What Makes A Good Public Invention Project? (long form)

“80% of projects are trivial. 20% are impossible. We must work in the thin boundary between these two classes.” — Edsger Dijkstra (quoted from memory)

Public Invention fosters project-based invention teams that work “In the public, for the public.” Experience has shown this is a great way to learn, although learning is a secondary benefit rather than the purpose of a Public Invention project. The purpose of a Public Invention project is to turn a germ of an idea into a practical invention which is a gift to all humanity.

One of our mottoes is that “Ideas are cheap.” It takes long effort to develop an idea into an invention that can be explained to and implemented by others, if it succeeds at all. This effort is best directed at the projects that will benefit humanity the most with the best chance of success.

Love is relevant. If an inventor loves a project, they should work on it. Public Inventors should follow their inner voice—when they can hear it.

But when one is not called to a particular project, how may one choose between   many projects? After all, Public Invention has a list of 45 projects already, and is always ready to accept more. Both the individual seeking to join an invention team and Public Invention as an non-profit organization should strategically decide where their energy, time, and, least of all, money, is expended.

This is an attempt to create a guide to evaluating Public Invention projects.

The Basics

I love to play poker and chess; I am better at chess but evaluating a Public Invention project is more like poker.  

A poker player makes a series of decisions about how much to bet. Usually, a player does not know for sure whether they hold the winning hand. They have to consider probabilities. There is no other way to play poker, and there is no other way to be a Public Inventor. If you know for sure that your project will succeed, it probably is not worthy of the title “invention”, but is rather an innovation or a craft. Without some risk, there is little reward.

Sophisticated poker players can intuitively compute “the expected value of a pot of money”: the value of the pot times the chance of winning. 

Expected Value [E] = Value if Successful [V] * Chance of Succeeding [C]

E = V * C

Both of these are dependent on what other plays do and have, but one can make educated guesses, and so can the Public Inventor. In the case of poker, the value if successful [V] is measured in money.  [C] is a probability, therefore a fraction, so the expected value [E] is also measured in money. 

The “value” of an invention is not what money you can make from it, but the impact on human beings that it will have. Buckminster Fuller has shown us this impact is not always positive. There are things that help and heal (“livingry” in his terminology) and things that hurt and harm (“killingry” in his terminology, and “weaponry” in ours.) We do not build weapons.

The “chance” of accomplishing a given invention project is also dicey. We have a project to reduce the time (in the field without a laboratory) to identify fecal contamination in drinking water to see if it is safe to drink. Today this can be done in 48 hours; can we reduce this twelve hours? Twelve minutes? Twelve seconds? This cannot be known for certain, but it is our responsibility to make educated guesses.

Later we will show how the “value” and “chance” can be reduced to actual numbers, though they will remain debatable and subjective. For now let us think qualitatively. All else being equal, if a project has high potential impact and high chance of success, do that. If a project has low potential impact and low chance of success, avoid it.

The choice between a high-impact project with low chance of success and low-impact project with high chance of success is less clear. Experience from software engineering has shown that the exercise of attempting to estimate both the chance of success and the impact of a project in actual numbers is extremely useful and informative, even if never completely objective.

The Side Benefits

Before discussing how to attempt to quantify V (impact) and C (chance of success) for a Public Invention project, let us reiterate that a Public Inventor should follow their heart. Public Inventors don’t get paid. Doing what is fun may be the best thing you can do. The universe speaks to all of us in different ways. What is brilliant for one is bonkers for another.

Even if a project fails miserably, there are many side benefits to working on a project.  If you wanted to be very mathematical, you could modify the equation above to include [S], the value of side benefits, to:

E = V * C + S

The side benefits may be independent of the chance of success.  Side benefits include:

  • Learning something new.
  • Helping out a friend on a project.
  • The satisfaction of being part of a collaborative team.
  • Increasing your personal network.
  • Adding to knowledge related to a project even if it fails.

One of the goals of Public Invention as an organization and movement is to make these side benefits as high as possible, to make inventing for the public as satisfying as it can be for as many people as possible.

The Chance of Success

The chance of success [C] may be stated as a simple probability, like 10%. In reality, a project does not simply “fail” or “succeed”: there is a spectrum of success, and a probability distribution could be assigned to each level of the spectrum. But we need not overthink this.

If a project is guaranteed to succeed (that is, C = 100%), then it probably is not really an “Invention”. For example, making a solar-powered radio-controlled car has been done before. Such a project might be innovative, but cannot really be an invention. We might call this “trivial”—though of course anyone, including myself, might have some trouble really getting it to work! 

Some projects have no chance of success. A perpetual motion machine is an example. It is not difficult, but impossible, and need not be considered. Part of Public Invention’s job is guard against quackery.

