually wrong, sometimes bloodily, catastrophically wrong, but they were serious in a way that today’s Leftists are not. The problems that they were complaining about often really did exist, such as huge income inequality, Jim Crow, and peonage. Fighting for the right to be called “xir” and to have sick men in sundresses pee besides little girls is not exactly the same thing.

          • Thiago Ribeiro says:

            Really? Because Reagan, as soon as 1964, assured Americans that Democrats were all the same, a bunch of Communists.

        • snorlaxwp says:

          No, Eisenhower did.

  7. ursiform says:

    Just a thought: Democrats seem to like really smart guys as Defense Secretary, like Bill Perry (mathematics) and Ash Carter (physics). Republicans are more into guys like Don Rumsfeld (arrogance).

    They also like really smart guys at Energy (which makes our nukes), like Steve Chu (Nobel Prize). Republicans are more into guys like Rick Perry (prize if he can tie his own shoes).

    • Not to imply any support for Perry or guys of average intelligence running large departments, but being a really smart guy is not necessarily magic. I’m not sure you get much value added as SecDef beyond IQ 130 or so. Other virtues and abilities come into play.

    • Toddy Cat says:

      Oh, you mean smart guys like Robert McNamara, Ursiform? No wonder we won in Vietnam!

    • Ah, Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize winner in physics, who gave a speech in which he said that a change of three degrees centigrade translates to about eleven degrees fahrenheit:

      (It’s about a minute into the video. Watch and weep.)

      In a not-so-different vein, and getting closer to our host’s original question, there was a multibillion-dollar spy satellite project a decade or so ago, the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA). Supposedly this was to do with small satellites what until then had been the province of large ones: take photographs from orbit. The problem is that the large satellites are large because they have large mirrors, and they have large mirrors because that is what is necessary to get good resolving power. It’s called the diffraction limit; it’s a law of physics. Did the people behind FIA think they could beat the diffraction limit? I don’t know; the details are classified. What is public is that after billions of dollars were spent the project was cancelled completely and they went back to making more of the old-style spy satellites. (There was also a radar-satellite component to FIA, which didn’t get cancelled.)

      It’s hard to have spinoffs from innovations that are completely bogus to begin with.

      • Ursiform says:

        ” Did the people behind FIA think they could beat the diffraction limit?”
        No. They wanted to make a lighter satellite with a similar aperture.

      • dearieme says:

        Dear God almighty. 3 -> 11. Still, an error of only a factor of two probably isn’t bad for a Global Warmmonger. And of course we all know which direction his error was bound to be in, don’t we?

        • Ursiform says:

          You, no doubt, have never made a math error …

          • dearieme says:

            Not when it’s as easy to check as that one. 10% error – hard to catch by rough calculation. Factor of 2: dead easy. I’d expect any physicist or engineer to catch that sort of error on autopilot. What did he do – get someone else to write the script and then parrot it uncritically? Hell, those numbers were purportedly at the core of his policy in government.

      • savantissimo says:

        There is a possibility of inflatable or foldable membrane telescopes such as DARPA’s Membrane Optical Imager for Real-Time Exploitation (MOIRE) program, which is aiming for a 20m aperture. Pairs of smaller telescopes set up for interferometry can also get resolution equivalent to a single telescope with aperture equal to the separation of the telescopes.

        You can beat the diffraction limit different ways. The field is called “super-resolution imaging”. One tactic is integrating a series of images over part of an orbit, perhaps using multiple satellites. Known features in the image, e.g. parking lot markings or vehicles help in figuring out the correct deconvolution of the image distortion. It’s a different field using different techniques, but chips are still made using 193nm light, yet have features below 10nm.

        The NRO gave NASA a couple of spare unlaunched Hubble-class Keyholes nearly five years ago, indicating that the NRO had something better by then.

        • The diffraction limit is not absolute: you can push on it a bit. But the farther below a wavelength you try to go, the worse the condition number of the calculation becomes, and the worsening is exponential.

          As regards making chips, one trick they use is to immerse the wafer in a liquid of very high refractive index: 193nm is the wavelength in vacuum, but the wavelength at the wafer’s surface is much less. Even so, from what I hear they’re still on the move to shorter wavelengths.

          Interferometry is good for things like measuring the widths of stars, where you know it’s a round object and the question is just how wide it is. General-purpose imaging (producing a 2D array of pixel values) is another matter.

          As for inflatable mirrors, good luck getting those to be stable and accurate to within a fraction of the wavelength of light.

    • What has the US Department of Energy accomplished in the last 8 years?

  8. MawBTS says:

    The Siri app was created from AI research funded by DARPA.

