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Peter Robinson: Today, the author of the marvelous new book, "How Innovation Works," the journalist Matt Ridley, or as he is known in the House of Lords, the right honorable the Viscount Ridley. A graduate of Magdalen College, Oxford with a degree in zoology. Matt wrote for a number of years at The Economist spending some five years here in the United States. He's the author of many books on science and technology, including his classic work, the 2010 book, "The Rational Optimist." Since 2013, Viscount Ridley has sat as a conservative in the House of Lords. Matt, thanks for making the time and welcome to everyone to this special plague time edition of Uncommon Knowledge with Peter Robinson.
Matt Ridley: Peter it's great to join you.
Peter Robinson: I'm locked down in Palo Alto in Europe, in Northumberland.
Matt Ridley: Correct, I'm in Northumberland in the North of England and it's beautiful weather here. It's kind of Palo Alto weather actually here. Let's say, it's cloudless sky today.
Peter Robinson: And you and your family are well, you've escaped this thing so far?
Matt Ridley: Everybody is well, so far.
Peter Robinson: All right. We'll come to the book in a moment, but there's a mandatory question for you. This is Matt Ridley writing recently in The Spectator quote, "Until this year, I thought this kind of infectious pandemic "could not happen today. "The defeat of infectious diseases as a cause of death "has been so complete as to seem invincible, "plague, smallpox, cholera, typhoid, measles, polio, "whooping cough, and many more eradicated or nearly so. "It turns out that I, and many others were wrong." How did you miss it?
Matt Ridley: Well, two reasons. One is I got so used to people crying well from being wrong. That of course I didn't pay enough attention to people who were crying wealth or were right. And actually there are out there, some very prescient warnings about what's happening in Chinese wildlife markets, about what's happening in terms of understanding the infectivity of coronaviruses in bats in China. It turns out they can infect human beings without adapting first. They don't need to go through an evolutionary phase, they can go straight into us. That's a discovery that I'd missed, but it was made four or five years ago. So I think a big part of this is that we've been looking in the wrong direction. We've been panicking about climate change as a world, and we should have been worrying about pandemics. The specific argument I made in that paragraph was that every other pandemic threat from Ebola to SARS to swine flu to bird flu had proved to be overblown and they had disappointed if you like as pandemics. And I thought that was because our new genomic knowledge of these viruses was so fast and so good. We read the genomes in hours that we would be able to mobilize the work of science against them. And it turns out that vaccine development really has lagged behind other forms of innovation. And actually I'd found a very interesting article from last year before the pandemic by Wayne Koff who is the head of the global vaccine project in New York saying we really need to get better at making vaccines. It's far too slow, it's far too old-fashioned, there's very little being done about it. And I think he was right.
Peter Robinson: I'm a hopeless layman, so you're just going to have to talk some baby talk to get me through this Matt, but is it correct to say that vaccines are still developed the way most drugs used to be? That is to say, by hit or miss. These days, as I understand it, our knowledge of molecular structure has reached the point where you can effectively... Well, this is an oversimplification, but you can use the computer to design the drug that you want and then go off and you've narrowed very dramatically the number of different outcomes. So you've shrunk the cone of trial and error, so to speak, but with vaccines, for some reason, it's still the old-fashioned way. You just try this damn thin and if it doesn't work, you try another. It's like Edison to whom you'll come in a moment. Edison trying as you note, 6,000 different fibers to plants before he hit on the right filament for the light bulb. Is that so?
Matt Ridley: Well, yes and no. I think it's, you're not wrong that there's a huge amount of hit and miss and trial and error in vaccine development. There is still in drugs too and as that example from Edison shows, one of my arguments is that we mustn't take away the space for trial and error because actually that's how we've always done innovation. It's a hugely important part of innovation. You'd never get it right, first time. You're brilliant insight isn't or it counts. It's honing that insight through trial and error, so I don't think that's really the problem. Once you've got what you think is a vaccine, you have to test it in animals. You have to expose the animals to the disease that takes time. You then have to try and find out that it's safe in human beings. And once you've done that, you then have to give it to a bunch of human beings and hope they come in contact with the disease.
Peter Robinson: I see.
Matt Ridley: And otherwise you don't know if it works. There's no other way really, so it's very time consuming. The example of Ebola is very interesting because firms did develop Ebola vaccines in 2014, 15 when the pandemic, the epidemic of Ebola was happening in Africa. But by the time they got them going, the epidemic was over and there were not enough volunteers to come forward to test it. So it never in the end got properly tested. And that's a very nice example of why vaccines aren't profitable for the drug industry. They're very specific, they only deal with one disease. If they work, they do themselves out of business very quickly. And even if they don't work, the disease usually goes away very quickly because the kind of things they're dealing with they tend to come and go. So unlike Statens, which you go on giving people for year after year, they're just not very lucrative. And recognizing that problem, the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust did something rather good a few years ago. They got together and together with the Norwegian government and the Indian government set up something called the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation, which was all about speeding up vaccine development. But it's only really just got going. Now, my question is why on earth didn't the World Health Organization do that 20 years before? Why didn't the governments of the world with our aid budgets look into doing that. As Gates has done quite often actually what did it take Gates to come along and say, here's a better way of spending the money to achieve this? 'Cause I think vaccine development is something that could be speeded up. There are lots of new avenues for doing it and they need to be tried.
Peter Robinson: You are trotting out one of the themes from "How Innovation Works." And I suppose we need to introduce the book a bit before we come back to that thing, but you note in the book that large organizations are seldom the right place for innovation. And I have to suppose that argument applies to governments and World Health Organizations and so forth. All right, the book itself, "How Innovation Works" quote, "Innovations come in many forms, "but one thing they all have in common "is that they are enhanced forms of improbability." I love that phrase, but it certainly needs to be explained.
