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May 26, 2010

Perceived Ludicrousness Levels - How People React To Technology

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Guest Post by Joseph Friedlander.

I was looking up NASA Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) from 1 to 9 to better characterize the state of some upcoming inventions, and I thought about using them to comment upon how ordinary mental resistance to new inventions proceeds. Note that the order parallels the order of the Technology Readiness Levels scale for ease of comparison. (Literally, I took parts of the defining phrases from the NASA paper by John C. Mankins of the Advanced Projects Office—hat tip to him. )



Technology Readiness Levels Summary

TRL 1 Basic principles observed and reported
TRL 2 Technology concept and/or application formulated
TRL 3 Analytical and experimental critical function and/or characteristic proof-ofconcept
TRL 4 Component and/or breadboard validation in laboratory environment
TRL 5 Component and/or breadboard validation in relevant environment
TRL 6 System/subsystem model or prototype demonstration in a relevant environment (ground or space)
TRL 7 System prototype demonstration in a space environment
TRL 8 Actual system completed and “flight qualified” through test and demonstration (ground or space)
TRL 9 Actual system “flight proven” through successful mission operations

Perceived Ludicrousness Levels

A parody and comment upon Technology Readiness Levels

PLL 1 Basic principles observed and mocked— the very concept of space flight declared impossible, unthinkable etc. ‘My head hurts so it can’t work’. ‘I’d feel better in a universe where that was not possible, so go away, etc’.

PLL 2 Technology concept and/or application formulated and disrespected—People cannot get their heads around a specific thing and so instinctively reject it—the idea of one small engine putting out in a few cubic meters, more power than an ocean liner. Or the idea that you can tell the Moon’s distance to a millimeter (vs. a few kilometers) etc. When people say ‘I can’t imagine that could work!’ the proper response is ‘You are making a comment about your mind, not the proposal at hand.”

PLL 3 Analytical and experimental proof-of concept rejected—especially one that is built on at least 3 or 4 nested levels of needed inventions, ONE of which since developing it needs 3 or 4 levels of inventions successfully. But folks, really, this is not like multi-level marketing http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multi-level_marketing where you need to find many levels of superb salesmen (hard to do) picked from random contacts among the general population (darn near impossible) and then they must find willing customers (even less probable than the above.) Here, you are inventing separate inventions and then combining them to a super invention. Many of the biggest projects have been of this sort, at least to make the industrial capabilities for the final project. The atomic bomb required Teflon (as insulation against uranium hexaflouride corrosion) klystrons and Yagi antennas. But unlike multi-level marketing, the inventions (if possible at all) have no power to resist you. They can be made or they can’t. So the combined chances of all working are low, but higher than people’s prejudiced instincts would suggest. In fact, I would argue that such multi-level tech architectures are risky but hold up the prospect of gain in proportion to their risk. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standing_on_the_shoulders_of_giants which gives perspective on the nested nature of scholarship and invention itself. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Program_Evaluation_and_Review_Technique for when you don’t know how long a multi-level development project will take. With the first nuclear subs, the inertial navigation, reactor and air recycling systems all were the equivalent of inventions themselves—the systems as a whole, involving many separate inventions..

PLL 4 Component and/or breadboard validation in laboratory environment—disrespect for “With THIS you’re going to do real challenge X in environment Y?”

PLL 5 Component and/or breadboard validation in relevant environment—contempt for-- ‘Good against remotes is one thing, boy—good against the living is something else…”

PLL 6 System/subsystem model or prototype demonstration in a relevant environment (ground or space) --contempt for a working model as just a toy.---The best example of this was Andrew ‘Slipstick’ Libby’s star drive in Methusaleh’s Children by Robert HeinleinBut prior to the test, pilot Lazarus Long thought it was just a lab-bench toy. . It was a little gizmo carried into space and attached to any part of the relevant ship’s mass—and it took an ocean sized generation ship to the stars. Consider that the first atomic bombs were hand-assembled on the tower or in flight for safety reasons (‘Not on my base you don’t…’) Doesn’t that make them prototypes? That doesn’t mean they cannot be perceived as ludicrous…

PLL 7 System prototype demonstration in a space environment—lack of respect for a fully operational system without a track record. Now there can be reasons for this, based upon the learning curve of the early Space Race era.

Since the original TRL system was written for NASA space devlopment, this is just a better version of number 6. Note the fact of ‘flown hardware’, and the cult of ‘man rating’. How can you prove a negative? The best way would be to buy rockets which have been flown by the CEOs of the development companies as a vote of confidence. That will either weed out the incompetent or provide a bureaucracy free way of telling if a rocket company is serious or desperate enough to make it work.

Note also my ‘bucket test’. I once saw an estimate of a billion dollars for a simple crane for lunar use given the ‘cost plus’ environment of the major aerospace contractors. Just a crane to lift lunar station modules (based upon the space station) off of a lunar lander.

The thing to recognize here is that for certain systems enormously cheap substitutes can be provided at a certain level of risk. My test for this is, you want to take this steel bucket for use on the Moon. ‘Will the bucket hold regolith?’ (moon dirt/sand/rocks). How much would that bucket cost put through their aerospace cost-plus model? I would not bet against a million dollars for a custom lighter, better, more useful bucket—that holds the exact same amount of regolith. PLL7 has sunk many a space company proposal, often with the deadly words, ‘’unflown hardware.” Many times that is a real concern. Sometimes it is not.

PLL 8 Actual system completed and “flight qualified” through test and demonstration (ground or space) –pointing out the dangers of using the new capability-- ‘It will always be far more expensive to do things this way instead of old way X.’ ‘Do we really need to do this when our cities are in crisis/bankruptcy/open street war/etc.’ (The last can be modified to instead include the pet funding need of anyone else, including fellow scientists who hate manned space flight under the ‘fungibility delusion’ as I call it—that funding for X can be substituted to cause Y. Really, it goes back to the budgetmakers who start from scratch, and those scientists are betting they can outlobby every connected Wall Street firm, every retired ex General working for a defense contractor, every retired Senator working for a political action committee as a door opener, etc.

PLL 9 Actual system “flight proven” through successful mission operations –Credit grabbing combined with niche-displacement and rent-seeking. “I always said it can be done. Now let’s junk this obsolete system and fund my favorite social program which ignores heroic engineering challenges and focuses on subsidizing failure…? And once more the engineers are the first to be fired and the last to be fired are the budget cutters themselves.

I will end this article by gently noting that if Wall Street and Washington people had to meet the same accountability/liability standards as architects and engineers do for structures that fall or hardware that dosen’t work – it would be a different (and better) world. Imagine a Wall Street CEO losing his job because his products were deceptive or a Washington lawmaker being stripped of his membership in Congress because what he said his law would do did not happen?

This link has commentary on how damage caused by corporations is not treated equally. (You can hardly accuse BP of being without influence—but law and finance have special status in our society, and though engineers are sometimes accorded respect, they are not accorded equal status with the legal/governing/financial elite.

If you liked this article, please give it a quick review on Reddit, or StumbleUpon. Thanks

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