  9. ursiform says:

    Another thought: There is a history of Republicans buying lots of last generation systems, while Democrats like to invest in future technologies and put off decisions on major purchases. The former may have the more immediate military benefit, but the topic here is more the latter.

  10. jason says:

    I wonder if “diversity” requirements at large research facilities have lowered their effectiveness.

    A lot of Silicon Valley companies were small when doing great innovation and probably weren’t on our Nanny Government’s radar. Are big tech companies as good at creating new products as they were 40 years ago?

    Looks like most new products are refinements, not breakthroughs.

    • dux.ie says:

      I’ve charted the NatureIndex.com weighted fractional count of scientific paper output WFC against USAtoday university diversity index. For DivNdx less than 0.3 none have WFC greater than 100. Between that and 0.6 only one of them have WFC slightly greater than 300. Above 0.6 a few were above WFC 300 and one (Harvard) at WFC 772. Note the scores for Harvard had been dropping for the last 3 years and Stanford at WFC 530 is catching up. Though there are a lot of scatter (Rsq is low), the regression line is significat at p=0.0004676

      WFC = +278.24 * Div16 -35.0786; n=106; Rsq=0.1115; p=0.0004676

      • dux.ie says:

        For US high school (NAEP G8 reading), the state trend is the reverse and significant at p=0.02234

        R2015 = -12.3248*Div15 +271.032; n=51; Rsq=0.102; p=0.02234

    • Karl Zimmerman says:

      I’m not sure about innovation, but Japan has suffered from the same productivity slowdown as the U.S. for decades now. Hell, IIRC the Japan’s productivity is growing at an even slower rate than the U.S. for around the last decade, if not longer Of course the slowdown in each country could be for different reasons entirely, but given Japan has had virtually no population shift over the recent period, clearly keeping productivity growth at a high rate isn’t just about keeping out the “undesirables.”

      • But Japan’s productivity slowdown is unrelated to American’s recent productivity slowdown for a couple of very good reasons.

        First, Japan deliberately makes its service sector unproductive in order to keep employment up. Japan’s manufacturing productivity, however, is still world class. Unfortunately for Japan, manufacturing has declined as a share of the Japanese economy just as it has in the rest of the developed world, making manufacturing less able to drag the rest of the Japanese economy into the future,

        Second, Japan caught up to the developed economies in the nineteen-eighties. Until that decade, Japan could borrow many productive manufacturing practices from the rest of the world, but that low-hanging fruit has now been picked (unless it opens up its service sector). If Japan is to grow at a rapid pace again, it must either borrow practices abroad that boost service sector productivity or it must develop its own productivity-boosting practices. Japan has done neither, historically.

        Those two reasons explain why the U.S. productivity boom that began in the nineteen-nineties and ended in the mid-oughties never took place in Japan. Computer technology raised the productivity of the U.S. service sector, but Japan refused to use it.

  11. akarlin says:

    I don’t think this is something specific to military technologies.

    The rate of technological growth (especially relative to R&D effort) has been going down since at least the 1970s. We are simply beginning to hit the limits of our cognitive capabilities.

    • jamesd127 says:

      We are simply beginning to hit the limits of our cognitive capabilities

      Oh come on. .We used to be able to build tall buildings. We could not replace the two towers. Other people can build tall buildings, and make a profit on them, we no longer can.

      We used to be able to produce enough tritium to keep a large stockpile of nukes functional. Now we cannot.

      In some fields, progress continues at a slower rate – but in many fields we are actively regressing. If we are hitting cognitive limits, it is because universities are selecting on political orthodoxy, rather than intellectual ability.

      You will notice that the SAT results for whites are not bell shaped, showing that the new SAT maxes out at about IQ105 – that above IQ 105 the SAT is not reliable as an IQ indicator. Similarly, the LSAT maxes out at about IQ120-130. The LSAT cannot tell the difference between one man who maxes out the maths part and another man who maxes out the maths part. LSAT is an IQ test that a smart man can max out, plus random noise.

      Universities lowered their intellectual standards in order to accommodate ever more extreme political standards.

      • Ursiform says:

        “We could not replace the two towers. Other people can build tall buildings, and make a profit on them, we no longer can.”

        We replaced the two towers with one taller one. How does that show we can’t build tall buildings?

        And what is your evidence that all those tall buildings are making a profit?

