Tractatus Academic-Capitalismus

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Different from Spinoza (TTP) and Wittgenstein (TLP), my treatise (TAC) is not on Theology or Politics, nor on Logic and Philosophy, but rather on my preoccupation, the ideal relationship between Academia and Capitalism.

I have previously discussed this, in a light hearted manner, in An Academic Capitalist View of Life.

What triggered this post is a message I received on LinkedIn (while I was reading Time of the Magicians, and so Wittgenstein was on top of my mind):

Hi Sridhar, I’m an Executive MBA student at UVA Darden and had the privilege of learning about your company SmartOps through a case in my Marketing class taught by Ron Wilcox. I was hoping to connect with you on LinkedIn. Thanks.

Yes, Marketing! The SmartOps case is about channel partnerships. 

Then, there was a post (also on LinkedIn) from Sanjay Padhi, Head of AWS Research and US Education about Quantum Integer Programming (47-779):

Quantum Integer Programming course at Carnegie Mellon University by Sridhar Tayur and team. Awesome course from scratch to using all three hardware technologies including superconducting qubits (Rigetti), trapped ion (IonQ) and quantum annealing (D-Wave) via Amazon Braket!

To see how far I have come with Test Sets (that I first worked on 30 years ago), that now form the core of Quantum Integer Programming algorithm, GAMA, you might recall a passage from my essay Planned Spontaneity for Better Product Availability (2013):

I will readily admit that these procedures that utilize Grobner basis have not been of much use thus far in solving Practical Problems in Operations Management. However, they have satisfied my inner mathematician needs for pure intellectual elegance uncorrupted by any desire to be of immediate practical use. I am reminded of a comment made by Hermann Weyl:

My work always tried to unite the true with the beautiful; but when I had to choose one or the other, I usually chose the beautiful.

As I have said in Matthew A. Cronin and Jeffrey Loewenstein‘s The Craft of Creativity (2018):

Elegance is not something that should be considered discretionary, but rather an intrinsic feature of a proposed solution. The tragedy in some academic circles is that they make elegance the “whole thing,” losing sight of the problem to be solved, while the pragmatic sort do not have the luxury for aesthetic considerations.

The intersection of elegance and effectiveness is the essential intellectual challenge.

I have always been fully cognizant of the reality that academic research, especially involving mathematics, can take decades, even a century, before they find some unexpected application that revolutionizes how one looks at things, captured so well by Freeman Dyson in Unfashionable Pursuits (1981):

Gauss‘s invention of differential geometry, originating as a by-product of his work on the practical problems of geodesy and map making, was transformed into a new world of abstract generality by the genius of Riemann, emerging 50 years later as the conceptual basis of Einstein‘s theory of gravitation. Common to all these histories are the long time scale, usually longer than a human lifetime from start to finish, and the totally unpredictable quality of the final outcome. In no case did the inventor of the crucial concept have the slightest inkling of the physical context in which his invention would find its ultimate fruition.

The joy in connecting Test Sets with Quantum Computing is hard to express in words. As I said in an Atlantic article (on OrganJet) by Daniela Lamas in 2014:

There’s a certain self-satisfaction to being clever for its own sake. It has nothing to do whether you helped somebody or made money or got a prize. All of those things matter. But there’s this joy when you’re sitting alone in your room and you say, “Aha! I thought about something in a new way.”

It also brings to mind Riemann (1854):

Investigations like the one just made, which begin from general concepts, can serve only to ensure that this work is not hindered by too restricted concepts, and that progress in comprehending the connection of things is not obstructed by traditional prejudices.

This brings me to Alfred North Whitehead‘s The Role of Universities (1929) and why I decided to create the course 47-779:

The justification for a university is that it preserves the connection between knowledge and zest of life, by uniting the young and old in the imaginative consideration of learning…The tragedy of the world is that those who are imaginative have but slight experience, and those who are experienced have feeble imaginations. Fools act on imagination without knowledge; pedants act on knowledge without imagination. The task of the university is to weld together imagination and experience…The task of the university is the creation of the future, so far as rational thought and civilized modes of appreciation can affect the issue.