Matt Ridley: Yes, well. The world tends towards more chaotic and improbable structures. In other words, your bedroom gets less tidy if you do nothing about it. You need to put energy in to make your bedroom more tidy. And when you've done, so you've made your bedroom less probable, more improbable. Every single one of the books behind me here is an incredibly improbable arrangement of atoms. Not only to make the structure of the book, but to make the pattern of letters in the words, in the book. These are unbelievably, they couldn't come about by chance. And that's what energy does for us. We have to put energy into the system to reverse entropy. That is to say, to reverse chaos and create order and improbability. And when you think about it, everything useful in the world has a sort of improbable structure. It's very precisely designed. And that's what we, human beings are in the business of and by the way, so is mother nature. That's what evolution is doing. It's creating improbable structures like bodies and brains. And we're in the business of creating improbable structures like buildings and video conferences. These are improbable ways of reorganizing the atoms of the world. And that's in the end, what we're doing, we're searching for other improbable outcomes that are useful to us. And in doing so we have to apply energy and that's why I start my book with energy because I think it is actually very important. And I use the beautiful analogy from my old friend Douglas Adams, the author of the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" who wrote this rather marvelous phrase in one of his books one of the books of the Hitchhiker's guide that a rocket was driven by an infinite improbability drive. So I say, that human civilization is an infinite in probability drive, which I think is what Douglas was getting at.
Peter Robinson: It is a wonderful phrase. One more quotation from the very beginning of the book, which feels like a terrible admission at the beginning of a book about innovation and it reads as follows, Yes, brace yourself, but you are the one who wrote it. "The surprising truth is that nobody really knows "why innovation happens and how it happens, "let alone when and where it will happen next." Close quote. So it is of the nature of innovation that it always contains an element of surprise.
Matt Ridley: Yeah. Well, it's partly that we don't know where it's gonna flare up in terms of which technologies are gonna be subject to innovation. People think all innovation is speeding up, that's not the case. Think about transport. I feel--
Peter Robinson: we just--
Matt Ridley: That could, but I flew on a 747 the other day. Obviously not the other day, but a couple of months ago. That was an airplane invented 51 years ago in 1969. Imagine using a computer invented 51 years ago and it's impossible to imagine. So computers and communications have speeded up incredibly in my lifetime, whereas transport is hardly changed at all. And when I was born it, we thought the opposite was gonna be the case. All the futurology of the 1950s is about how we're gonna see personal jet packs, gyrocopters for commuting routine space travel, supersonic airliners, all that kind of stuff. None of which happened. Instead, we got amazing computers and communications, which they didn't see coming, mostly.
Peter Robinson: Right.
Matt Ridley: They thought we were gonna use landlines by now. So in that sense, it's unpredictable. It's also unpredictable globally in the sense that it's hard, but you can come up with good reasons why California has the center of innovation for the last 50 years, or you can come up with good reasons why Italy was in the 14 hundreds. You can come up with good reasons why China was in the 10 hundreds. But it's all a bit random, it's all a bit spontaneous, it's all a bit unplanned and of course, that's very much. My point is that this is a precious plant that grows in the ground and what you gotta to do is till the ground and make it ready rather than plan and outcome. You cannot really plan innovation. You cannot say I'm going to go in and create exactly the following innovations because we're fantastically bad at predicting the future in technology. As I point out in the book, we didn't see search engines coming as an important technology, for example,
Peter Robinson: Now one last brief quotation from the very opening, "How Innovation Works" "In this book I shall try to tackle this great puzzle. "I will do so not by abstract theorizing, "but mainly by telling stories." And of course for a layman like me, that's wonderful because you've got, what a couple of dozen fascinating stories there, but why did you adopt that technique? Why are you telling stories?
Matt Ridley: It's because I like reading stories. It's taken me a long time to get to this realization, you might think. But actually what we human beings like reading is stories, tales about people's lives, about who they were, why they did things and what happened to them. And this, to some extent contradicts the theme of my book, which is that people don't matter. That if Thomas Edison had been run over by a tram, the light bulb would still have been developed. Well, 21 different people came up with the idea of the light bulb around the same time. As it happens, he was the one who made sure that it was reliable and affordable and all that kind of thing. So in a sense, Edison doesn't matter, he's dispensable. But in another sense, he matters all the more, because if anyone can do it, then it's all a clever of him to be the person who does it.
Peter Robinson: So can you tell us--
Matt Ridley: So it's probably by telling these stories about people that I bring out the themes about the technology are few
Peter Robinson: This being a vidcast, it's morning here in California, but it's evening where you are. We don't have time for story after story, after story, people have to buy the book for that. But can you just tell us, tell us briefly then the story of Thomas Edison, Americans think they know that, but when you read the story and "How Innovation Works" you realize you don't quite know that story. Briefly, the story of Edison and why that story, if not Edison personally, but why that, what that story tells us that's important?