        • athEIst says:

          Sometimes it takes a while:
          The building’s opening coincided with the Great Depression in the United States, and as a result much of its office space was initially unrented. The building’s vacancy was exacerbated by its poor location on 34th Street, which placed it relatively far from public transportation, as Grand Central Terminal and Penn Station, built decades beforehand, are several blocks away, as is the more recently built Port Authority Bus Terminal. Other more successful skyscrapers, such as the Chrysler Building, did not have this problem. In its first year of operation, the observation deck took in approximately 2 million dollars, as much money as its owners made in rent that year. The lack of renters LED New Yorkers to deride the building as the “Empty State Building”.[36][37] The building only became PROFITABLE in 1950.

          • ursiform says:

            OK, so you can cut and paste from Wikipedia without attribution.

            People don’t normally build buildings with a plan to lose money for 19 years.That’s normally called a BAD INVESTMENT.

            In simple terms, they built unneeded office space they couldn’t rent. The fact that 19 years later the building started making a profit didn’t make it a good investment.

      • Anonymous says:

        ” Similarly, the LSAT maxes out at about IQ120-130. The LSAT cannot tell the difference between one man who maxes out the maths part and another man who maxes out the maths part. LSAT is an IQ test that a smart man can max out, plus random noise.”


        It sounds like you’re full of it. The LSAT doesn’t even have a math section.

  12. kot says:

    Simple: get the military into bioweapons 🙂

  13. Harry says:

    First, we need more and bigger wars.

    Second, we need to fight them against technologically capable opponents.

  14. bob sykes says:

    Lack of military off-shoots is not necessarily a military problem. It goes much deeper. Someone has claimed that there have been no technological breakthroughs since the 60s/70s, and that we are living off the inventions of two generations ago. I think that’s a defensible claim, at least in my own field.

    The effort to develop commercial fusion has been ongoing since the mid 70s, or so, and it is a complete, utter failure. We no longer have a manned space program (but Russia and China do). There is no commercial supersonic aircraft. We have a hollowed out, radically downsized industrial sector. Etc., etc.

    Beyond that we are running huge deficits, deficits so large that we cannot maintain our military (go to Cdr Salamander for details), and yet we are moving aggressively against Islam, Russia and China.

    For a generation or more, the majority of the graduate students in our STEM programs have been foreigners, even at the elite schools like MIT. Almost all of them go home and take state-of-the-art skills with them. Silicon valley imports large numbers of H-1B visa holders because it claims there are insufficient numbers of American programmers. Our whole culture, not just our industry, is being hollowed out and corrupted. The lack of new widgets is just a symptom.

    • JoachimStrobel says:

      I agree fully. I see the same trend looking at my surrounding. And there is only our generation that is responsible for that. A warlike threat from another technology does pull people together and inspires their technology development. WWII is a good example, weaponised LandCruisers do not qualify. I guess a kind of alien invasion would do, or the Chinese placing laser weapons on their moon station.

    • Anon says:

      I feel that is true across the board, nearly. I feel that my field (petroleum geology) is one of the only sectors of the economy where there have been recent (in the last 10 years) technological breakthroughs that really shake the industry. So we saw a huge increase in the productivity of oil men from 2005 onward, but we ended up crushing ourselves with our own success, and crashing the global oil price beyond recovery for at least a decade. So sometimes productivity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

      • JoachimStrobel says:

        I believe that there is hardly any other branch that has less technology breakthroughs than petroleum and mining. Drilling is done like always (sure, there is the top drive and the mud motor, but that is not technology or even science). All geophysical sensors were developed in the 60-70 (with the help of NASA left-overs). As the industry was not able to find new reservoirs after these sensors exhausted their capability, they drilled into shale and cracked it so long and hard that even the most idiotic underground spot produces something burnable. That is not technology, that is brute force.
        Somehow the oil industry made people believe they are using best technology and the best people, but that it is so hard to find more oil and that is why it is so expensive to produce, or will be in the future so that the price of oil ought to be high. Until in places like Saudi people sunk holes in 70 year old reservoirs and simply flooded the market at 10$/b lifting cost so that people would stay away from plastering solar panels over places like Narvik, killing the oil industry in the long run.

        • gcochran9 says:

          You’re dead wrong. Searching for, and extracting, oil and gas is a high art, one that has advanced a lot in recent years.

          I bet you’re not even familiar with percolation theory, or compressed sensing. In fact rough-handed oil geologists were using compressed sensing well before it was cool.

          • JoachimStrobel says:

            I fail to see who uses compressed sensing in the oil and gas business or what it even stands for (are you referring to attribute analyses in 3 or 4 D seismic? Pixar has certainly done more to image analyses and manipulation than oil and gas. Pattern recognition has not moved forward.)
            Percolation theory holds for normal reservoirs. Sure, interesting stuff is in development to explain why oil flows through nanotubes like in shale, there was a recent article about that in Nature. But that was after the fact, like “we fracked it and it even flows, but why”.

