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Filmed on Friday September 12, 02008
Diamandis founded the X-Prize Foundation in 1995 and continues as its CEO and chairman. His private company Zero-G offers the experience of weightlessness in a parabolic-flight jet, and he is managing director of Space Adventures, which sends private citizens to the International Space Station.
Prizes are proving themselves as powerful tools to accelerate goal-specific innovation. Diamandis, the founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation, has built on the success of the $10 million Ansari X Prize that inaugurated private-sector spaceflight in 2004 with Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne. Currently in play are new prizes for a $10,000 human genome, for a private Moon landing, and for a super-efficient car, with more in the pipeline.
But prize contests so far have focussed on near-term goals---spectacular achievements that can be accomplished in a decade or two. What might be prize-worthy hundred-year goals, or thousand-year goals? What goals might a century of focussed effort transform from the clearly impossible to the merely difficult?
Pursuing the idea of “revolution through competition” via huge-purse prizes was inspired for Peter Diamandis by reading about the Orteig Prize. In 1927 $25,000 was offered to the first person to fly non-stop from New York to Paris. Nine teams spent $400,000 in the competition. A 25-year-old named Lindbergh won the prize. Within 18 months air passengers had multiplied 30-fold from 6,000 to 180,000, the number of aircraft increased four-fold, and aviation stocks soared.
A lifelong space nut, Diamandis created out of thin air the Ansari X Prize. $10 million would go to the first team to make a 3-person reusable space vehicle that could reach 100 kilometers in altitude twice in two weeks. From 7 countries 26 teams competed, spending $100 million on the project. The success in 2004 of SpaceShipOne (now in the Smithsonian) launched a space tourism industry.
With the help of Google, the X Prize became a foundation to generate a series of competitions for “audacious and achievable goals.” The attributes for a good Prize competition are: very large cash prize; clear objective and simple rules; a defined problem rather than defined solution; a target that had become stuck; something that attracts maverick thinkers; something whose success will change people’s sense of what is possible.
Currently operative X Prizes include one for extremely cheap genome sequencing and one for a race of 100-mile-per-gallon cars. An example of how the prize process is learning is the Google Lunar X Prize to launch, land, and operate a rover on the Moon’s surface. Diamandis wants the event to have time duration, not just be a flash in the pan, because duration is what persuades people that something new is real. And he wants more mechanisms that help create an industry in the wake of the event. Thus the $30 million purse for this prize will be divided—$20 million to the first-place winner, $5 million to second place, and $5 million each for bonus goals such as photographing man-made objects on the Moon, surviving a lunar night, and detecting ice in a crater. So far the race has 15 registered teams competing.
X Prizes in the past have been for goals that could be achieved in a 3 to 8 year time frame. Now Diamandis wants to reach further in time and further into the realm of the seemingly impossible. He noted that only a short while ago a number of things were understood by everybody to be impossible: heavier-than-air flight; instant communications at a distance; transplanting a heart; space travel; cloning of a mammal; eradicating smallpox. What things are in that category now? And what would it take to get things moving in their direction?
Diamandis calls them Mega-X Prizes. They would have a purse of $100 million to $1 billion. (Not implausible; there are 1,200 billionaires in the world now.) As an example of how the economics could make sense, Diamandis points out that the current cost of AIDS is $80 billion a year, $800 billion a decade. A successful $1 billion X Prize for a cure for AIDS would be a hugely efficient economic event as well as a massive humanitarian breakthrough.
To conclude the evening, Diamandis offered the audience a list of 35 potential Mega-X Prize goals. Circle your top three choices, he said, and we’ll tally the results. Rather than tell you what that particular audience chose, I’ll pass on the list to you. What are your top three choices? What would you add to the list?…
Condensed ideas about long-term thinking summarized by Stewart Brand
(with Kevin Kelly, Alexander Rose and Paul Saffo) and a foreword by Brian Eno.
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