Matt Ridley: Well, what Edison's biography really tells us is the importance of trial and error. He was someone who spotted the way to do innovation. Well, first thing he spotted was that you could set up a factory to produce innovations. You could actually set up a plant whose job was to find new ways of arranging the world. The light bulbs, the nickel battery, these kinds of things and you did it by trial and error. You tried and tried and tried. 6,000 different plant materials, as you mentioned before he came up with Japanese bamboo for the filament of a light bulb. So his approach was very much as or you might call it a brute-force approach of just trying everything you could think of. And his labs and his workshops were full of books, full of ideas, full of things so that everybody was just working really hard. He made people work really hard to produce these things. And he said that it is, I think he once said that it's not that I've failed, I've just found 50,000 ways that don't work. Or his other famous quotation is that "It's 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration." And I think that's the key to the distinction between invention and it's an innovation in my view. At least I make that argument in the book, that you can have a bright idea, you can invent a prototype, but to turn an invention is something that people actually adopt that is reliable, that is manufacturable, that is affordable, that's actually the hard work. And so someone like Jeff Bezos is a modern Edison in the sense that he took the idea of eCommerce, which we were all capable of playing with and turning it into something that worked and he did so by failing, by failing again and again and again until he succeeded. I'm not dissing him though, he says the same thing, there had to be a lot of failures to get to our success.
Peter Robinson: Back for a moment of the virus because in the United Kingdom and in all, but seven states, six or seven States, I'm not sure I can't remember the count, here in the United States. The government has shut down the economy and ordered us to remain in our homes. In this country, we've got over 25 million people out of work. The GDP seems to have dropped by 5% in one quarter between four and 5%, a figure that would be much larger if it hadn't been for a huge government infusions of liquidity. And even during the first and Second World Wars, neither your government nor mine did what they've done now, which is close all the schools. Well, is this all a terrible overreaction? Should we have had, I'm trying to get to the... I'm thinking of "The Rational Optimist," but "The Rational Optimist" says be optimistic and be rational. And it feels as though there's a mechanism here, the press is in the business of exaggerating every story to sell newspapers and politicians are in the business of enjoying the limelight, they just like it and exercising Power. So you can see the way the incentives may have distorted. What do you make of it all? What do you make of it all--
Matt Ridley: Well
Peter Robinson: to this point?
Matt Ridley: I have become more and more of a lockdown skeptic 'cause it's
Peter Robinson: You have done.
Matt Ridley: Derby Young's phrase. I think it has been a huge mistake. And I think that the example that proves the rule here is Sweden. Sweden has not locked down its economy. It has encouraged people to work from home. It has encouraged people not to gather in large gatherings. It has encouraged people to wash their hands and to not shake hands and all that kind of thing. It's done all of that voluntary stuff, but without slamming on the brakes on the whole of its economy. It will still suffer, it still has a relatively high death rate, higher than some other countries in Europe. But not as high as in Britain and certainly no higher than most European countries. So I'm afraid it is proving that many of these measures were not necessary. Now, some measures were necessary. I think it was right to ban large gatherings, I think it was right to on the whole closed down travel and a lot of public transport. I think it was right to encourage people to work from home as much as possible and to self-isolate and distance yourself, et cetera. But what has been added by closing schools seems to be very little indeed. What has been added by closing down most workplaces seems to be very little indeed. Because the more we find out about this virus the more it's clear that it's spreading in enclosed spaces, it's not spreading out of doors. It's not spreading through young people very fast at all. It's possible for young people to give it to older people and that's one of the big problems, but it's relatively rare. There's a kid who caught it skiing in Switzerland, who came back to London, who they've traced 170 of his contacts and not one of them got the coronavirus from him. Both his siblings got the cold he had a few days after that, but that's much more infectious. So how did countries in Asia escape better? And to some extent, Germany, although Germany did do a full lockdown and the answer is testing. It's now abundantly clear that testing makes a huge difference. If you test everybody who thinks they've got it in the community, as well as in the healthcare system from the start, then you can keep on top of it. Why should that make the difference? After all, the test is not a cure and by the time you take the test, you might be feeling ill. You might've already passed it on, you'd think it wouldn't make much difference. Well, the answer is, I think this is only becoming clear very recently is that testing allows you to prevent it getting into the healthcare system. I think the real tragedy in Italy, in Spain, France, and Britain has been that it's got into the healthcare system and in America. Because once doctors or nurses, an awful lot of people in the health care system already have vulnerable. They've got underlying conditions, which make them vulnerable, and people coming to hospitals, coming to clinics are on the whole sick people. And if they pick it up there, then they get sicker. And so there's been this bushfire going through the hospitals. In Britain, we sent patients home from hospitals to care homes, to clear the wards for an expected wave of coronavirus patients. Well, actually some of them were already infected, so we gave it to the care homes. So I think it is a disastrously nosocomial epidemic that is to say hospital-acquired. And that's terrible news in some ways, but it's good news in other ways because it means that if it's going that fast through the hospitals, it must be going that much slower through the community. And therefore all you need to do in the community is more show of hands, keep your distance, and all this sort of reasonable voluntary things. As it is we've done terrible harm to the economy. We've locked people down and we've got an awful lot of people who are quite happy being locked up. They're on government salaries or they're on now government subsidized salaries. And they're saying, in Britain, the teachers are the ones saying we don't want schools reopening. We're quite happy, thank you. We're still getting our salaries, we're at home. So that's a real worry.
Peter Robinson: Right, so here's the underlying question. "Rational Optimism," "How Innovation Works" in both of these books, you argue that things get better and better and better. You just unleash human creativity and although the process is unpredictable over the longer term, the material circumstances of our lives get better and better and better. And we ought to appreciate that and anyone who reads either of your books does do so. On the other hand, there does seem to be something in us that likes to be frightened. Why else would the press overplay the story, overplay this into every story? There is something in us that would rather be told what to do. This is Tolstoy or not Dostoevsky and the legend of "The Grand Inquisitor" being free is in some way hard work we find this difficult. There's something in us that wants to be told, go into your home and we'll let you know when it's safe to come out. So I guess what I'm working, you must have, This must be a kind of the permanent dilemma of your life, that human beings on the wall, I don't know, how does one describe it, and what do you make of it? Are we talking about the frontal region of the brain versus the reptile brain? We are these strange animals that can be rational and duly optimistic and yet love to be scared and told what to do. How do you handle that?