      • James Richard says:

        The gauge of success in petroleum production is not how well off it makes the oil men but in how cheap oil is for the rest of us. In that case it was a resounding success.

  15. ohwilleke says:

    Two of the biggest recent military spinoffs are Goggle Earth and GPS.

    • ohwilleke says:

      Other important recent military spinoffs are drones, self-driving cars (and in general car automation technology), advances in airship technology, and facial recognition technologies. And, in medicine, “liquid bandages”, some ER surgical ideas (like early stabilizing surgery followed by lower priority surgery in lieu of person by person triage, and the timing of blood transfusions v. saline infusions), electronic the use of ketamine in lieu of opium based narcotics as an ER pain killer in some circumstances, and developments in prosthetics.

  16. ilkarnal says:

    I think this is the result of the lack of an imminent threat on the horizon. When we thought war was imminent, when looking back we saw a world war five decades ago and then another two decades ago… Well, that pattern makes a man hustle. Once it became clear that a world war every generation or two wasn’t going to be the norm, we could relax, and we did. Instead of developing the next generation of space exploration vehicles we develop complex derivatives and video games – roughly speaking.

    Jim and Anatoly’s notions that it is progressive ideology / the limit of our cognitive capacities ring very false to me. The commies had crazy ideology, didn’t stop them from scaling up from incredible technical feat to even more incredible technical feats from WW2 to the first decades of the Cold War. As for the limit of our cognitive capacities – we made some damn cool inroads with the brains we had, and then just failed to follow up! The inroads are more cognitively challenging than the following exploitation. We’d have to be getting stupider at a blinding pace, and we clearly aren’t.

    • jamesd127 says:

      We’d have to be getting stupider at a blinding pace, and we clearly aren’t.

      Read old and new inauguration speeches. Older speeches are clearly targeted at a substantially higher IQ level than modern speeches. Similarly, World Bank papers.

      We obviously are getting stupider at a blinding pace.

      This is partly dysgenesis – high IQ women generally wind up as independent empowered lonely feminist cat ladies, and partly that our elite is no longer selected for intelligence – compare older university entrance tests with modern day tests.

      The Edinburgh University Calendar – Page 231
      1892 – ‎Snippet view – ‎More editions

      The examinations in English, Latin, Greek, and Elementary Mathematics will be the examinations in those subjects at the University Entrance and Bursary Examinations. … (Candidates are recommended to read Macdonald’s Higher Geometry, Wilson’s Solid Geometry and Conic Sections, and Casey’s Sequel to Euclid, as partly indicating the scope of the examination in Geometry
      How many Harvard grad do you you think could handle an exam featuring questions based on Macdonald’s Higher Geometry, Wilson’s Solid Geometry and Conic Sections, and Casey’s Sequel to Euclid. Indeed, how many could cross the bridge of asses?

      If we still hit university entrants with solid geometry and conic sections, only one in a hundred would be female, if that.

      • MawBTS says:

        OT but weren’t you supposed to be banned?

      • gcochran9 says:

        Most of what you’re saying is wrong. If you can’t do better, you will be banned.

        • jamesd127 says:

          Most of what you’re saying is wrong. If you can’t do better, you will be banned.

          Two towers, New York Skyline. Compare Dubai skyline or Shanghai skyline. Similarly, compare US international airports with Dubai or Singapore airport. If indeed most of what I am saying about broad intellectual decline and technological stagnation is wrong, there is nonetheless sufficient troubling evidence to warrant a more lengthy rebuttal.

          • Ursiform says:

            Our international airports are largely older, and we have lots of them. We don’t have one airport with our national pride tied to it. The condition of our airports has more to do with being cheap than being dumb.

            And a lot of those international projects use western engineering firms, which follow the money. Do you really think Dubai has a nice airport because it is a center of engineering excellence?

            Of course, your avatar is a Looney Toon …

          • jasonbayz says:

            Who designed the Burj Khalifa? An American firm. Skyscrapers are only profitable in a few narrow situations where land in a particular area is really scarce. And the Burj Khalifa may not be one of them:

            “The project’s completion coincided with the global financial crisis of 2007–2012, and with vast overbuilding in the country; this led to high vacancies and foreclosures.[42] With Dubai mired in debt from its huge ambitions, the government was forced to seek multibillion dollar bailouts from its oil-rich neighbor Abu Dhabi. Subsequently, in a surprise move at its opening ceremony, the tower was renamed Burj Khalifa, said to honour the UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan for his crucial support.[9][105]

            Because of the slumping demand in Dubai’s property market, the rents in the Burj Khalifa plummeted 40% some ten months after its opening. Out of 900 apartments in the tower, 825 were still empty at that time.[106][107] However, over the next two and a half years, overseas investors steadily began to purchase the available apartments and office space in Burj Khalifa.[108] By October 2012, Emaar reported that around 80% of the apartments were occupied.[109]”


            As for the airports, I’ve never understood why, if airport X needs renovation, the cost can’t be added to the tickets of those who fly through it. Are flyers a poor group deserving of redistribution? Is it an infant industry which needs to be nurtured? No and no.

