Our most significant opportunities will be found in times of greatest difficulty.
― Thomas S. Monson
In economic policy it is well known that monopolies are bad. They are bad for everyone except the people who own and control those monopolies (who invest a lot in retaining their power!). They are drags on growth, innovation and progress. They are the essence of the too big to fail problem. In a very real sense the same thing is happening in science. We are being swallowed by monopolistic ideas. We are too invested in a variety of traditional solutions to problem (which solve traditional problems). Innovation, invention and progress are falling victim to this seemingly societal-wide trend.
We are seeing this in both computers and the codes running on the computers. The seductive nature of these quite capable behemoths is holding sway over a future that offers so much more than we are getting. The moment of epiphany came to me a while ago during some strategic planning for shock physics at work. Basically we have no strategy at all. We have 25 and 30-year-old legacy codes that we continue to develop because they are the only platforms viable within our fragmented funding picture today. The way we fund and manage the work in science is undermining progress and innovation as surely as the sun rides in the East every day.
Looking at our soon to be, if not already ancient codes based on ancient technology I asked how often did we build a new code in the old days? Sure as could be the answer was radically different than today’s world, we build new codes every five to seven years. FIVE TO SEVEN YEARS!!!! Today we are sheparding codes that are at least a quarter of a century old, and nothing new is in sight. We just continue to accrete capability on to these old codes horribly constrained by sets of decisions increasingly divorced from today’s reality, technology and problems. It is a recipe for failure, but not the good kind of failure, the kind of failure that crushes the future slowly and painlessly like the hardening of the arteries.
The deeper question is why we are functioning in this manner? I’d posit an initial answer as a tendency to be obsessively short-term focused in our goals. The stream of decisions leading to our current legacy codes is surely optimal in a per annum basis, just as it is surely suboptimal in the long run. The problem is that the long run has no constituency today. This stems from a rather fundamental societal lack of leadership and vision. We are too easily swayed by the arguments of optimal short-term thinking and unwilling to take risks or invest in the long run success. We see this spirit manifested in our political, business and scientific communities.
Perhaps no greater emblem of our addiction to shortsightedness exists than the crumbling infrastructure. The roads, bridges, electrical grids, airports, sewers, water systems, power plants,… that our core economy depend upon are in horrible shape and no will exists to support them. We can’t even conjure up the vision to create the infrastructure for the new century and leave it to privatized interests that will never deliver it. We are setting ourselves up to be permanently behind the rest of the World. We have no pride as a nation, no leadership and no vision of anything different. We just have short-term narcissistic self-interest embodied by the low tax, low service mentality. The same dynamic is happening at work.
When you do what you fear most, then you can do anything.
― Stephen Richards
We want short term, sure payoff, work without the sacrifice, risk and effort needed any long term vision or leadership. It is exactly what we are getting. We are creating a shell of our former greatness. In terms of codes and the opportunity they provide for modeling and simulation our reliance on legacy code is deeply damaging. In the days past we created new codes on a regular basis along with new modeling capability and philosophy. As a result our modeling approaches would step forward with each new code along with providing a vehicle for innovation in methods, algorithms and computer science. As a result we could try out new ideas for size without completely divesting from what came before. Without the new codes we are straightjacketed into old ideas and technology passes us by. The inability to replace our old codes resulting in legacy codes produces a massive cost in terms of lost opportunity.
How much I missed, simply because I was afraid of missing it.
― Paulo Coelho
The loss of opportunity is becoming increasingly unacceptable. We are producing a future that is shorn of possibilities that should be lying in front of us. Instead of vast possibilities energized by continual changes in our foundations, we have stale old codes, models, methods and algorithms that ill-serve our potential. The application of too big to fail to our codes is creating a slow-motion failure of epic proportions. The basis for the failure is the loss of innovation and a sense that we are creating the future. Instead we simply curate the past. Our best should be ahead of us and any leadership worth its salt would demand that we work steadfastly to seize greatness. In modeling and simulation the creation of new codes should be an energizing factor creating effective laboratories for innovation, invention and creativity providing new avenues for progress.
I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.
― Stephen Jay Gould