Yuri Milner and the Fellowship of Silicon Valley Science Influencers
“Who are we?”
That impossible question opened the 2015 public letter announcing a well-heeled SETI project called Breakthrough Listen. Dozens of people—scientists, astronauts, and also a producer, a chess champ, and a soprano—signed the note, which kicked off a $100 million effort by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner to catch signals from alien civilizations. That quest, Milner and the signatories hoped, would answer that existential query. “With cooperation and commitment,” the letter continued, “the present century will be the time when we graduate to the galactic scale, seek other forms of life, and so know more deeply who we are.”
This wasn’t Milner’s first foray into science funding. In 2012, his foundation set up the Fundamental Physics Prize, which passes $3 million and red-carpet accolades to promising researchers. The next year, he set up the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, and the year after that came an award in math. Milner has also started a program to send a missive to aliens (Breakthrough Message), to develop technology to find Earth-like planets nearby (Breakthrough Watch), and to send tiny spacecraft to Alpha Centauri (Breakthrough Starshot). Together, Listen, Message, Watch, and Starshot are called the Breakthrough Initiatives.
Milner, who has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Silicon Valley companies Facebook and Twitter, isn’t alone in his scientific ventures. Joining him on Breakthrough’s boards and bank accounts are some of the tech world’s other heavy hitters, like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Alphabet’s Sergey Brin, and Alibaba’s Jack Ma. In a time when scientists have to scrounge for every last penny of grant money, these philanthropic efforts seem like lifesavers, helping keep a select few afloat while others continue to flounder.
But last Sunday, investigations into the Paradise Papers revealed that some of the money Milner had invested was connected to the Russian state. That blurs the nature of the wealth backing the various Breakthroughs, and has caused some scientists to question the ethics of accepting these prizes and participating in these projects. Beyond that whole authoritarian government thing, too, is the question of why all these internet moguls are so deep in on science—and just how deep in they are.
The context for tech’s participation in Breakthrough Stuff—specifically, the alien-focused Initiatives—goes back decades. Silicon Valley’s interest in alt-life started in earnest in the ’70s, says SETI pioneer Jill Tarter. In 1971, NASA published the Project Cyclops Report, which laid out how humans could systematically search for radio signals from ET. The project was co-directed by Hewlett-Packard R&D lead Barney Oliver. “Once Barney got the bug, he button-holed everyone he knew in the first generation of Silicon Valley engineers and bent their ear about Cyclops and SETI,” says Tarter. Technologists—Hewlett, Packard, and Paul Allen in the ’90s and early aughts, Qualcomm’s Franklin Antonio more recently, and Milner lately—have been seeding alien-seeking ever since.
Breakthrough’s web of web entrepreneurs is tangled up—with itself and with federal space science. The intertwining starts, interestingly, at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California—just over eight miles down from Facebook HQ and around three from Google, and a hop-skip down the hill from Yuri Milner’s $100 million house (who knew finding a suitable place to live cost as much as finding aliens?).
Starting in 2006, scientist Pete Worden acted as director of Ames. That year, in an entrance interview with Space News, he laid out a vision: “We would like to be a template for working with the private sector,” he said. Under Worden’s leadership, Ames’s private partnerships flourished, and he brought the private sector’s attitude—do it fast, do it cheap—to space missions, making Ames a leader in smallsat development. At the campus’s NASA Research Park, companies and non-profits could pay rent for space, from which they could collaborate closely with industry, academic, and government partners. Among the current park partners is the Breakthrough Prize.
Another company affiliated with a Breakthrough board member—in this case, Sergey Brin—also leases part of Ames. In 2014, an Alphabet tentacle called Planetary Ventures, LLC, signed a 60-year lease at the NASA center (this after a smaller-scale Google lease of 42 acres in 2014). Planetary Ventures now has rights to 1,000 acres on Ames, acreage that includes historic hangars just a couple parking lots over from the Research Park. Ames declined to comment on either Breakthrough’s or Google’s recent leases.
In February 2015, Worden retired from Ames. He wanted “to pursue some long-held dreams in the private sector,” he said in his announcing email. Those dreams perhaps became clearer to the outside world after the Breakthrough Listen letter came out just a few months later: Worden, newly chairman of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation, would lead the Breakthrough Initiatives.
Worden is flanked, on the Breakthrough Initiatives board, by Milner and Zuckerberg. That pair of billionaires also sits on the board of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, which the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative funds. Now add two more tech goliaths to the Breakthrough Prizes: Alphabet’s Sergey Brin and online commerce group Alibaba’s Jack Ma. (Google and Alibaba did not respond to a request for comment). All four executives are listed as “founders” of the prizes.