            • jamesd127 says:

              Who designed the Burj Khalifa? An American firm

              Dubai is full of very high IQ people, most of whom are western expats, a few of whom are Middle Eastern aristocrats. Those western expats are not going home, which I would interpret as evidence that there is no place for smart people in the US any more.

              We wanted, we needed, to replace the two towers with something bigger and better, regardless of whether it made economic sense or not. The people who could build the Burj Khalifa and make it profitable in Dubai could not, or were not permitted, to do something similar in New York.

              • ursiform says:

                “We wanted, we needed, to replace the two towers with something bigger and better, regardless of whether it made economic sense or not.”

                Um, why? First you argued that we couldn’t build towers anymore, and other people could do it and make a profit.

                When it was pointed out that we built a tower, and others don’t necessarily make a profit on skyscrapers, your argument has changed to our needing to build something big for the sake of being big, economics be damned.

                Hasn’t it occurred to you that the United States doesn’t need to build an uneconomical skyscraper to draw attention to itself? Do you really think anyone believes that whoever has the tallest money sink is the most powerful nation?

                The number of western expats in Dubai is small. Your “interpret[ation of that] as evidence that there is no place for smart people in the US any more” just shows how whacked your thinking is. As your avatar suggests, you are a Looney Tune with a chicken brain.

              • jamesd127 says:

                “We wanted, we needed, to replace the two towers with something bigger and better, regardless of whether it made economic sense or not.”

                Um, why?

                Because the fact that we are incapable of replacing what our enemies destroyed makes us look weak and vulnerable and encourages them to attack us some more.

              • gcochran9 says:

                The incapability bit is nonsense. I could imagine it coming true someday, but it sure hasn’t happened yet. Look, we don’t go to the Moon because there’s no percentage in it: there never was. It was a stunt. Since it wasn’t useful, by pretty much any definition, people wanted to spend the money on other things. One of those people was Richard Nixon. He wanted to kill APOLLO,. understand?

                Interestingly, in Heinlein’s Future History, manned space travel was at first uneconomic, used for military and propaganda purposes. So it ended, for a while. Later, with better technology, it resumed and paid for itself.

                We just got LIGO working. The Europeans got the Large Hadron Collider working in 2010, upgraded it in 2015. I guarantee that either of those is more complex than any skyscraper – probably more so than all the skyscrapers ever built.

              • jamesd127 says:

                The incapability bit is nonsense.

                We went to the moon to show the Russians. We wanted to rebuild the towers to show the Muslims.

                If you saw a bunch of peacocks with small, drab, tails, would you think that they had rationally decided that glorious tales were a wasteful form of status competition and agreed to stop being so silly, or would you conclude that they were sick, weak, and vulnerable?

              • gcochran9 says:

                I’m sure we would have impressed people even more if we’d landed on the Sun.

              • dave chamberlin says:

                Jamesd, the opposite is closer to the truth in most of the things you argue for. There is a huge building boom in high rises in New York City you obviously don’t know about. Which completely negates your points about New York in some kind of downward spiral because they didn’t build two towers where the twin towers were fast enough to your liking. As for Dubai full of western expats who just love it there and will never leave. Wrong again. This country is running out of money and the IMF paints a very bleak future for them. They could run out of money in five years. When the money runs out the expats leave.

              • jamesd127 says:

                Jamesd, the opposite is closer to the truth in most of the things you argue for. There is a huge building boom in high rises in New York City you obviously don’t know about

                You are telling me to disbelieve my lying eyes. Checking Infogalactic for buildings over three hundred meters confirms my lying eyes. Except for freedom tower, no one is building notably tall buildings in New York.

                Compare New York skyline to Dubai, Singapore, or Shanghai skyline. Our inability to replace the two towers with buildings comparable, when we very much wanted to replace them with buildings bigger and better, fits with the overall look of the place. (Freedom tower is taller by cheating, rather than taller by having lots of high office space with lots of window offices for important people to one up each other by window offices higher than the other important person. It is like someone standing on tippy toes to seem tall. Tries too hard.)