Matt Ridley: Well it's a truly difficult puzzle that, because there is something called the optimism gap, which is the fact that although people are extremely pessimistic about the fate of the planet, very pessimistic about their own countries, pretty pessimistic by their own towns, they're optimistic about their own lives. They don't have this pessimism about the, they think they're gonna earn more than they do. They think they're gonna stay married longer than they do. There's all sorts of ways in which people actually are unrealistically optimistic about their individual lives and unrealistically pessimistic about the bigger picture. Why is that? Well, it's very simple. The media and John Tinny and Ray by most have discussed this in their new book whose name I've temporarily forgotten, but they discuss the point that the media tells them to be pessimistic about the world. It doesn't tell them to be pessimistic about their own lives, where their own experience counts for much more than the bigger picture. So that's part of it. Now, why is the media so pessimistic? Well, if it bleeds it leads. Bad news is more salient, it's more interesting. Bad news is more sudden, good news tends to be gradual whereas bad news tends to be sudden. And deep within us, there is undoubtedly a psychological bias to pay more attention to bad news than good news. And it probably made sense. Back on the Savanna, you and I are walking to the waterhole and you say, I don't think we should go this way there might be a lion behind that rock. And I say, no, haven't you read Matt Ridley's book. Everything's getting better, it's all gonna be fine. I'm dead, but your genes are in the next generation via my girlfriend.
Peter Robinson: Right, right, right, right, all right.
Matt Ridley: And actually just on that point, there's a beautiful point made by Hans Rosling, the late Hans Rosling who was one of the sort of godfathers of rational optimism. He put one of the people that put me onto these ideas 'cause he did a poll of a thousand people in the U.S and they need to repeat it in the UK, a number of countries. And you said, "In the last 20 years, "has the percentage of the world population "that lives in extreme poverty "halved, doubled, or stayed the same." Which of those do you think is correct? And in the UK and the U.S about 65% of people think it has doubled and only 5% think it as hard. The 5% are right in the 65% are wrong. That's striking enough, but he then says, hang on with it, if I read those three answers on three bananas and I threw them to a chimpanzee, the chimpanzee would pick up the right answer, 33% of the time, not 5% of the time. It would do six times as well as human beings and answering a question about human society. That's the measure of how much we've indoctrinated ourselves into global pessimism.
Peter Robinson: You must have known Bob Conquest? Do you remember Robert Conquest through--
Matt Ridley: Oh, yes, yes. No, I didn't know him personally, no, but I--
Peter Robinson: Oh, you did not, he was a colleague of mine here at the Hoover Institution. Bob had conquests rules and one of the rules was that everyone is conservative about what he knows best, which is another formulation of this, I think where your own experience--
Matt Ridley: That's true.
Peter Robinson: Back to "How Innovation Works," China quote, "There is little doubt that the innovation engine "has fired up in China. "Silicon valley's will sputter on for while." This was a bit painful reading this where I sit here. "But it is likely that in the coming few decades, "China will innovate on a grander scale "and faster than anywhere else." close quote. China will lead the world in innovation, why?
Matt Ridley: Well, I'm basing this on empirical facts, which is that China is way past the stage of catching up with a Western economies by doing cheap manufacturing for them and emulating the technology, it is now innovating. And you can see that particularly in consumer behavior consumers don't use cash in China, but they don't use cards either. They have gone full eCommerce. It's basically these little square things that you pay for everything and menus are virtual and you try and offer cash to a taxi driver, in Beijing
Peter Robinson: You hold up your phone and the transaction takes place
Matt Ridley: That's right, that's electronically.
Peter Robinson: Yep, Yeah.
Matt Ridley: And how is that possible given that this is a repressive centralist regime that would do justice to the Ming Empire in terms of its authoritarianism. And the answer there is that the system Deng Xiaoping created, which has persisted is in my view, one that is surprisingly free at the lower levels, but extremely unfree at the top level. In other words, as long as you don't--
Peter Robinson: Deng Xiaoping succeeds Mao and in 1979, he begins talking about socialism with Chinese characteristics and he opens, begins the opening to the market, all right, it's just that Deng Xiaoping now long dead,
Matt Ridley: Deng Xiaoping.
Peter Robinson: but he's the man in the '70s, who 79 through the '80s who becomes the market revolution in China.
Matt Ridley: Right.
Peter Robinson: All right, carry on sorry.
Matt Ridley: Yeah. Well Xi Jinping is much more authoritarian figure than that. On the whole, what his communist party is doing is insisting that there be no innovation in politics. So you can't start a political party, you can't disagree, you can't start a free press, but as long as you don't deny the communist party, if you wanna start a business, making a widget and in doing so, you need to build a factory and in building the factory, you need to reclaim some land. Then the rules and regs you've got to go through to do that, or the rules and regs you've got to go through to produce an innovative product are an order of magnitude less than in America or Europe.
Peter Robinson: I see, I see.
Matt Ridley: And now, that's my hypothesis. I've only been to China a couple of times. I've read a lot about it, but I haven't been often enough. So I don't pretend to be an expert, but my argument, therefore, is that it's an exception that proves the rule because it's an exception to the idea that you need freedom to innovate. But the freedom is there, it's just below a certain level. Now, I don't think that compromise can last forever. It feels to me very uncomfortable if the world comes to rely on an innovation engine that is run by the communist party, that does not feel like a sustainable future. So that's why I'm desperate for the West to rediscover the genius of innovation and indeed for India, which is of course the other emerging giant here which is an innovative country and is a country addicted in a way to spontaneous order. It's always been the best example of how society is a sort of bottom-up phenomenon rather than a top-down one. Albeit it doesn't look very ordered when you're in a traffic jam in Delhi, but it's sort of, that's where it's coming from. I feel in the long run, India will save us if America and Europe don't.