That’s a lot to follow, but the point is this: The people whose wealth and/or leadership determine what breaks through—the scientists who receive money and notoriety through the Prizes, and the research efforts funded through the Initiatives—are all wrapped up in search, social media, shopping, and each other.
So what’s in it for them?
Businesspeople will be businesspeople. Obviously, even philanthropic ventures for the benefit of humankind may have motivations beyond the altruistic. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, for example, has a biotech branch, transportation interests, and general information economy bents, all of which are boosted by advancements in relevant research. And to make social media and search useful and profitable, engineers use artificial intelligence to extract patterns and signals from huge amounts of noise, and then figure out what they mean. That’s not unlike finding an extraterrestrial broadcast amid cosmic static, and then decoding it.
But so what if the Valley’s oligarchs did stand to benefit, if indirectly, from their scientific do-gooding? That’s not necessarily bad. Part of the reason they have money to invest in far-out science in the first place is because they know how to bring home a particular kind of bacon. And ulterior motives, if they exist, don’t preclude the moguls’ authentic interest in physics, life sciences, math, or SETI.
Avi Loeb, a Harvard theoretical physicist and the chair of the advisory committee for the spacechip-creating Breakthrough Starshot, sees the execs as having Other-centric goals (although, of course, one must ask oneself whether the funding influences his conclusion). “My impression…is that they support science for its benefits to society as a vehicle for advancing our basic knowledge rather than as a tool for advancing technological applications or business-related goals,” says Loeb. “Their fundamental motivation is noble in that it resembles the drive of scientists more so than the motivation of business people.”
More on Breakthrough
Tarter concurs with this, in the case of Milner. “He’s enamored of the big questions,” she says. But Tarter is an advisor for the Breakthrough Initiatives, and she’s not free, either, of conflicts of interest.
Luckily, an anthropologist named Michael Oman-Reagan, who studies SETI scientists and space explorers, has taken a Jane Goodall-type look at the breakers-through. In April, Oman-Reagan attended a meeting called Breakthrough Discuss, as part of his “fieldwork.” There, he says he saw some evidence of scientific purity in Milner’s motives. At a party after the discussion (or Discussion), Milner hosted a screening of Terrence Malick’s film Voyage of Time. After the lights came up, Milner started asking questions—about the nature of time, black holes, quantum mechanics, general relativity. “What I saw there was a person who has the same kind of wonder and curiosity about the nature of the universe that many of us do,” says Oman-Reagan. “He just has a lot of money he can use to support research into those questions.”
In an open letter after the Paradise Papers revelations, Milner said the kind of collusion reports implied—that his investments were a way for Russia to meddle in US politics—was false. “The theory that we made these investments to influence social media makes no logical sense, in terms of either motivations, actions, or results,” he wrote. “Only a worldview that sees my nationality as inherently suspicious could find such a fairy-tale compelling.”
Milner’s money may be clean, or it may be less than clean. The same may be philosophically true of the other tech moguls’ money and involvement in Breakthrough. But unless the US research climate changes, maybe-sullied seed money seems to some like the best option for risky research. “If we aren’t going to devote federal funding to science and private funding steps in to rescue the research, that’s a situation we’ve created and permitted as a nation,” says Oman-Reagan.
No funder, not even the government, exists in a vacuum. Traditional grant-makers sometimes respond, for instance, to trendy science topics because they are trendy, or to scientific research with bonus defense applications (hi, particle physics). But if the government comes to rely on corporate interests to fund research, that research will in general skew toward the corporations’ interests. And, over time, federal agencies may hand off more mundane, more crucial, less shoot-the-Moon research to private backers, too.
On top of that slide toward companies’ interests, there’s the idea that scientists’ work should be as objective as possible, beyond reproach not just in its methods but also in its monies. Milner’s political connections have caused some researchers to express wariness about his funding.
Loeb believes non-governmental cash is the sole way to do long-term, perhaps strange-sounding projects—like, say, sending a high-tech postage stamp to the nearest star at 20 percent the speed of light using lasers—because governments like safe, short bets. “Federal agencies are often conservative in their funding philosophy, since they are mostly advised by peer review of mainstream scientists and they are guided by demonstrable short-term returns on investments of taxpayers’ money,” he says. “The only way to pursue innovation and breakthroughs is to take risks.”
Including, perhaps, the risk of financial and ethical iffiness.
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