XPrize founder Peter Diamandis creates competitions that aim to make the impossible possible. He is taking on global challenges like spaceflights, medical diagnostics and universal literacy, and he’s looking for radical breakthroughs. As the chairman of Singularity University, he is focused on teaching executives about exponential-growth opportunities. Ali Velshi caught up with Diamandis in New York on the 10th anniversary of the XPrize. (Velshi sits on the group’s board.)
Ali Velshi: What is XPrize, and why did you start it?
Peter Diamandis: My passion since childhood has been to fly into space, and along the way, I’ve started a dozen space companies, and I gave up on NASA being the mechanism that was going to take me there. Back in 1994, I read a book, called “The Spirit of St. Louis,” that (Charles) Lindbergh wrote about his flight across the Atlantic, and I found out that in 1927, when Lindbergh made that flight, he didn’t do it on a whim. He did it to win a $25,000 prize. I started thinking about this idea that prizes could spur innovation in extraordinary ways.
So in 1996, I gathered with a group of St. Louisans, a group of amazing backers, and we announced this $10 million prize for the first person to build a spaceship privately that could carry three people into space. The point is, we announced it in ’96. It was won in 2004, 10 years ago. We had 26 teams around the world who spent $100 million to go after this $10 million prize, and a fellow named Burt Rutan, backed by Paul Allen, built this private spaceship, made two flights up to 100 kilometers, landed safely within two weeks and opened up the spaceflight industry.
And that became SpaceShipOne.
That was SpaceShipOne. Richard Branson comes in, licenses the winning technology and creates Virgin Galactic, which is just now getting ready for their first private consumer flights.
founder of the XPrize
A lot of people think of the biggest things we do, because they cost money and they require years and years of research — a lot of people associate that with things government should be doing.
Yes. It’s changing. I believe that we’re heading into an era where we’re going to be able to solve our grand challenges — all of them. I don’t believe, honestly, that there’s any problem that we cannot solve. And one of the reasons for that is the number of people solving problems is exploding in the world. It used to be that you’d only go to governments. The government’s job was handling the big problem. Then it turned into governments and large companies.
But today, empowered by cloud computing, artificial intelligence, robotics, all kinds of tools, entrepreneurs around the world have access and the ability to now start solving problems. One of the realizations I had — that really, for me, was a big idea — was that the world’s biggest problems are the world’s biggest business opportunities as well, right? You want to solve hunger, education, health care, water, whatever it might be, you become a billionaire in the process and help a billion people. And so more and more people are trying to knock those off.
There’s an interesting terminology you use, though, when solving these problems. They are business opportunities, but they are market failures.
They are market failures.
These are something that neither government nor the free market has come up with a solution to itself and needs some spurring by an incentive prize.
Yes, a lot of times, there’s a perverse innovation. I’ll give you an example. One of the prizes that you’ve reported on before was the oil-cleanup prize that Wendy Schmidt funded. And it turns out, between roughly 1990, when the Exxon Valdez occurred in Alaska, and then the BP spill occurred in 2010, the technology over that 21 years for cleaning up oil spills had not changed. And I was like, “Why is that? Why isn’t it getting better? Why can’t we clean it up faster?” And it turned out, when an oil spill occurred, the oil companies would hire the local fishermen and business owners to clean up the spill. And if you clean it up faster and faster, there was less business there. And so there was no innovation that took place. We ended up funding a million-and-a-half-dollar prize that Wendy Schmidt funded, and —
Born out of the frustration of watching that endless coverage of the fact that they couldn’t get the spill dealt with.
It was crazy, right? And James Cameron, the producer, had just joined our board of trustees at the XPrize Foundation and said, “You got to do something about this.” We ended up offering up a prize that if you can at least double the rate of oil-spill cleanup, you win the million-and-a-half bucks. We had 350 teams around the world enter the competition. I had no idea there were 350 people interested in this anywhere. And the top 10 teams went head to head. Seven of those teams doubled the oil-spill cleanup rate. The winning team increased it 600 percent — a sixfold increase. Why wasn’t that done 10 years earlier?
By the world’s richest companies?
With huge workforces, right? Doing experimentations. There are market failures, and sometimes — I define the expert sometimes as the person who can tell you exactly how it can’t be done. So we want to go to the nonexperts, who are —
Because they’re dreamers.
They’re dreamers. They’ll take risks, and, you know, for me, doing risky things over and over again, most of which will fail, allows you to really drive real, true breakthroughs. Because the day before something is really a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea. If it wasn’t a crazy idea, it wouldn’t be a breakthrough. It would be an incremental improvement. So, I asked the question, “Where inside our government, where inside large companies do we try crazy ideas?” We don’t.
We’re both “Star Trek” fans.
And one of your prizes, one of your competitions right now is a tricorder, to replicate the tricorder from “Star Trek.” Tell me about that.
