What Do We Mean by Technological “Moonshots”? And Why Should We Care about Them?

by on February 6, 2018 · 0 comments

We hear a lot these days about “technological moonshots.” It’s an interesting phrase because the meaning of both words in it are often left undefined. I won’t belabor the point about how people define–or, rather, fail to define–“technology” when they use it. I’ve already spent a lot of time writing about that problem. See, for example, this constantly updated essay here about “Defining ‘Technology.'” It’s a compendium I began curating years ago that collects what dozens of others have had to say on the matter. I’m always struck by how many different definitions are out there that I keep unearthing.

The term “moonshots” has a similar problem. The first meaning is the literal one that hearkens back to President Kennedy’s famous 1962 “we choose to go to the moon” speech. That use of the terms implies large government programs and agencies, centralized control, and top-down planning with a very specific political objective in mind. Increasingly, however, the term “moonshot” is used more generally, as I note in this new Mercatus essay about “Making the World Safe for More Moonshots.”  My Mercatus Center colleague Donald Boudreaux has referred to moonshots as, “radical but feasible solutions to important problems,” and  Mike Cushing of Enterprise Innovation defines a moonshot as an “innovation that achieves the previously unthinkable.” I like that more generic use of the term and think it could be used appropriately when discussing the big innovations many of us hope to see in fields as diverse as quantum computing, genetic editing, AI and autonomous systems, supersonic transport, and much more. I still have some reservations about the term, but I think it’s definitely a better term than “disruptive innovation,” which is also used differently by various scholars and pundits.

Regardless of what we call them, “We Need Large Innovations,” as as entrepreneurship zealot Vinod Khosla argues in a recent essay. Why? Because as I point out in my new essay:

we should push for more moonshots because there is a profoundly positive correlation between innovation and human prosperity. Countless economic studies and historical surveys have documented the symbiotic relationship among technological progress, economic growth, and improvement of overall social welfare. Big innovations spawn big gains for society in the form of more choices, greater mobility, increased wealth, better health, and longer lifespans.

I hope to build on this point in a forthcoming paper and eventually in a new book. Big innovations–whether we call them “moonshots” or whatever else–pay big dividends for society.

Consequently, getting innovation policy right is essential because, as the great economic historian Joel Mokyr has shown, technological innovation and economic progress must be viewed as “a fragile and vulnerable plant, whose flourishing is not only dependent on the appropriate surroundings and climate, but whose life is almost always short. It is highly sensitive to the social and economic environment and can easily be arrested by relatively small external changes.” Thus, like a plant we wish to grown, we must constantly nurture our innovation policy environment if we hope to grow and prosper as a society. We cannot rest on our past successes. “What matters is the successful striving for what at each moment seems unattainable,” said  F. A. Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty. “It is not the fruits of past success but the living in and for the future in which human intelligence proves itself,” he rightly concluded.

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