                According to legend, Nimrod built the tower of Babel in a largely or entirely hunter gatherer society in order to awe his subjects and his enemies, thus enabling him to exercise lordship over neighboring Kings and peoples, built it for reasons of prestige in a society where it was ridiculously uneconomic, the more ridiculously uneconomic the better. Regardless of whether Nimrod or the Tower of Babel actually existed, the tactic works. Towers do awe people which is why Al Qaeda repeatedly attempted to bring them down. But people looking at New York these days are not going to be awed. I am not awed.

              • jamesd127 says:

                432 Park Avenue NYC is mighty impressive, and compelling evidence against my argument for decline and incapacity. If we could build 432 Park Avenue, should have been able to rebuild the two towers.

                But it is still only the sixteenth tallest building in the world. I am still awed by Dubai and Shanghai.

              • dave chamberlin says:

                I like your spirit Jamesd but you you are consistently full of shit. Somewhere in your dim recesses you know there are smarter people than you and slicker bullshitters than you but damned if you don’t try to out word them all. You can spend your admirable energy huffing and puffing in any direction you want, but liking you I suggest you read a shitload more and argue badly a shitload less and age as wisdom dictates. Stick around, you might learn some things.

            • Ursiform says:

              How would rebuilding two 1360 foot boxes from the 70s show them more than building one modern 1776 foot building? Do you really think anyone is going to look at a 1776 foot skyscraper and conclude the US is weak because we didn’t CHOOSE to build two SHORTER buildings?

              • savantissimo says:

                Top floor height:1268 ft. The 1776 ft. claim is really a stretch.

              • jamesd127 says:

                Do you really think anyone is going to look at a 1776 foot skyscraper and conclude the US is weak because we didn’t CHOOSE to build two SHORTER buildings?

                Top floor height:1268 ft. The 1776 ft. claim is really a stretch.

                Top floor height in the two towers was 1310 feet., plus of course, the two towers had vastly greater floor area.

                When we built freedom tower, the message we gave the terrorists was “You win, we suck, we are no longer the men we once were.”

              • gcochran9 says:

                Ok. I gave you a chance, but you didn’t take it.

              • Ursiform says:

                The case is similar with most modern skyscrapers. And the issue here is showing off.

                I think a fixation on skyscraper height is mostly an issue for guys (and chickens) with endowment issues.

              • Anonymous says:

                Note to self: never argue with a chicken about what it means to be a man.

          • R. says:

            @James A. Donald

            …tell me again, how does SpaceX and their fairly affordable, reusable rockets mesh in with your theory of rapid, generational decline?

            Are you going to say you were obviously wrong – not just because of your inability to explain why IQ should be declining so rapidly (there is, at best, evidence of a very modest recent decline that would be of importance on a timescale of centuries) .. or because you were simply proven wrong by SpaceX eventually building one of their interplanetary craft?

            • jamesd127 says:

              Space X is still working on a reusable booster. When they substantially cut the cost of launches by reusing their booster, that will indeed be progress.

              When they radically cut the cost of launches by reusing all stages of an earth to orbit system, then that will be significant and substantial progress. But they are not working on a reusable second stage to orbit, and may never start work on it.

              Similarly, tell me when I am allowed to take a snooze in my “self driving” car.

              not just because of your inability to explain why IQ should be declining so rapidly (there is, at best, evidence of a very modest recent decline that would be of importance on a timescale of centuries

              When I pointed at the decline in the level of the audience to which inauguration speeches are addressed, I pointed at evidence for a decline that was important on the timescale of centuries.

              For more recent and rapid decline, the underlying causes are not biological (not increasing genetic load and the low fertility of high IQ females) but rather reduced selection of the elite for IQ. Notice that Mensa no longer regards the SAT as measure of IQ, for though the SAT is pretty good at distinguishing between IQ 100 and IQ 105, it fails to distinguish between IQ 105, and IQ 140. LSAT is still good up to 120 or so, but fails to distinguish 140 from 125 or so. Arguably LSAT might well be good up to 130, but there is no bridge of asses in there, nothing that would sharply separate the 120s from the 140s. You will probably say I am crazy, lying, and evil. Is Mensa crazy, lying, and evil?

              If you want to shake out the IQ 140s, have them calculate pi by hand from first principles and do solid geometry. If you want to shake out the diligent, have them draw from memory a map showing the history of Xenophon’s ten thousand upon it, and then annotate it with various facts in Latin and Greek.

            • jamesd127 says:

              simply proven wrong by SpaceX eventually building one of their interplanetary craft?

              You keep telling me about things that are going to happen, but for the period 1972 to the present, things that actually have happened have been considerably less than hoped or expected, resulting in numerous jokes about the “Back to the Future” series of movies.