What about something very, very hard, like:

  • Strong artificial intelligence,
  • Proving or disproving P = NP
  • Fusion power generation

As far as we know, such projects are not impossible, and will someday be accomplished. The impact [V] of such projects is very high. However, the chance of a Public Invention team accomplishing them in the next 10 years is effectively zero, and therefore not worth considering.

For more realistic projects, the chance of success depends on the team. For example, what is the chance that Rapid E. coli detection project will be able to reduce the time for a reliable E. coli count to 6 hours?  For myself, it might be 10% after two years of effort. If a skilled biochemist joined the team, this number might go up to 20%. If a highly skilled maker who could build custom microscopes joined the team, this might go up to 40%.

Public Invention projects should exist between the trivial (guaranteed to succeed) and the impossible (guaranteed not to succeed.)

Practical Factors for Success

The chance of success depends on circumstances. For Public Invention in 2020, some kinds of projects are more practical than others.

Although someday we hope to be able to financially support projects that require expensive investment but provide a high impact-per-dollar expected return, for the foreseeable future Public Invention projects, like most projects taken on by makers in general, have to be budget-conscious. However, this is not the limitation it once was.

The Public Inventor of 2020 has at the disposal tools that were out of reach a decade ago. These include:

  • 3D printers for under $500
  • Laser cutting and other CNC services
  • The ability to order metal 3D printed parts at reasonable (but not low) cost (e.g. from Shapeways)
  • Dirt-cheap microcontrollers (the Arduino family being an outstanding, but not sole, example.)
  • Powerful low-cost computers running Linux
  • Very powerful free software packages for numerical computation (Python libraries), CAD/CAM, modeling (OpenSCAD), simulation, circuit design (Fritzing), circuit simulation (Spice), printed circuit board design (EagleCad and KiCad), printed circuit board prototyping (e.g. OshPark) etc.
  • Vastly improved wireless connectivity at different scales (Bluetooth, LoRa, WiFi)
  • Inexpensive micro-processor compatible digital cameras
  • Affordable rare-earth magnets
  • RaspberryPi complete computers
  • Slightly improved battery technology (lithium ion)
  • Slightly improved photovoltaic technology

Most importantly, the internet has made available a wealth of knowledge freely shared and thereby steadily enriched what is possible. The “hobbyist” can do in 2020 what could only be done at University laboratory in 2000.  Overall, I would estimate that within certain realms doing serious research costs about 1/5th what it did in 2010. Because it is positively counter-productive to seek patents when inventing in the public interest, Public Inventors avoid both the secrecy and legal fees associated with patenting.

Some fields of endeavor remain very expensive. Large mechanical devices and engines have perhaps not benefited from decreases in cost. Chemistry is my weakest science; I am unaware that it has gotten cheaper. Projects that are dangerous to human beings continue to require very expensive safety considerations. For example, a new kind of flying machine, aeronautics innovation or underwater vehicle at a human carrying scale could not practically be developed by a small volunteer team; but tiny versions of new technology could be. The intellectual effort of developing on a smaller scale may actually be beneficial.

Finally, our society has shown itself more willing to independently fund humanitarian research efforts every year through crowdsourced funding. We may be entering a golden age of invention.

The fuller: A new unit of impact

The other part of the equation is the value, or the impact, of the invention. This is literally the multiplicand [V] of the chance of success.

But it is not measured in dollars. Nor is it measured in number of human beings, because some inventions are more impactful to individuals than others. For example, most of us will never need a defibrillator, blood transfusion, artificial limb, or open-heart surgery. But for those of use who do, these inventions are of the greatest possible impact, saving our very lives.

Nor can it ever be completely objective or agreed upon. I consider the polio vaccine which prevents infantile paralysis one of the greatest boons to humanity ever created; you are free to disagree.

Nonetheless, the fact that something is difficult and subjective does not prevent us from attempting it. We therefore propose a subjective unit of measure of human impact of an invention. We name this unit the “fuller” after Buckminster Fuller, a great inventor, and, more importantly, and advocate of the very idea of inventing for the public good. The purpose of this new unit is to facilitate conversations about, and comparisons between, multiple projects under consideration. Subjectivity is inherent in the process, but a shared nomenclature and unit of measure helps clarify the process, as “story points” can assist in estimating and comparing components of software development.

We define:

1 fuller = the human impact of all of the many inventions of Buckmister Fuller in his lifetime

As you can see, this definition is itself subjective. Nonetheless we have developed an infographic that makes some subjective choices for the purpose of explication.

The Fuller Sacle
The Fuller Scale: A measure of Humanitarian Impact of Inventions

The fuller is a large unit; most of us can only hope to contribute a small fraction of a fuller in our lifetimes. For most projects, the “millifuller”, or one-thousandths of a fuller, is a practical unit of measure. I will die happy if at the end of my life I can look back on 100 millifullers worth of public inventions.

Despite its limitations, let us consider the value of using the millifuller to evaluate projects by applying them to some actual Public Invention projects.