Peter Robinson: May I tell you, you being you, you probably are completely aware of this, but I'd like to see how you respond to it. I'd like your advice for this country. Here's what's happening right now. I feel this, I confirm it in one conversation after another. I can't prove it, but you'll see the point. The old Cold War, Ronald Reagan is elected on a platform of standing up more resolutely to the Soviets, but after a decade and a half of detente, the polls indicate that the American people are actually not all that anti-Soviet. And then the Russians shoot down a Korean airliner KAL 007 and in 48 hours, the polls turn and the American--
Matt Ridley: Was that during the election campaign?
Peter Robinson: No, that was 19, it was after Reagan was elected, would have been 83, I was working there 83, I think It was early-ish first term and suddenly the public support for his policies slid right into place. And like that feels to be going on right now. Donald Trump is hardening toward the Chinese, but the public is confused. The business community here in Silicon Valley, which of course is interlaced with Chinese. They invest in us, we invest in them. Up and down this Valley's Chinese students get hired out of Stanford to go to much more complicated than the old Cold War. But now with this coronavirus where it seems unambiguous that at the minimum Xi Jinping understood what was happening long before, he informed the West and at a mini, he shut down Wuhan internally, but continue to permit international flights to infect the rest of us at least that much seems unambiguously clear and the public opinion against China is hardening up. Now, this is what, this is a disaster for all of us. Somehow we're now going to begin disentangling, even that is the wrong way of putting it, I suppose, because whatever they have... This is so different from the old cold war. They're part of our supply chain, they've invested in companies all over the West, we've invested in them. The best figure I could find the other day when I was searching for it was that 360,000 Chinese students are studying in the United States, right now. And yet there's a new Cold War taking shape. Bad news, good news, what are we to do?
Matt Ridley: I think that's a very acute analysis. I think you're absolutely right, that this is a moment at which public opinion could easily switch. The fact that Donald Trump has been banging on about it for three years, implies that public opinion was ready to switch on a lot of this, that the economic trade war had already primed the public. And of course, I'm not with him on that. I'm a free trader, I don't believe that tariffs are the way to go about this kind of thing plate. But I think that in this crisis, even those of us who had no illusions about Xi Jinping's rule have been deeply shocked by the behavior of the Chinese government. Not just the things you mentioned, the blatant but also the disinformation campaigns, the blatant attempts to insert propaganda into Western media. The attempt to blame the virus on the U.S military visiting Wuhan
Peter Robinson: Incredible
Matt Ridley: The lack of transparency about the origins of the virus and what is known about it. The Wuhan Institute of Virology stories, which while I've seen the evidence that I've seen, the molecular biological evidence does not support the idea that a specific leak from The Wuhan Institute of Virology is a tool likely as the source. There is another Institute in Wuhan which was also working on bats with a lower security level that was working on local bats. And it will be a local bat because we know that the, Yunnan bats being looked at the virology Institute are too different. It's not impossible that a accidental leak might've been responsible. The only way to prove to us that that's not the case, Mr. Xi is to open up, bring the scientists out in the open, tell us exactly what they were doing with our experiments, exactly what the protocols were, and bring them before the world's press, so we can answer them. And that's not happening and therefore conspiracy theories are growing including ones that it might've been a bio weapon, which I don't believe for a minute. I don't believe anyone let alone, even sorry, I believe in Chinese scientists are covering up to build bio weapons. So I think you're absolutely right that this is a critical moment. But you're also right, that we are happily dependent on Chinese supply chain. And as you mentioned on Chinese students. The UK academic sector has become utterly dependent on Chinese students because they bring a lot of money with them. And we've seen in recent days, some surprisingly craven remarks by the new vice chancellor of Cambridge, about how we must be nice to the Chinese and not discriminate against them in this kind of thing. But of course, I don't wanna discriminate against them, I just want to get at the truth about things. I tell you, it's very interesting I was in Hong Kong and Japan in late 2018, so a year and a half ago. And I was came away very surprised by how strongly anti-China sentiment was in Japan. Again and again, I was told you cannot underestimate what they're up to. You mustn't overlook the degree to which in cyber, particularly they are on a war footing was the way Japanese were saying to me and I was amazed. I had not sort of heard this view. I then went to Hong Kong where I talked to somebody who had spent 12 years in Beijing and was now in Hong Kong, a journalist. And he said, "Yeah, no, that the Japanese are right "and we are heading for war." And I said, what do you mean war? You know war you know, or real war Surely you mean trade war or cyberwar? And he said, "No, no war with guns." I said who with, who are they gonna attack? And he said, "that's easy Vietnam." I said why? Then he said, "Because they have a grudge against Vietnam "who whipped their ass," sorry, I'm not allowed to use words like that, "but who damaged them in a war in the 1980s "and they want revenge and they also know that "America is not coming to the help of Vietnam "the second time." Now, that's not how it has turned out this time, but I am considerably--
Peter Robinson: May I put the problem in this way? Thank you very much, I thought that I was going to get some really lovely answer from you about relax, be a rational optimist. This is all going to work out and you're frightening me even more. The reptile brain of little Robinson here is on full alert right now. But let me put this--
Matt Ridley: Don't think we're in 1914, but it can't be ruled out.