Universities reside inside a broader society, and for the creation of the future in a competitive marketplace, we also need entrepreneurs. Channeling Schumpeter:

…the joy of creating, of getting things done, or simply of exercising one’s energy and ingenuity; our type seeks out difficulties, changes in order to change, delights in ventures. The entrepreneur is a driven man because that is what he is. Neither consideration of the effort nor satiation of his hedonic needs tames his lust for action.

This is more than just individual self-satisfaction. Indeed, what was said by Sumner Slichter in Fortune (1945) is perhaps really true today:

Jobs do no simply exist. They are created by alert, imaginative and resourceful men who discover or think that they have discovered opportunities to sell something at a profit. These opportunities are exploited by adventurous investors who are willing to risk heavy losses in order to make large gains. A community in which everyone attempted to make a living by getting on someone else’s payroll would be a community of the unemployed.

The eloquence of David Reisman (2004) is hard to surpass:

The market is supply and demand. Seen as statics, it is a gravitational field that produces equilibrium price as if guided by an omniscient auctioneer. Seen as dynamics, it is a voyage of discovery that, powered by profit or driven on by challenge, need never arrive at its final point of rest…. Enterprise is relentless transformation. Newness is the leitmotiv.

Capitalism is newness.

All of this seems really nice, an idealistic perspective of a good life. But we know, all is not well in our society.

Drew Gilpin Faust, then President of Harvard University, wrote in a New York Times piece (2009):

Universities are meant to be producers not just of knowledge but also of (often inconvenient) doubt. They are creative and unruly places, homes to a polyphony of voices. But at this moment in our history, universities might well ask if they have in fact done enough to raise the deep and unsettling questions necessary to any society.

As the world indulged in a bubble of false prosperity and excessive materialism, should universities—in their research, teaching and writing—have made greater efforts to expose the patterns of risk and denial? Should universities have presented a firmer counterweight to economic irresponsibility? Have universities become too captive to the immediate and worldly purposes they serve? Has the market model become the fundamental and defining identity of higher education?

As a nation, we need to ask more than this from our universities. Higher learning can offer individuals and societies a depth and breadth of vision absent from the inevitably myopic present. Human beings need meaning, understanding and perspective as well as jobs. The question should not be whether we can afford to believe in such purposes in these times, but whether we can afford not to.

There is, in our real world, a third piece that also needs to be addressed: poverty, inequity and social justice. 

If physicians could use their skills and create Smile Train and Doctors without Borders, and lawyers could apply their craft through Innocence Project, I wondered, what can an Operations Management (OM) professor do? This thinking is what motivated me to create:

OrganJet and GuardianWings.

Can I do more? How to creatively increase the supply of organs and tissues? This led me to create:

Nudge Videos.

Reaping the benefits of Academic Capitalism, I recalled Brad Bird, the two-time Oscar winning director (The Incredibles and Ratatouille) from Pixar (and also director of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol):

Money is just fuel for the rocket. What I really want to do is to go somewhere. I don’t want to just collect more fuel.

Can I do even more? That is why I created:

RAGS Foundation.

It supports Innocence Project, Polaris Project, Childreach, Children International, Plan International, Kiva, RIP Medical Debt, Smile Train and others, in addition to Documentary Filmmakers and Independent Film Festivals, and, of course, higher education through Endowed Professorship (Institute Chair at IIT Madras), the Tepper Quad and Fellowships for students (to attend CMU).

Back to universities and unfashionable pursuits. Dyson:

I am grumbling because I do not think the fashionable stuff ought to be a hundred percent of what we do here [Princeton]. The fashionable stuff is useful and important and exciting… We ought to seek out and encourage the rare individualists who do not fit into the prevailing pattern. We ought to bias our admission of members a little towards unorthodox and unconventional spirits. If we here do not give the practitioners of unfashionable science a home and a place to work, who will?

If we proceed with good sense and courage to support unfashionable people doing things that orthodox opinion considers irrelevant or crazy, there is a good chance that we shall rescue for science an occasional Sophus Lie or Hermann Grassmann, people whose ideas will still be famous long after all our contemporary fashionable excitements are forgotten.

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