“The day before something is a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea.” Peter Diamandis
Breakthrough Leadership Award winner Peter Diamandis started the X Prize Foundation in 1995, through which he uses competitions and cash prizes to jump-start innovation in the aerospace, automotive, environmental, technology and life-science fields. He is an unflagging optimist who believes that humanity’s challenges are surmountable through technology and ingenuity. PM senior editor Glenn Derene joined him recently to discuss tricorders, ocean acidification, and why the world will be a much better place in 40 years.
Q: Why does the world need the X Prize Foundation? Does conventional R&D not work for some technologies?
A: A true breakthrough requires taking extraordinary risk. The question is: where in our society do we try crazy ideas? I would imagine that it used to be in government and large corporations, but when you have a situation where, like with Solyndra (the solar energy company), the government makes an investment and it tanks, and then there are congressional investigations and the Department of Energy is chastised; suddenly, failure has a very high cost. When failure has a high cost, people don’t like taking risks. What the X Prize does is encourage intelligent risk taking. It creates a very defined target. It creates a winning moment.
It identifies a place where a breakthrough would be transformational, and then it says the first person to achieve this specific goal, wins.
Q: Several of your current projects involve sensors, including the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize and the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health X Prize. What’s the connection there?
A: If you can’t measure something, you can’t improve it. And I believe that this next decade will have fundamental breakthroughs in the ubiquity and capability of sensors. In the future, everybody will be wired and we’ll be dribbling bits – bits about blood chemistry, cardiovascular status, neural status – and those bits will be analysed by AI and you’ll be told if anything is in deviation. Your physician might be monitoring you.
And the health world will become proactive versus reactive, which it is right now. In the same way that we’re creating sensors to measure the human body’s status, we want to create sensors to understand the ocean’s status – changes in acidity and how the ocean is being transformed. Having knowledge of what actually is going on allows you to make smart decisions. We have changed the atmospheric quality of the United States by having regulations that require catalytic converters that require smokestack scrubbers. But regulatory change doesn’t come until you have irrefutable data to prove there’s a problem. And maybe the next X Prize will be where scientists figure out a mechanism for reversing acidification or regrowing reefs.
Q: What are the key technologies of the next few decades?
A: I think 3D printing is going to transform a $10 trillion manufacturing industry, enabling the consumer to become the designer and manufacturer. Synthetic biology will give us the ability to go from evolution by natural selection to evolution by intelligent direction, where life is a new programming language. And artificial intelligence and robotics are probably going to be two of the biggest transformative factors, giving people the ability to have all of their needs met by an electronic world.
Q: In your recent book, Abundance, you paint a picture of the future where 10 billion people all enjoy high standards of living. What gives you that confidence?
A: Over the past 100 years, the human life span has more than doubled, the cost of food has dropped thirteenfold, energy has dropped twenty-fold, transportation has dropped a hundredfold, communications has dropped over a thousand-fold. All of these things have been enabled by technology – and the rate at which technological innovation is occurring is accelerating, not slowing down. I think we’re heading towards epic, extraordinary change. I think we’re going to transform the way we live, the way we work, the way we govern. I think every aspect of society is going to fundamentally change over the next 30 years.