If you've ever read anything about SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, you've probably heard of Drake's Equation--well, you might have heard about it on Star Trek or the Big Bang Theory instead! Formulated by the astronomer Frank Drake, it estimates the odds of intelligent life in our galaxy and is one of the foundations for the whole enterprise. SETI came into being when Drake, whose Project Ozma was the first systematic search for alien radio signals, addressed a meeting at the Green Bank National Radio Astronomy Observatory in 1960 and offered an estimate of the odds that the project could succeed. The Drake Equation is justly famous as one of the first attempts to put the possible existence of little green men into mathematical perspective.
I was in high school when I first heard about SETI and the Drake Equation. For no good reason, I've often found myself musing about it which is why it recently popped into my mind again when one of my partners was getting ready to moderate a discussion at an MR conference.
The conference, like most MR conferences these days, was heavy on presentations about New Methods and The Future of Marketing Research. Needless to say, not a few of the conference presenters agreed with almost every blogger in the industry that Major Change is Just Around the Corner and that the Future For Every Established MR Company Is Bleak.
My partner's role at the conference was to moderate a discussion between the audience and one of the keynote speakers, and he was preparing by reviewing the speaker's presentation, a copy of which he'd sent me. We were exchanging emails about the issues in the talk and the potential questions they raised when it occurred to me that MR needed its own version of the Drake Equation.
Just as the early SETI community needed some estimate of the likelihood of contacting alien life, the current MR community needs an estimate of the likelihood of being superseded by new research technology. It's almost all we talk about these days, and, being mathematically inclined folks, we deserve a calculation of our odds.
So here, with apologies to Frank Drake, I propose the MR version of the Drake Equation as a contribution to SSRT, the Search for Superior Research Technology.
The Drake Equation
N = R** fp * ne * fl* fi * fc * L
SETI: N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible
SSRT: N = The current number of competitors capable of putting your company out of business
Drake's proposed value
My proposed value
The average annual rate of star formation per year in our galaxy
The average annual rate at which significant new approaches for understanding some aspect of human behavior or thought appear
The fraction of those stars that have planets
The fraction of those approaches that are applicable to the design/ delivery/ communication of consumer products or services
The average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
The fraction of the above that depend on data/inputs that can be collected using conceivable/ deliverable/ socially and ethically acceptable technology
The fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
The fraction of the above that are commercialized at some point
The fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
The fraction of the above that are faster and/or less expensive than your company's offerings
The fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
The fraction of the above that will produce results that are more actionable/ effective/ predictive than your company's offerings
The length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space
The length of time that those approaches will be seen as valid/interesting/relevant as the basis for commercial products/ services
The Drake Equation Calculator
N = R** fp * ne * fl* fi * fc * L
R fp ne
fl fi fc
Some Comments on my Estimates:
R*: I think my estimate of truly unique, significant new approaches coming along every two years may be generous. Not that new approaches or technologies don't appear more often than that, but most of these are minor wrinkles on existing approaches - better ways to do something that's already being done. If you're a technological optimist you might go for more frequent discoveries. I think that one a year would be an optimistic estimate, but feel free to enter your own.
fp : Almost anything - maybe not quite anything - that's applicable to humans is applicable in some non-trivial way to consumer products and services. Optimistic estimate: .99
ne : On the other hand, some of the new things that come along require approaches that either aren't technically feasible, at least at scale, within any foreseeable future or would never pass a social/ethical or possibly legal challenge. I'll allow that almost any technical obstacle can be overcome, but I'm not so sure about the social issues. I'd hesitate to make this a certainty under even the most optimistic scenario. Optimistic estimate: .9
fl: With the rise of crowd sourcing augmenting venture capital and other ways to finance new business ventures, and entrepreneurial enthusiasm apparently being boundless, pretty much everything that can be commercialized will be, at some point. Optimistic estimate: 1
fi: Not everything is quick and not everything can be made cheap. I scored this one a toss-up. If you believe that advances in technology will eventually bring down any conceivable cost, your optimistic estimate would be 1.
fc : On the other hand, a lot of current technologies have already been pretty much optimized and aren't advancing anymore, so something really new has a fair chance of bringing new insights to the party. That's 2:1 in favor of the new stuff in my book. But it's possible to reason that any legitimate theoretical advance will inevitably produce some significant new insight. Optimistic estimate: 1
L: There is no useful data on the rate at which new basic approaches appear in the sciences or technology. (This question might be phrased in terms of the frequency of paradigm shifts, about which there is no consensus.) I went with my gut feeling that after about 25 years paradigms begin to be seen as played out. I think that an optimistic estimate might be 2-4 times longer than this.
Using my estimates, there are probably 2-3 technologies capable of putting your company out of business by undercutting the approaches your business is based on; using what I think are the most optimistic (pessimistic?) estimates for every variable in the SSRT Equation, there are somewhere between about 45 and 90.
By the way, although Drake's original estimates yield an estimate of 10 advanced civilizations in the galaxy, the consensus estimates developed at the first SETI conference yielded something between 1,000 and 100,000,000. I wonder if a reasonable argument can be made using both the SETI and SSRT versions of the equation together that not only are there plenty of companies capable of putting yours out of business, some of them are or will be run by aliens.