A scale of ambition

Some four months ago, a Hacker News poster asked YC founder Paul Graham what was the “most frighteningly ambitious idea” he had ever been pitched. I suspect the question arose from an essay PG had previously written by the same title, in which he cites as examples a new search engine, replacing email (been there!), replacing universities, Internet “television” drama, being the next Steve Jobs, bringing back Moore’s Law, and ongoing medical diagnosis. PG withheld his answer, but Eliezer Yudkowsky pitched in with a scale of ambition against which to rank ideas.

This came right around a time when I was consciously practising thinking big, trying to re-calibrate my own scale after some years of employment before considering what I wanted to attempt next. I spent some time and thought tweaking and expanding on Eliezer’s scale, trying to come up with existing companies and new ideas at each level. It’s a logarithmic scale, where each level is a multiple more ambitious than the previous (rather than a constant additive increase). Whether or not you decide to go big, I think it’s valuable to hold ideas up to such a scale for a sense of perspective, the better to weigh the costs and sacrifices of ambition against potential impact.

The Yudkowsky scale of ambition (adapted and with examples by me)

  1. “The next Facebook”
    $10s of billion in value, 100s of millions of people impacted. E.g. Facebook (c. 2012), YouTube (post-acquisition), eBay, Mozilla? Napster? BitTorrent? Kiva?
  2. “The next Apple”
    $100s of billion in value, billions impacted, genre-defining innovation, a worldwide product leader. E.g. Apple (c. 2000–2012), Google (search), Amazon, Wikipedia, Android?
  3. Lead sweeping societal change
    Trigger significant social/political change, economic revolution, etc. E.g. the world wide web, email, mobile telephony, cryptography, nuclear weapons. Ideas: re-invent personal transport (kill cars), revolutionise/decentralise agriculture, a globally comprehensive social learning/knowledge store (Wikipedia x10), replace money/traditional commerce, decentralise communication infrastructure, fully national direct democracy, seasteading, a new country.
  4. Change energy/information infrastructure
    Be the essential enabler of subsequent technological advances, or a massive multiplier. E.g. electricity, radio, the Internet. Ideas: invent/discover “free” energy, transmute sunlight into clean fuel (replace photosynthesis), symbolic telepathy, universal maker-bot, land humans on another planet.
  5. Change the human condition
    Fundamentally change what it means to be human. Ideas: I.Q.-enhancing drug, colonise another planet, replace agriculture as source of food, cure aging.
  6. Change life
    Change what it means for something to be alive. Ideas: Drexler-class molecular nanotechnology, replace food as sunlight→biological energy source, create complex life forms.
  7. Change intelligence
    Change what it means for something to be intelligent. Ideas: upload and execute human brain on a computer, create hive mind.
  8. Create intelligence
    Create intelligence from scratch, shortcutting the entire complexity chain of terrestrial evolution. Ideas: general, recursively self-improving AI.
  9. Hack the universe
    The rules no longer apply to us. Ideas:

The biggest change I made to Yudkowsky’s original is to fold nuclear-like weapons into level three, which was also suggested by HN commenters, reducing the number of levels to nine. For the first couple of levels we can talk about existing and future company valuations as a proxy for impact, but after that it stops making sense as the impacts grow beyond what one company or state has ever captured. Non-profits are interesting to think about at these levels since we don’t have company valuations to help. I’d love to hear suggestions of other existing companies or new ideas in these categories.

So what does your company/project/idea score?

The vast majority of ideas anyone ever thinks about are, of course, less ambitious than 1.0. Rather than define a scale below there I think it’s appropriate just to label a vision as as sane, achievable, orthodox ambitious, and talk about goals for usage or revenue. But remember that it’s merely ordinarily ambitious when evaluating the cost of pursuing it. Or, perhaps, aim higher!

Most change comes from small ideas, built on previous ideas, and executed well. Most of the companies (but not the non-profits) cited above started out that way. There’s no shame, and much honour to be had in pursuing an achievable ambition. Even the largest idea I’ve been thinking seriously about rates a 3 (though I hope to see a few 4’s, maybe a 5 or two in my lifetime). But before it achieves the impact of  a 3, it needs to be a 2, and before that, a 1. And way, way before that it needs to create a little value for a few people, and grow from there. And if that’s all it achieves, it will still be a worthwhile pursuit.


2 Thoughts on “A scale of ambition

  1. For the last year, I’ve been making an entirely new range of peripherals for embedded computers which will be the next generation.

    In Australia, you’ll get told not to do that. “Just buy and Apple, don’t make anything here”.

    So I’m preparing for my first shipment of these computers to Japan.

    Ambition isn’t usually tolerated in Australia. Alex I agree and liked the rest of your blog. Enjoyable reading.

  2. Jason Galea on December 28, 2012 at 8:46 am said:

    “Ambition isn’t usually tolerated in Australia.” wow, way to generalise, David. Sure, the underdog is generally well supported, but ambition is “tolerated” just fine as long as you aren’t being a dick about it.

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