              I think it is really important for humans to settle space, starting with Mars. For this to happen, need a space race, since at present it is unlikely to be economic.

              To move very large amounts of people and equipment to Mars we need a reusable first stage (under development by Space X, still in prototype stage, arguably working, but not yet actually paying its own way)

              A reusable second stage to orbit. (Barely imagined in any detail,not under actual development, just Space X vaporware. Elon Musk does not even have an internally consistent drawing of his re-usable second stage, revealing it has not been fully imagined.)

              A large space station with artificial gravity from centrifugal force, two habitats separated by two kilometers of piano wire with an elevator connecting them. Not imagined, let alone under development.

              A high power long life plasma engine. (Sort of working, but half built, development abandoned, the skills and knowledge to build these things are being lost and dispersed, much like our tritium and Pu238 production.)

              High power to weight thin film solar cells that look like the feathers of a bird’s tail, rather than tiles. Barely imagined, let alone under development.

              Then put high power plasma engines on a space station with artificial gravity and take it to low Mars orbit.

              • Ursiform says:

                So what you’re really unhappy about is that you don’t get to live in a comic book?

              • jamesd127 says:

                So what you’re really unhappy about is that you don’t get to live in a comic book?

                I am really unhappy that a species that possesses nuclear weapons but is restricted to one planet is likely to perish.

      • Thiago Ribeiro says:


    • another fred says:

      “I think this is the result of the lack of an imminent threat on the horizon. When we thought war was imminent, when looking back we saw a world war five decades ago and then another two decades ago… Well, that pattern makes a man hustle. ”

      You’re close, but not quite there.

      What war does is make people more ruthless, more willing to do whatever is most likely to achieve the goal (winning) with little (or less) concern for who or what must be sacrificed. Compare Patton with Montgomery.

      It’s a cycle. Today we think we can afford the enormous expenditures to raise the “quality of life” for everyone. We actually can’t, we are consuming the wealth and credit of past and future generations (respectively) in the effort.

      Soon it will cycle back with a vengeance.

      • dearieme says:

        “Compare Patton with Montgomery”. By 1944, Montgomery was impossibly conceited but Patton was probably mad.

        • another fred says:

          Patton would not be the first successful military man to be nuts. The point is, his “eccentricities” were tolerated in wartime because he accomplished things.

  17. dearieme says:

    “Still, it would be nice if we got more civ value out of military research”: I’d settle for getting military value out of military research. The US seems to have bought a lot of military junk recently, and not only the US; the UK has done so too.

  18. Greying Wanderer says:

    “How can we produce more cool civilian spinoffs from military research?”

    If that includes civilian spinoffs from research that could be spun as military to get funding

    if we’re going to be friends with the Russians now then low flying space rocks maybe -> moon base alpha with long range detectors and a cool ray cannon
    exo-skeletons and prosthetics: surgery survival -> lots of limbless people. prosthetic eyes for the blinded etc
    assume genetic bio-warfare as a potential threat so put lots of money into identifying what each gene does (medical reasons really but use military spin for the funding)
    long term threat: assume eventual space rock ending despite moon base alpha then to save the whales we’ll have to terraform and seed a rock somewhere in this solar system or another – it’s a lot of work but there you go – just one of those you gotta do

    (seriously i think people need a frontier as inspiration or all their innovation and creativity goes into making better video games)

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      moon base alpha with long range detectors and a cool ray cannon

      exo-skeletons and prosthetics

      identifying what each gene does

      save the whales by terraforming and seeding planets

  19. melendwyr says:

    If we develop a technology, but lose it in little more than a generation, I’m not sure it counts. Specifically, advances in rocket design that the Apollo program was intended to showcase – as far as I can tell, the military wanted to demonstrate to the Soviets that they could control the ‘high ground’ if it came to conflict, and sending humans to the Moon was a politically neutral way of demonstrating that. But now we use the Russian rockets to send stuff up because we can’t recreate the tech we used to have (so I am told).

    • Ursiform says:

      We use Russian rocket motors because they are cheap, not because we can’t build rocket motors if we want to. It may not be wise to take the cheapest path, but we’ve been doing it.

  20. biz says:

    In the future the biggest spinoff will be quantum computing and accompanying cond mat physics developments. This is a major focus of DARPA because of all the cryptographic (breaking) inpmications.

  21. j says:

    Lets mention the Google Lunar XPRIZE (GLXP), which calls for privately funded spaceflight teams to be the first to land a privately funded robotic spacecraft on the Moon, travel 500 meters, and transmit back high-definition video and images.

