Re: poly: Idea Futures, some questions

From: Nick Bostrom <>
Date: Wed May 20 1998 - 17:28:32 PDT

Robin wrote:

> Nick B. writes:
> >>> ... infiltrate the group, ... protect itself from this prying ...,
> >>
> >> This problem is common to all post-production competitive selling of
> >> information. It is far from unique to idea futures.
> >
> >But the question is one of degree. Might not the problem be more
> >serious in academic research which seems to depend on the open
> >collaboration between many researchers and labs? My worry is not
> >allayed.
> The relevant comparison is between different institutions for a given
> application area, not between the same institution applied to different
> application areas. So even if idea theft is more a problem in acadmia
> than elsewhere, that is largely beside the point. Unless you want to
> give particular people a monopoly on working in some area, the problem
> of idea theft is there, regardless of which institution you use.

The problem of idea theft is certainly there today, but I'm worried
that it might become worse with IF. For example, all you need to
steal from a research group on an "Is coldfusion feasible before
2010" future is the yes or no answer they have arrived at. But today,
in order to benefit, you'd have to know their reasons behind their
thinking (You can't publish just a statement saying "I believe in
cold fusion." and expect to become famous for that.) So you need more
information in order to gain today than you would with IF, where one
bit would often be enough.

Also, if you publish an article with exactly the same reasonsing that
some other research group had developed, they may be able to show
that you have plagiarized their work. Then your fame goes up in
smoke. In contrast, with IF, how could anybody prove that your
decision to buy cold fusion futures was based on secret information
rather than just an honest hunch, other than by catching you in the
act? -- This could be an important difference.

> Acadmia definitely does *not* now provide an incentive to publish all
> non-vague insights which other people benefit from. Many academics
> have insights which help them to produce papers, but which they can't
> find a way to directly embody in a article which might be published in
> a sufficiently prestigiuos journal to make it worth their while.

Why would the prestigious journals not publish an explanation of
these insights if their readers would like to read it? And if they
don't, doesn't that create space for a new journal to crop up and
gain prestige?

> Academics could post such ideas on usenet or the web, or on
> poster boards about town, but they don't. They may share them with
> colleagues or students in trade for other ideas or tuition, but they
> ususally don't give them away free.

What's wrong with the naive way of thinking about it: "As an
academic, I usually give my ideas away for free, and I don't think
I'm unusual in that respect, especially since giving away an idea for
free seldom prevents one from "selling" it at a later occasion. For
instance, I might put a paper on the Doomsday argument on my web
site, and when I feel ready I can submit it to a prestigious

> It seems to me that a
> mixed system of publications plus idea futures would offer direct rewards
> on more different ideas, and so be preferable on this issue to either
> system by itself.

Well, I tend to think so too, but on this thread I would like to
focus on some perceived disadvantages of IF.

Nicholas Bostrom
Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method
London School of Economics
Received on Wed May 20 23:36:04 1998

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