Peter Robinson: No, no but... So here's what incidentally, as to Vietnam, a colleague of mine here at the Hoover Institution is Jim Mattis who's former Secretary of Defense and during his not quite two years, as Secretary of Defense, the Vietnamese got in touch and said, by the way, could you produce some sort of show of friendship with us? And and Jim, this is his account, although it's in the public record. Jim, what do you mean? Well, could you just send us a ship on some sort of it? Have an American ship put in here. So Jim Mattis sent them an aircraft carrier and the Vietnamese were thrilled, but at least if Jim Mattis were Secretary of Defense, Vietnam falls within the perimeter to which the United States at least pays close attention these days. All right, but here's the way it goes. Basic thinking on the American military, they outnumber us, they've got us there. Their economy is huge, it may already be bigger than ours by some measures, but soon enough it's likely to be bigger than ours. Not per person of course, but still overall output bigger. Here's where we retain the edge and where we must retain the edge because it's the only edge we retain, innovation. We can stay if we are very shrewd about innovation and then transferring innovation from the startup firms where that all happens into our military. If we do it quickly and well and more securely than we've been doing, we can sustain a permanent edge and let the diplomats keep talking over the coming decade or two. And now Matt Ridley says, "Oh, they're already out innovating us." They're the engine of innovation and so this is actually a question of state that could arise in your present chamber. So my Noble Lord, assured of surrender to these people, what are we to do?
Matt Ridley: Well, and the answer is unleash the innovation engine in our own economies, again. For me the number one thing is speed of decision-making by government. I see it on a very small scale, if I need a permit for something trivial in my garden, I see it on a very large scale, if my country needs a new runway for its main airport. Decisions are taken in a lethargic manner with absolutely no urgency. And I've come to the conclusion that the problem with bureaucracy is not that it says no to innovators, but that it takes a very long time to say yes.
Peter Robinson: I see. And during that time the money runs out, you give up. Just take diagnostic devices for EG DNA tests, for viruses and things like that. Quite a topical subject. It takes on average 70 months in Europe to get a new diagnostic--
Matt Ridley: Sorry seven zero?
Peter Robinson: Seven zero
Matt Ridley: Seven zero months to get a new medical device licensed under the European Medicines Agency. In the United States it takes 20 months much better, but still pretty old-fashioned
Peter Robinson: use, yes.
Matt Ridley: It shouldn't take a week, frankly, you know, maybe not a week, but in the current crisis it is taking a week. People are coming forward with new versions of ventilators, new versions of DNA tests, all sorts of things. And they are being rushed through approval and safety is being assessed and they're being put on the market. Now how many entrepreneurs thought, you know what? I might go off and invent a new handheld device that will test for viruses in the field in 10 minutes. There's no reason I can't achieve that by miniaturizing polymerase chain reactions and applying them with consumer electronics, I could do that. How many people were deterred from doing that by knowing that the regulatory hurdles were huge? And the answer is a lot, I think.
Peter Robinson: Yes.
Matt Ridley: And you see this in spades, for example, in the nuclear industry where it has been impossible to innovate because regulators take so long to approve a new design that you're broke before you even break ground. And so, I think speed of decision-making is the key thing that we need to address. But there are lots of other things and we tend to take a top down view of innovation. Particularly in this country at the moment, we think that it's about putting money into the universities and hoping that widgets come out the other end of the pipe and that isn't the way it works. One of the points that I tried to make in the book is that the linear model where discovery leads to invention leads to application is wrong. It's not always wrong, but sometimes right. But it's just as often the other way around. Just to give you a very nice example, the CRISPR, the genome editing technology that is very exciting development of the last 10 years, looks like a purely academic discovery, if you read the conventional accounts of it, and it's all about whether Berkeley deserves the patents so MIT deserves the patents. But actually when you drill down further into it, where does it come from? It comes out of the yogurt industry. Because if you're growing yogurt, your bacteria sometimes get sick. So you need to send for the vet to kill them. And one of the things that you therefore do is you put money into understanding the bacterial immune system, how bacteria don't get sickened by viruses. So you need to understand what their defenses are against bacteriophage viruses. And it emerged from work done actually with the help of the salt industry in Spain, funnily enough. That there were these weird sequences in bacteria that might be something to do with a system for defeating viruses. And it turns out that's exactly what it is. It's a sort of library of virus sequences that the bacteria keep on file saying, if you see this sequence, cut it up because it's a virus. And so all this comes out of a very practical problem in industry, how to solve bacterial cultures going sick. But it ends up going to universities where it gets retooled as a genome editing tool and it comes back into industry now as a potential device for both curing people of cancer and giving us better crops for agriculture. So it's a very nice example of the two-way flow between science and technology between universities and business. And for me, we need to understand that much better if we're to unleash innovation again in the worst.
Peter Robinson: Matt, you toward the end of "How Innovation Works." You produce a number of predictions where you think bundles of innovations might lead us by 2050. And again, even as we don't have time for all your couple of dozen of absolutely fascinating stories. I'd like to take just a couple here of your predictions. of what you make, I guess half a dozen or so. Quotation "By 2050 innovation will make it possible "to fuel prosperity for all with far lower net emissions "of carbon dioxide." Thrilling sentence! "Probably you continue, "that will mean new forms of nuclear power." Oh, well Matt, politically we already know that's a problem. If your theme, if your great theme is look at what humans are capable of doing, let us rejoice. I guess my kind of counter pose is, Oh Matt human perversity. You're just not giving it adequate weight here. If nuclear power represents the hope for the environment that you and many others tell us that it is, why does the green movement, utterly oppose it.
