Thursday, January 30, 2014

X Marks The Prize

Sometimes its hard not to get lost among all the possibilities of the future, we tend to forget that things like advanced medical technology, solar power, modern computers ect. don't just pop up out of no where but are created through the hard work of innovators.  As long as incentive exists for the creative action, new technology and techniques will flourish, but what happens if humanity is faced with a dire problem such as climate change where fast action is important but little incentive exists?

That's when Peter Diamandis comes in, Peter is an American scientist and entrepreneur, he thought about the state of the world and how he could use his hard earned money to create a better future.  He came up with the idea of offering up large sums of prize money in return for accomplishing a technological goal, this basic model became the X-prize foundation, created in 1994, the group puts up money for specific accomplishments and has teams of scientists and engineers compete to create whatever the goal is, whoever can build something closest to what the prize requires wins!

As you will see most of the categories are geared to innovations that could have a great impact on inequality, environmental destruction and climate change.  To name some of the more interesting ones:  Develop an efficient method of cleaning oil spills, create light weight solar and wind power generators, design an electric aircraft, design a lunar lander, develop a system that accurately predicts earthquakes, build efficient water extraction technology, create a medical tricorder, and many many others.  Check out the X-Prize website for more information:

To understand the power of such a strategy we must look back into history, to the late Richard Feynman in fact.  In his 1959 talk, "There's Plenty Of Room At The Bottom",  Richard outlined a similar scheme to create what he saw as one of the most promising branches of science for the future of humanity;  Nano technology.

Feynman offered up large sums of his own money in return for accomplishing various tasks, including things like writing a nano sized book, creating a tiny working motor, ect.  He found most of the tasks accomplished surprisingly quickly, money is a great motivator, and history still remembers Richard as one of the early pioneers in theoretical nano science.

So clearly cash incentives put forward by well off individuals can have a huge positive impact upon the course of research and development.  So what convinces people to give up hard earned cash in order to fund large prizes for innovation?  In the case of Peter Diamandis, it is an understanding that humanity is in crisis and requires radical and innovative solutions to deal with poverty, ecological destruction and climate change.  Peter has a radically forward thinking vision of the future put forward in his book "Abundance, The Future Is Better Than You Think", where he outlines his ideas about post scarcity and advanced technology.

So clearly having a visionary perspective is important when you are deciding what problems to tackle and why, especially if you have a great deal of resources to invest.  One of the great things about X Prize is that it allows people all over the world to apply various solutions to difficult problems, it invokes a sort of natural selection of ideas, the money from the prize is used to extract the best possible solution or set of solutions from a pool of possibilities.

The focus of these philanthropic activities is to facilitate the creation of a bountiful and abundant future for humanity, if this kind of program is seen as successful, it could become a dominant model for wealthy individuals seeking to help the situation.  Combined with decentralized DIY innovation, these trends can create great positive results if applied properly and help to bring about a universally high standard of living.

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