  1. Project #41: Rapid E. coli detector: https://github.com/PubInv/PubInv/blob/master/ideas/Project%20%2341:%20Rapid%20coliform%20presence%20detector.md this project has the potential to save thousands of lives and give millions of people cleaner water by helping to quickly measure whether water is potable or not. 80 millifullers
  2. Project #16: Tetrobot: https://pubinv.github.io/tetrobot/ A project to revolutionize robotics by constructing a shape-changing machine similar to an octopus tentacle. Such a machine could be a temporary bridge, help in search-and-rescue after a disaster, be used in outer space, or even build a better arthroscope if it could be scaled down. 50 millifullers
  3. Project #47: Math Tablet: https://github.com/PubInv/math-tablet Imagine every student and researcher in the world having a genius mathematician as a tutor to looking over their shoulders as they scribble their math homework, or serious research on a tablet, in their own handwriting and sketching. 40 millifullers
  4. Project #19: Single-chamber biochar producer and stove. https://github.com/PubInv/PubInv/blob/master/ideas/Project%20%2319:%20Single-chamber%20biochar%20producer%20and%20stove.md Biochar is a means of carbon sequestration, which in theory could reduce global warming. Attempting to make this possible on a small scale could help those in the developing world who still cook on open fires by making an efficient stoves that allowing cooking simultaneously to the production of biochar, for use as a portable fuel or for direct enrichment of the soil. 150 millifullers

In other words, I consider the Rapid E. coli detector project and the Math Tablet to both be valuable, impactful gifts to humanity, but if they could both be accomplished, I would consider Rapid E. coli twice as valuable as Math Tablet. More valuable still (but much more difficult to develop) would be a cookstove that lets one cook with wood fuel that decreases carbon emissions compared to open fires or existing cookstoves.

The point of the fuller as a unit of impact of humanitarian invention is neither its accuracy nor its precision, but rather in being a useful framework for discussion. For example, one can imagine a conversation like this:

A: “Clearly global warming is the greatest threat to humanity we now face, how can you assert that Math Tablet, which is just an aid to education and engineering, is even one fourth as valuable as a carbon-reducing cookstove?” 

B: “Yes, but a carbon-decreasing cookstove does not instantly solve global warming, it is but one small part of a solution, and anyway it would require an investment of capital to get millions of such cook stoves in place, whereas Math Tablet is just free software, and anyone with a computer can use it.”

A: “But isn’t a cookstove cheap?”

B: “Well, cheap by Western standards, maybe. The project doesn’t define the cost of the invention.”

A: “Well maybe it should.”

B: “I agree; maybe it should. A $2,000 cookstove is not really worth 150 millifullers but a $200 cookstove might be.”

An individual inventor might be highly motivated to produce even a single millifuller. When a maker starts to become more motivated by the human impact of their work than by “coolness”, they are maturing from a craft-oriented maker into a Public Inventor.

How much any one person values a side benefit, such as camaraderie or learning Python, is up to them. If they can compare a side benefit to them of producing a millifuller to them,  they can make dimensional sense of the equation E = V * C + S by understanding what the expected value to them personally is of joining a project. 

Assigning Impact (fullers)

Whether one finds the numeric unit of measure of the fuller useful or not, we can enumerate questions that bear on the impact to humanity of any proposed Public Invention project:

  1. How many human beings does this invention effect? Is it universal (polio vaccine) or very specific?
  2. How deeply will they be affected by this invention?
  3. Does this invention make the world more equal, or is it usable only be people who are already relatively wealthy?
  4. Is this invention easily misused?
  5. Does this invention tend to increase pollution or decrease it?
  6. If the invention is made practical, how easily will it be to deploy in a useful way to a large number of people?

Most of these questions relate to moving from potential impact to actual impact.

It is not the job of public inventors to finance placing inventions in the hands of the whole world. Inventions are valuable even if they are expensive. It is not the job of a public inventor to ensure their invention is never misused to harm anyone. All inventions can be misused as a weapon in one way or another. It is not the job of a public inventor to ensure their invention makes the world more equitable. Humanity progresses even if poverty is not eliminated.

Nonetheless, a public inventor should think about these things in choosing what project to invest their time and energy into. Invention is the most spectacular means of human progress. As Buckminster Fuller has persuasively argued, it is not neutral. To add to the body of human knowledge, to invent something new and useful, is a great power, and with great power comes great responsibility.

Conclusion: What makes a good Public Invention project?

Those of us who are very systematic and quantitatively inclined could actually calculate the expected value of a project using the equation: E =  V * C + S. Doing so is especially valuable for comparing projects.

At a more qualitative level, a good Public Invention project:

  • Has a high positive impact,
  • Is in an area which has been made less expensive by recent technological advances,
  • Has a chance of success which is neither too high nor too low, and
  • Provides side benefits to the inventors who join the invention team.

But in the end, a good Public Invention project is one that excites someone enough to “Invent in the Public, for the Public.”






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