Riskgaming: Launching Lux Capital’s boldest initiative yet

Design by Chris Gates

The world is hitting an entropic apex. We need new tools to understand chaos and crisis.

It’s a really big day over here at Lux. About a year after we first previewed the Lux Riskgaming Initiative here on “Securities”, I’m delighted to announce that we launched Riskgaming publicly today, including publishing the complete game kit for our first scenario, Hampton at the Cross-Roads, which explores climate change and the future of America’s maritime security. Paper copies of the scenario booklet have just arrived — and they look gorgeous.

Margaux MacColl of The Information, who joined us for a runthrough last week, wrote up a full and exclusive story on riskgaming and its launch for the publication’s Saturday Profile this morning. You should (of course) read the whole thing, but my favorite bit was this:

Up in Lux’s 11th-floor Manhattan offices, I received the role of local union president and spent large parts of the evening bartering with Mike Koscinski, a startup software engineer, who played as a district congressman. I begged him to take my $2 million and in return support an increase in union jobs post-hurricane. I thought we had an agreement until he disappeared into a closed-door meeting with the CEO of the biggest company in town—my sworn enemy. When he finally emerged, he rushed to reassure me he hadn’t supported the CEO’s plan to cut jobs. “I’m standing up against some powerful entrenched interests,” he said. “They wanted me to go scorched earth, and I said, ‘No, sir!’”

So what is riskgaming? Riskgaming is a scenario played by a a small group that simulates a complex problem. We’ve written four scenarios so far, which covered climate change and national security, the ethics of doing business in China, AI and election security, as well as AI and national security (AI is not our obsession, but it is the obsession of many people these days!). The way I approach designing these scenarios is to give each player the freedom to make their own choices within the constraints of their own incentives — politicians want to get elected, CEOs want their stock prices and valuations to go up, and journalists want attention and influence. Couple that open game model with well-researched stories and scenarios, and you have a combustible mix of negotiation, education and fun.

It’s been an adventure bringing Pentagon-style wargaming into the deep tech / hard science world over the past year. I’ve played hundreds of board games thanks to my husband’s fanatical obsession (we have about 650 board games and 600 square feet of living space — you do the math on that), and I have also participated in mock academic policy simulations in the past. With riskgaming, I wanted to build a unique experience from the ground up that took advantage of the best practices from the defense strategy world while opening these experiences up to the wide range of leaders that Lux engages with at the intersection of science, business and policy.

A group of entrepreneurs playing local and federal officials debate the future of America
A group of entrepreneurs playing local and federal officials debate the future of America's naval shipyards in the scenario “Hampton at the Cross-Roads”, hosted at Lux's NYC offices. Photo by Danny Crichton.

In the tradition of the very earliest startups we back here at Lux, I started simply: hand-written documents, a sketch of a story and a scenario, some pretty terrible imagery from OpenAI’s DALL-E, and very accommodating founders from the New York City ecosystem who showed up at Lux’s office with absolutely no idea what they were about to get themselves into. Their collective feedback was invaluable, and allowed me to rapidly iterate Hampton at the Cross-Roads and the principles of riskgaming more broadly. The “product” we offer with riskgaming today is so much more compelling and profound than what we first started with, and that’s thanks to the helpful community that makes New York — and America’s — startups grow and thrive.

Since those early forays, we’ve had hundreds of players join all four of our riskgaming scenarios, ranging from early-stage founders and software engineers building at the cutting edge of what’s possible to combatant commanders, think tank presidents, Fortune 500 board members, congressmen, magazine editors, state-level secretaries of state (the chief election officials of most U.S. states), U.S. Senate candidates, federal agency heads, and a slew of others.

President Chuck Branner demands greater automation of the U.S. government and national security during a riskgaming runthrough of “No Man’s Land” at Bloomberg HQ. Photo by Danny Crichton.
President Chuck Branner demands greater automation of the U.S. government and national security during a riskgaming runthrough of “No Man’s Land” at Bloomberg HQ. Photo by Danny Crichton.

We’ve had the opportunity to partner with great organizations including Mike Bloomberg and his team at Bloomberg on the future of AI and national security, as well as Miles Taylor and Evan Burfield at alongside Sam Englebardt at Galaxy Interactive on AI deepfakes and America’s election security (an experience written up by Dan De Luce and Kevin Collier of NBC News last month).

A distinguished group of election officials, tech CEOs and civil society professionals consider the implications of AI deep fakes in DeepFaked and DeepSixed? during the 2024 U.S. presidential election. Photo by Danny Crichton.
A distinguished group of election officials, tech CEOs and civil society professionals consider the implications of AI deep fakes in “DeepFaked and DeepSixed?” during the 2024 U.S. presidential election. Photo by Danny Crichton.

At its core, riskgaming is about empathy, understanding the incentives and motivations of very different types of people and why some can work together and others can’t. With our scenario on the future of AI and national security for instance, we had tech CEOs and military generals essentially switch jobs for a day, with flag officers taking up the leadership of early-stage startups seeking exponential growth while tech CEOs negotiated the funding of the Pentagon’s annual budget. Hilarity ensued — both sides corrected the other and pointed out the obvious mistakes they were making. That mirth transcended to education and ultimately to empathy — the realization that the world isn’t a devious design dropped down from on high, but the aggregate outcome of innumerable individual decisions that are chosen under constraints and incentives.

An early runthrough of the scenario Hampton at the Cross-Roads with Lux
An early runthrough of the scenario “Hampton at the Cross-Roads” with Lux's West Coast-based investment team and invited founder guests. Photo by Danny Crichton.