    5 teams remain in the competition. SpaceIL (Israel), Moon Express, Synergy Moon, Team Indus, and Team Hakuto, having secured launch contracts (with SpaceX, Rocket Lab, Interorbital Systems, ISRO, and ISRO respectively).

    It is interesting that today, moon exploration is a search-algorithm spinoff. Progress always happens in the margins.

  22. savantissimo says:

    There is a backlog of decades of advances that never got commercialized, largely because the pace of advances in all areas was too high to have a likelihood of making a profit on development of any one advance before it became obsolescent. Setting up a system explicitly to commercialize technical advances that tipped the risk / reward sufficiently to make development profitable should work. How to prevent it becoming a pork barrel is the question.

    Another problem is IP, it’s hard to take the risk of development when the second guy to market doesn’t have that overhead. The IP system has to value the difficulties of commercialization more highly than the most often useless patent disclosures, let alone the copyrights that are (ab)used to protect software. A workable system has to pay all the essential steps in in bringing products to market. Now nobody gets paid for all those things that never make it to market, the system is non-functional. I have proposed a national patent pool, which would also include other types of manufacturing IP. A way of valuing and paying contributions to the pool and encouraging domestic use, even if quite imperfect, should increase the creation and use of technology.

  23. Proposals:

    Include manufacturing speed requirements for new contracts. For example, want a contract to build a new aircraft carrier? Gotta build the ship in N months where N is substantially less than it took last time. This will drive the contractors to use more automation to do it fast enough.
    Choose military problems to solve that can only be solved by doing things that have large civilian benefits. This is very difficult because the problems have to be hard but solvable and still useful. It can be really expensive as long as the spin-offs are cool. What would be as expensive as the F-35 but produce lots of spin-offs?

    Can you think of anything useful that could only be done with a really large budget and lots of engineers but really is solvable if enough engineers are thrown at it? Something civilian companies aren’t going to do anyway?

    • gcochran9 says:

      A von Neumann machine. Self-replicating.

    • savantissimo says:

      A factory toolset that can economically and autonomously make its own parts (aside from semiconductors and commodity materials at first) as well as a wide range of salable products would be a good start on a von Neumann machine, and it would be valuable on its own. Most of the difficult software for von Neumann machines would have to be created and debugged to get such an automated factory to work at all, but in the meantime it could be operated manually. Dani Eder’s “seed factory” program, which he originally designed for lunar use while at Boeing is the sort of thing I mean.

      To be competitive with existing manufacturing methods, such a factory would require designs for hundreds to thousands of types of major equipment, each requiring dozens of engineers and millions of dollars per year in development. It could easily use several billion dollars per year without the waste usually seen in that size program. An “industrial economy in a box” would be fantastic for military logistics. There are ways of structuring the ownership of the capital equipment that would give more flexibility of operation, lower financial risks, and have rents and profits replacing most wages, so maintaining broad prosperity and the public’s ability to buy factories’ products.

      • Greying Wanderer says:

        “a wide range of salable products”

        robots don’t have any spending money

        • savantissimo says:

          That problem was what the last sentence was addressing. The general idea is to have those who would be workers in an old-style factory instead send in robots to do their jobs and collect rents rather than wages. More specifically:

          Have each piece of equipment owned by an individual or small partnership, financed through machine-secured loans; limit ownership concentration through insurance, loan and contractual requirements; have owners rent or lease time on equipment to each other or to “fabless” manufacturers, who now need have no capital tied up in factories. The factory building itself, utilities and services are handled by a service corporation that sticks to that niche, similar to the relationship between a mall and its stores.

          By swapping time on each others’ equipment, each equipment owner effectively multiplies his capital and can make complete products without goods changing hands at intermediate stages of production, so no succession of overheads, profits, taxes, marketing expenses, and the value added for goods used by the maker rather than sold is usually untaxable.

          Machine time in nominal hours becomes effectively an internal currency (actual use hours per nominal hour varies at market rates). Using machine hours to make more equipment effectively lets owners issue their own money backed by the new equipment. This can be converted to dollars by selling the equipment to another owner (who may also buy it with a machine-secured loan, which creates the money in the usual way.) Production is balanced with demand via rents rather than wages, and production of capital equipment is also balanced with money creation.

          Some structure of the sort is going to have to become common or automation will lead to the economy seizing up and a dystopian world as people no longer have the income to buy the products of automation.

          • James Richard says:

            Better yet, control human breeding tin order to maintain a global population at a few million and make wilderness camping fun again.

  24. Mike Pearlman says:

    Any comments on the EM Drive, an apparently novel propulsion system?

  25. Pingback: This Week In Reaction (2017/02/12) - Social Matter

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