Poised with a pair of golden shears, Bill Miller addressed a crowd of 150-some scientists, trustees, ACtioN members, SFI employees, and their guests. They had gathered in an outdoor courtyard at SFI’s newly renovated Miller Campus in Tesuque, NM for its debut appearance at the annual Applied Complexity Network & Board of Trustees Symposium.
Because the ceremony was a surprise event, Miller did not have a speech prepared. Tellingly, he thought of Wittgenstein — the genius philosopher who spent the latter part of his career chasing “snippets” of insight across a broad range of topics.
“The early Wittgenstein was all about solving problems,” Miller said. “He wanted to ground language in logic, so he wrote the Tractatus.” When Wittgenstein met a critic, Frank Ramsey, he "completely changed his way of thinking, and spent the rest of his career on philosophical investigations which were just forays, snippets into this or that.”
Why we should bother with snippets of isolated insights is a recurring question for Miller, and for SFI. A legendary investor, Miller is often asked how he decides on his investments. He is also specifically asked whether his time at SFI has had any practical applications to his work. He answers this question with examples— snippets, if you will— which he shared with the audience during a weekend-long symposium devoted to complexity economics:
- Citing External Professor Brian Arthur’s work on lock-in technologies and path-dependence, which was conducted at SFI, Miller says he was inspired to research and buy technology stocks such as Dell, AOL, Nokia, and Apple in 1995 when they were widely perceived as too unpredictable to trade on.
- Based on an insight from an early SFI topical meeting on innovation and evolution, Miller says he decided to buy Google shares on their Initial Public Offering (IPO), when each share went for $85. The current share price hovers around $1,500.
- He also mentioned discussing Geoffrey West's work on scaling laws and company mortality during a recent long-term planning meeting with Jeff Bezos and the Amazon.com leadership. (Miller is one of Amazon’s early investors.)
- Finally, Miller credits a 2015 SFI symposium on money and currency, which he co-organized with SFI President David Krakauer, for prompting him to buy Bitcoin when it was trading for $200. As of November 8, 2021, its value has hit a high of more than $67,000.
The example of Bitcoin was especially timely, because in 2018 Miller donated $5 million from this SFI-inspired investment to fund the Institute's expansion to the Miller Campus. The estate itself had been donated in 2012 by Eugene and Claire Thaw, but needed repairs and renovation before it could become a workspace. Jokingly, Miller refers to it as “the campus Bitcoin built.”
“To find somebody who actually shares this kind of vision of how you can live in the world, and supports a community that’s devoted to ideas is completely special,” Krakauer remarked, praising Miller for valuing risk and exploration, which are central to the “sensibility and culture” of SFI.
Just before Miller cut the ribbon, he shared a final reflection: “Insights can change the world."
The crowd broke into applause. Then they filed into the newly renovated Thaw building to admire the streamlined, modern meeting spaces set amidst historic Santa Fe fireplaces and double-thick adobe walls. The new architecture, by Thomas Easterson Bond, was adorned with prints and sculptures by artist Greg Stimac — a special exhibit that celebrates exploration and the American Road. As guests took in the artwork and architecture, they discussed highlights from the weekend symposium, which may one day be credited for inspiring a life-changing insight.