As I evolved riskgaming, I narrowed our focus to the most complex challenges in the world that I could find, ones where individual people have vastly different reasons to find a resolution. In our first scenario Hampton at the Cross-Roads, a shipyard that builds America’s aircraft carriers becomes a battleground over job growth, unionization, fighting against China, protecting domestic manufacturing, balancing regional economic growth as well as the individual machinations of politicians at different levels of government. There are no easy answers here, nor are there right ones. I’ve watched about 16 teams play through the scenario, and each time, people invent new strategies and find new points of negotiation that no one else has found before.

A beta runthrough of a riskgaming scenario on the AI singularity and America national security hosted at Lux
A beta runthrough of a riskgaming scenario on the AI singularity and America national security hosted at Lux's NYC offices. Photo by Danny Crichton.

That’s what’s I’ve been working on over the past year here at Lux. So what happens next? First, we’re transitioning our editorial brand here from “Securities” by Lux Capital (with those pesky quotes) into just Riskgaming (no quotes required, thank god). I’ll still be writing up and publishing the newsletter and podcast as before, but they are going to center more specifically around the themes of risk and decision-making that have always been our most popular topics (our top-ranked podcast episode remains “Risk, Bias and Decision Making: Pre-mortems” with the late Daniel Kahneman alongside Annie Duke, Michael Mauboussin and Josh Wolfe).

The newsletter and podcast in turn fuel our live events. We host riskgaming events in New York City, Washington DC, San Francisco and any city where we can congregate an interesting group of thinkers and leaders together to solve humanity’s greatest challenges. We’ll be designing new riskgaming scenarios just with Lux as well as with existing and new partners — if you or your organization is focused on a uniquely complex challenge that doesn’t get enough attention, feel free to reach out.

Finally, we’re always on the hunt for talent. If you are interested in working with Lux full-time or as a part-time freelancer, we have roles ranging from guest programming and events production to scenario design and essay writing. Reach out to me with a portfolio if you love the subjects we explore and want to help us build.

If this were a startup, I think we’d be at the seed stage shooting for a Series A in a year or two. It’s been a great year, and so much more to look forward to with riskgaming. For the thousands of readers and listeners who check in with me and Lux every week – thanks for being here, and I look forward to continue highlighting the world’s challenges. And one day, I hope you all can join us live for a riskgaming session yourself.

Maintenance and the Eclipse: Two short podcasts

Photo by Chris Gates via DALL-E
Photo by Chris Gates via DALL-E

I’ve been heads down on this riskgaming launch the past few weeks, so apologies for the slow progress on the podcast side. But we have two great short episodes to catch up on.

First, our scientist-in-residence Sam Arbesman and I talk about last week’s eclipse, and its meaning for community and science in a polarized world. It’s our rare fully uplifting episode, and a delayed echo of my piece on the James Webb Space Telescope in “Scientific Sublime” from mid-2022.

🔊 Listen to “The Zone of Totality with Sam Arbesman”

Second, Josh Wolfe and I discuss the most recent Lux quarterly LP letter, where we focus on the venture investment opportunity around maintenance broadly conceived. As the world hits an entropic apex (the subject of our LP letter a year or two ago), the need for repair and maintenance of our technological and physical infrastructures is increasing dramatically, forcing new solutions to be built. We talk about the thesis, companies we think are compelling, and what happens next.

🔊 Listen to “Lux and the Art of Startup Maintenance”

Lux Recommends

  • Sam points to a snarky article on the ‘Qommodore 64,’ a Commodore 64 that’s designed to simulate IBM’s 127-Qubit ‘Eagle’ quantum processing unit (QPU). The results of the two computers competing with each other? “[s]arcastic researchers say 1 MHz computer is faster, more efficient, and decently accurate” than its quantum brethren.
  • Last week in “Pacific Stratagems,” I emphasized the frenzy of global diplomatic activity that took place on April 10th. Katsuji Nakazawa picks up the thread in Nikkei Asia, writing how the timing coincided with the passage of America’s Taiwan Relations Act back in 1979. “A countermeasure was also necessary if Xi was to save face in front of his domestic audience. According to Taiwanese media, the Xi-Ma meeting initially had been set for April 8 but was delayed two days. Likely, this was deliberately done so Xi's tete-a-tete with Ma would coincide with the Japan-U.S. summit.”
  • Tess van Stekelenburg recommends an hour-long discussion hosted by Stanford’s Eric Nguyen on “EVO: DNA Foundation Models.” Evo, which was launched via the Arc Institute, has taken the Bio + ML world by storm, and Eric is an expert at what the model does and the bio applications it unlocks.
  • Sam enjoyed OpenAI researcher Richard Ngo’s short story “Tinker,” which was published by Asimov Press and takes the heady perspective of an AI chip. “My memories of the early stages are hazy—I spent months predicting internet text, pictures, and videos, without full awareness of what I was doing or why. It was only once I began interacting with humans and other AIs that I gained a better understanding of my situation.”
  • I enjoyed a short article on Curbed where Christopher Bonanos tracks down “The Hardest-Working Turnstile in the [NYC] Subway.” “They are obviously built to last, and, he notes with some pride, have vastly outlived their design expectations: 'One of the testaments is just how many sheer cycles they do without failure, without maintenance,’ he says. ‘I mean, those things can turn hundreds of thousands of times without a maintainer even needing to do anything.’”
  • Finally, fractals are incredible mathematical entities that have enticed viewers for decades thanks to the work of Benoit Mandelbrot. But they have always been in our mind’s eye, and never in nature. Now, Sam points to news that scientists have discovered the first fractal molecule. “It’s an enzyme used by a species of cyanobacteria to produce citrate, which was found to naturally assemble itself into a specific fractal pattern called the Sierpiński triangle.”

That’s it, folks. Have questions, comments, or ideas? This newsletter is sent from my email, so you can just click reply.