Matt Ridley: Yeah, Yep. Well this is one of the great tragedies of our era and the degree to which the environmental movement was born in an anti-nuclear mood and then became anti-fossil fuel. And it refuses to recognize that the only technology that can deliver low carbon energy on a sufficient scale without damaging a huge of swaves of the planet by putting them under solar panels or wind turbines, is nuclear power because of its concentrated form, its potential to be very affordable, et cetera. As long as it can innovate, that refusal is ultra disappointing, I agree. And to understand it, you have to understand this, deep-seated resistance to innovation that I write a whole chapter about because it's just not true that people love innovation and always adopt it. There is huge resistance to innovation and i talk about the resistance to the innovation called coffee. When coffee came into Western Europe in the 1600s there was huge resistance from the wine industry, which didn't want competition, but also from kings who didn't like people seating around in coffee houses talking about how bad the king was running the government. So even as something as simple as that had a real struggle to get adopted and we now have extremely well-organized, extremely well-funded businesses whose job is opposing innovation and technology. And their are opposition to nuclear power is basically that it's industrial and it's quite easy for people to dislike anything industrial, which is where Michael Moore's new film "Planet of the Humans" is so interesting 'cause he's pointing out that the wind and solar industries are very industrial too. They involve a lot of mining, a lot of equipment and so on. It might be that we have to, as it were, throw fission under the bus and move on to fusion before we can win this argument. It's a bit like in my country, we have to abandon all hope to do conventional genetic engineering and try and win the argument for genome editing saying look, this is, even if you don't like genetic engineering, there's no reason to dislike genome editing. So to some extent, one has to admit that one's lost the battle on certain technologies these days. And fusion is showing real promise. Now we've heard that before, we've heard that for 40 years. Fusion has been 40 years away for 40 years is the old joke. And it may yet before 40 years away, but the development of high temperature superconductors and particularly the involvement of the private sector in the fusion industry is making a spectacular difference. 'Cause instead of a rather leisurely umble towards some kind of goal in 2050, the private sector is saying, actually, we wanna build a working fusion reactor this decade and we think we can now. And if that were to happen, the fuel of this thing is water, basically, the radioactive output is extremely low and extremely short lived. So regulation should be different then as long as we get regulation right, then just imagine what we could do if you had a fusion reactor the size of a large closet powering every city or every town, producing as much as electricity as you ever want for decades on end with no fuel having to go into it except a little bit of water, every now and then the water has to be turned into tritium and all that. There's a process involved, but the footprint is tiny compared with any other technology we have. And then we'd have lots of energy and if we've got lots of energy, then we can do all sorts of everything.
Peter Robinson: Everything yes, yes. A few final questions, Matt. I can't not ask you about Brexit because you were one of the very few supporters of Brexit in the upper chamber.
Matt Ridley: Oh, I thought you were, I was gonna correct you though, and say 52% of people supported Brexit, but you're absolutely right
Peter Robinson: I don't know.
Matt Ridley: It didn't have some Lords It was a very, very lonely view to take.
Peter Robinson: Yes, yes. So your argument, if I can summarize your argument, is I gleaned it from looking at you, You're all over YouTube. You stand up and your colleagues actually wake up, sit up and take notice when you speak. So your argument is Brexit amounts to a reassertion of British sovereignty and a reassertion of British sovereignty, bringing the rule of the nation back from Brussels to Westminster, opens the opportunity for Britain to restore the traditional rights, including if much freer approach to life in all kinds of ways than is typical on the continent. I think roughly speaking, that's your--
Matt Ridley: Yes, except that to sort of much more backward looking version of my argument than I would try to make. In other words, I would say this is a liberation a leap out into the world and a rejoining of the world as a traditional trading nation, which Britain always was a maritime trading nation rather than a province of an empire and that's what it has increasingly felt like. A very centralized system with harmonization where all the rules must be the same. And we're saying no equivalence is the way to go. If something safe in your country, it will regard it as safe in us, but you don't have to have the same rule about how you decided it was safe. That's called equivalence, that's the way we deal with America. We recognize your regulations and you recognize us, but we don't have to do them the same. So this is very much, the extent to which the Brussels machine has become the nerve center of an empire with very top down ways of working very slow, ways of working very anti-innovation, ways of working is underestimated in America, people don't realize it. We asked for reform, we were refused any form of reform at all at which point I became all right, Well, if you went change, we'll go and I updated a book called "Change or Go" And I never thought we'd win, but we did. We then had a terrible three year period where we'd said we'd go, but the political class didn't want us to, so they kept doing their best to sabotage our own negotiating position.
Peter Robinson: So are you are you--
Matt Ridley: And now we're out.
Peter Robinson: And now you're out, congratulations.
Matt Ridley: Just in time before the whole thing collapses because of the crisis
Peter Robinson: Actually, I'm sure you can anticipate this one, but Prime Minister Johnson gets you out and the very next day he wakes up and says, oh, by the way, here's what happens next. Vast spending by this government. We're going to launch one crazy infrastructure project after another up North. We're moving the House of Lords from Westminster to York. That seems to have gotten dropped, I don't know if you helped smother it, but--
Matt Ridley: That was just the wind is up, I think. And it worked brilliantly.
Peter Robinson: But we've got the notion here is that instead of rejoining the world and pursuing the Ridley path of greater freedom, the current government, heroic in some ways who but Boris Johnson would have been crazy enough to stick with Brexit for year after year when all the polls seem to be against it, when the whole ruling class, and I think it's fair to use that phrase of the elite in London these days. The whole ruling class, heroic effort on his part. And the moment Brexit happens, he wakes up the next morning and says from right, done. From now on, we're going to do everything wrong.