Gene Roddenberry, the creator of “Star Trek” — brilliant human. And the universe, the future he envisioned, really much of that is coming into existence, and I sort of view XPrize’s purpose as to help bring it into existence faster. In fact, the cellphones we have now are even better than they have on the communicators. So Paul Jacobs, the chairman-CEO of Qualcomm, and I had lunch, and at lunch I said, “Listen, we have a vision of bringing the tricorder,” and he said, “That’s fantastic. Let’s do it.” And he actually funded it.
Qualcomm foundation put up $20 million — $10 million for the purse, and we’re offering the $10 million for a team that can build a handheld mobile device. Something that is for a mom or dad. It’s not for a nurse or for a doctor. It’s for a mom in the middle of Kenya or dad in the middle of the Bronx, wherever it might be, who can talk to this thing. It understands language. It’s got, like, IBM’s Watson computer on the cloud. You can cough on it. It can do the RNA or DNA analysis of the bacteria in your saliva. You can do a micro–blood prick, do your full blood chemistry. In success, this handheld device can diagnose you much better than board-certified doctor. And the beautiful thing about this is it’s something that can spread like wildfire, like cellphones have, around the planet.
People say, “Oh, you’re trying to take your doctor’s job.” Well, in the U.S. alone, we’re going to be short over 100,000 doctors by 2020. We can’t build enough medical schools to train enough doctors, and that’s great compared to Africa, which has got 25 percent of the disease burden and 1.3 percent of the health care workers. So the only way you really get to health care abundance is by using technology.
Explain to me what Singularity University is.
I wanted to create a university where you pulled way back and you got a chance to see what all of the coolest technologies are doing and where they’re going. What’s in the lab today and what’s coming in the market in the next two, five years in A.I. — artificial intelligence — robotics, synthetic biology, you know, 3-D printing. All of these different technological areas that are going give us the leverage to change the world. So we created Singularity University. We now have a graduate program for the top graduate students. Three thousand applicants for 80 spots every year. We have executive programs. We have a program that the top companies send their executives to.
And for them, what is this? To expand your mind, to understand?
If you’re the CEO of a publicly traded company, you’re worried about quarterly returns. You also have to be worried about some kid in a garage coming up with a technology out of right field that you weren’t expecting that puts you out of business.
You said that so much of our growth and invention has been linear.
And it’s now changing to exponential. Explain that.
An exponential growth is a simple doubling. One becomes two becomes four. You know, all of us are linear thinkers. We evolved in a world that was local and linear. You know, back 100,000, 200,000, millions of years ago when we were evolving as a human species, nothing changed. You know, the life of your great-grandparents, you, your kids — it was the same. And so we are local and linear thinkers. If I tell you, “Take 30 linear steps” — one, two, three, four, five — you end up 30 paces, 30 meters away. If I said, you know, “What about 30 exponential steps?” A doubling — one, two, four, eight, 16, 32. Thirty doublings later, you’re a billion meters away. You’ve gone around the planet 26 times. And the fact that we’re a linear thinker in a world that’s growing exponentially — and the reason it’s growing exponentially is this concept of Moore’s law, that notion that our computers are doubling in power or price performance every 18 to 24 months.
Meanwhile, we’re still wired to think —
One, two, three, four ...
Let’s talk a little bit about a book you wrote that did very well, called “Abundance.” And it really takes issue with a myth that a lot of people still believe in, that there’s not enough stuff in the world.
I was seeing a very different view of the world than a lot of people with my role as CEO and chairman of XPrize and executive chairman of Singularity University. I was seeing amazing progress going on. And when I looked back at the last hundred years — over the last hundred years, if you think about it, the human life span has more than doubled. Per capita income for every nation on this planet has more than tripled. The cost of food has dropped 13-fold. Energy’s reduced, you know, 20-fold. Transportation, 100-fold. Communication’s 1,000-fold cheaper, right?
So I said, “What’s causing this change? What’s causing this amazing change over the last hundred years?” It’s not better politicians. It’s not we’ve gotten smarter — haven’t had brain upgrades. It’s technology. It’s the impact of technology. I realize that technology is that thing which takes what was scarce and makes it abundant.
We live in a world bathed in 5,000 times more energy than we consume as a species in the year, in the form of solar energy. It’s just not in usable form yet. But there are amazing breakthroughs there. This is a world where the resources are not properly distributed. Technology can help that. You know, one last example I’ll give is the notion that, you know, a Masai warrior in the middle of Kenya today on a cellphone has better mobile comm than the president of the United States did 25 years ago, right?
Which means we may find these geniuses in places we couldn’t before?
We are living in a world of amazing cognitive surplus, brilliant people who were never connected before. You know, you could have a Mozart. You could have an Einstein who was born in a poor village in the middle of India or Africa who would never rise because they were never discovered. Now we’re in a world that we’re connected like this, those geniuses can be found, can be educated, can be brought to the forefront of humanity.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
This episode premiered Sunday February 16, at 7pm ET/4pm PT.