Matt Ridley: Well, it's a slight exaggeration. There's a lot of libertarian rhetoric coming from some of his ministers too. Let's trust that the international trade minister is a standard-bearer for the liberal open view how we should be doing this. But it is true that somewhere along the line Boris has allowed the sort of nationalist invest public money in a country, that's the way to grow line to develop and it will be, it's a difficult argument to win. For example, his chief policy advisor who's a friend of mine, Dominic Cummings is very keen on DARPA on modeling an Institute on DARPA and in some of us are trying to point out to Dominic that actually DARPA is great success. DARPA was set up in reaction to the Sputnik scare, but it's great success--
Peter Robinson: That DARPA is of the of the Pentagon of the United States military, which invests in technology and is credited again and again and again with the creation of the internet, although, well, you'll tell us the true story
Matt Ridley: Yeah, exactly. when people leave DARPA and go to Xerox and also when the internet escapes from DARPA's clutches that it really takes off, so it's a misreading of history to think that, government is behind the digital industry to the extent that people like to claim, yes it's Involved but then given the government is spending 40% of the country's money, then it bloody well better spend some of it on a digital innovation.
Peter Robinson: All right, Matt last question for you. "How Innovation Works." Quote, quote. "Innovation is the child of freedom "because it is a free creative attempt "to satisfy freely expressed human desires. "Innovative societies are free societies." Close quote, And you've already explained how, although it doesn't seem that way to us, even in China, where freedom applies is where creation, innovation takes place. All right. "How Innovation Works" is appearing at a moment when your government and mine are engaging in the most comprehensive suppression of ordinary freedoms since the Second World War and pretty arguably ever. Again, as I mentioned early on, even during the First and Second World Wars, even during the Second World War, during the blitz in London when children were sent to Canada or up North to where you are to get them out of London, they were still sent to school. The schools remained open. And we have in China under Xi Jinping a movement toward authoritarianism, greater control and I don't know enough to argue with you on this point, but it does seem at least a kind of counter to your earlier argument, this social credit business that ordinary citizens are being tracked on their phones and by cameras on every street corner. And if you jaywalk the government knows about it and makes it more difficult for you to get a good hotel reservation or to borrow from a albeit all right. So, Matt Ridley, Matt Ridley says, freedom, Freedom is a good in and of itself, but it's also essential for us in the West to preserve our way of life. We must remain free because we must innovate. And it feels as though Matt Ridley is really brilliantly championing, beautifully giving voice to a lost cause.
Matt Ridley: Well, it wouldn't be the first time in my family. One of my ancestors was burned at the stake for championing a lost cause.
Peter Robinson: Woke me out of it, talk me out of it.
Matt Ridley: There is a huge battle to be fought as we come out of this pandemic to regain the freedoms that we have surrendered in a flash. We've passed some horrendously illiberal legislation through parliament in the last couple of months. It's likewise in Congress. And not only that, we've seen the police in this country doing the most ridiculous over interpretation of the rules that have been passed. We had a senior police officer stand up and says "I'm not saying, we've been inside the supermarket "and we've looked inside people's baskets "and on the whole they're doing the right thing. "They're not buying nonessential items, "but if they start doing so, "don't be afraid of it, "we will go in and we will arrest them." What! Where did that come from? How did we know there were people like that in our society who even thought like that. And there's quite a lot of people who are not in the police. We were only too happy to tell their neighbors off for walking down the streets to slowly, well, are you taking exercise or are you going shopping? Or you're wondering a lot that's not allowed. The petty bossiness of society that has emerged in the last month and a half is really frightening. And if there's even a hint that at the end of it, we say well it's not a bad idea to keep some of these rules, so that we need them. Then I and others in parliament we'll be doing I've done this to prevent that happening. But it will be an uphill struggle. But I will say one thing, it's 10 years since the rational that came out. In every single one of those years, I've been interviewed at some time or other about the thesis of that book. And in every single one of those years, people have started the questions with, well, you might've been right up until now, but look at what's happening now? There's an Ebola epidemic, there's a war in Ukraine, there's a war in Syria, there's a Eurozone crisis. Whatever it is that year, people have thrown at me and said, see, it's all going wrong. And we got past those, we will get past this, we will restore Liberty. We will sail on into the sun lit up plans of the 2020s have a very innovative time and do great things.
Peter Robinson: Do you have your diary on your desk? Because I'd like to make an appointment to interview you again in a decade. I take that as a challenge. Matt Ridley--
Matt Ridley: You're on You're on, if I'm a live, 72 I'll be.
Peter Robinson: Careful, careful. You and I are the same age within a matter of a couple of months, I reckon.
Matt Ridley: Is that right? I wanna live to 2050, I'll be 92 then because there's so many predictions about what the world will be like by 2050. Most of them extremely pessimistic, and I think that'll be a great year to say, I told you so.
Peter Robinson: Yes, yes, all right, Well, I'll be on oxygen.
Matt Ridley: Yeah, me too.
Peter Robinson: We'll walk into the studio on walkers, but we'll do that. We'll do that, we'll do that, let's make that date.
Matt Ridley: 2030 and 2050.
Peter Robinson: Yes, exactly, exactly, exactly. Matt Ridley, author of "How Innovation Works" and also of the classic work. I actually, I reckon "How Innovation Works" is good, is a classic in itself, we'll become a classic. Of the soon to become classic, "How Innovation Works" and if the already classic, "The Rational Optimist." Thank you very much.
Matt Ridley: Peter, it's always a huge pleasure to talk to you and very, very interesting as always.
Peter Robinson: For the Hoover Institution, Uncommon Knowledge and Fox Nation I'm Peter Robinson.