Big Think Interview With Peter Diamandis

Technology Entrepreneur
A conversation with the Chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation.
  • Transcript


Question: Why do you believe we have a moral imperative to go into space?

Peter Diamandis: If you stop and you think about everything we hold of value on this planet, metal, minerals, energy, real estate, the things that nations fight wars over.  These things are in near infinite quantities out there.  If you believe that the developing world deserves the same standards of living that we do in the developed world, then to achieve that, they need resources.  They need the metals and the minerals to build the industries and the buildings and so forth, and the energy.  The question is, do you continue to rape and pillage Earth, or if you have the ability to extract that information from outside resources, outside of Earth, then that would be a mechanism to uplift the bottom billion or so of society.  

The other thing is that there’s a concept that a friend of mine, Elon Musk and I talk about; we’re backing up the biosphere.  Go back to ancient history when the libraries of Alexandria burned and all the knowledge was consumed in those flames.  Today, we have built this pinnacle of information, both in the biosphere encoded in the genomics of plants and animals and the billions of species on this planet and in the Internet where we’ve digitized languages, information, and images and so forth.  The right sized asteroid coming in to smack the Earth will destroy all of that.  So we have today, literally the technical capability to back up the living Earth, if you would.  Back up Gaia digitally and to go and sequence the genomes of, not billions, but millions of species and take that information and duplicate it off the planet.  Such that if anything ever happened, it’s resident there and preserved forever.  That sort of capability comes with it a tremendous moral imperative in my mind of being able to implement this. 

So, those are some of the reasons; to uplift society and to backup the biosphere.  And the third and final reason is it’s in our genome.  We are as humans an exploring species.  We began on the planes of Africa and our need to explore that took us into Europe, into Asia, and across the straights into the Americas, and so forth.  That drive to explore is resident in our DNA.  In fact, it’s genetically, if you would, selected for because those who explore and move out the widest and furthest have the least chance of having their genome destroyed by a local accident.  And so that is an evolutionary imperative.  We are not going to stop here on planet Earth.  We’re going to move out to other planetary bodies and I believe not going to into the planetary gravitational wells will build societies in O’Neal-like spheres and humanity will move out into the cosmos and probably meet other societies that have done the same in millennia and eons past. 

Question: How will space exploration change human society?

Peter Diamandis: Something very interesting has happened over the last hundred years that people don’t think about which is that the frontiers that we have had started to shrink and disappear.  It used to be that 100 or 150 years ago, if you screwed up, you fucked up literally in one area, you could go and start again someplace new.  You could go and start your life again without the stigma of what happened.  There is no place you can do that again.  There’s no real frontiers. 

The second thing about frontiers are; it allows the individuals who are best, whether they’re men or women or minorities or whatever, to step to the top.  So in traditional societies, old world societies, in the United Kingdom if you would; if you were born into the right stratus, the right class, you had the ability to succeed.  But if you weren’t, you were stuck.  And in the frontier, it didn’t matter what your birthright was, where you went to school, what you did.  If you were the best, people came to you.  So, that’s some of the elements of a frontier.  And finally, in space what’s going to happen is the chance to truly explore in different societal structures, if you want to practice a pure capitalist state, or anarchy, or socialism, whatever it is, you can gather the people around you who you want to form that type of government and go and create your own space society on some colony and go and practice that.  And those who don’t like it can duplicate the genomics and the knowledge systems of that colony and split and do it again.  There will be a Darwinian evolution of different forms of society and different way of people trying it.  But go and try to start your own government in the United States today and you’ll be squashed very quickly. 

Question: Why is the government not working harder to open up this frontier?

Peter Diamandis: One of the precepts of the X Prize is you get what you incentivize; a very simple concept, but extraordinarily powerful.  And if you look to the root of what the problems are, you always find out, well we don’t incentivize that.  Well today what we incentivize, we incentivize a Congressman being elected every two years, a President being elected every four years, and a Senator every six years.  So, it’s what’s going to affect people right now.  What can I promise and delivery in two years.  Space is not a two-year objective.  It used to be, in the early ‘60’s, we had this eye candy of Mercury and Gemini and Apollo and every year we would do something more and more and it met those needs.  But the easy stuff has been done.  And today, NASA calls stuff nominal instead of phenomenal, like it really is.  So I have given up that there is going to be a balance and NASA is going to do certain things and we are finally in a state of existence where small groups of individuals can do extraordinary things, funded by single people.  Today, a group of 20 individuals empowered by the exponential growing technologies of AI and robotics and computers and networks and eventually nanotechnology can do what only nation states could have done before. 

We saw this in the first X Prize that we put together, the Ansari X Prize, where a spaceship won built by a small team of 20 individuals, Scaled Composites, led by Burt Rutan, funded by one individual, Paul Allen, did what only the United States government could have done 40 years earlier.  We see that more and more coming up.

Question: What was it that first inspired you to create this prize?

Peter Diamandis: I’m a nine-year old kid inside and my passion has been all my life to want to travel into space.  I drank that Kool-Aid and I got that bug as a kid.  I saw Apollo going on, on TV.  I was born in ’61, and I believed it was going to happen.  I believed that once we got to the Moon, there was no stopping us.  But in fact, we did stop.  And it’s been literally 40 years since we’ve been to the lunar surface.  And I ended up realizing that NASA was unlikely to get me into space, or get me to the moon or beyond, and I needed some other way to drive this.  And I became very much, if I have to describe myself, I’m sort of a Libertarian Capitalist, and I was looking for, what’s the economic engine that’s going to drive us into space?  So, I received a book one day from a great friend of mine, Greg Marinak called, The Spirit of St. Louis, that tells the story of Lindbergh, and I had no idea that Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic to win a prize.  I thought he woke up one day and just decided to go east.  But in fact, there was this Frenchman born in Paris, came to New York with pennies in his pocket, Raymond Orteig was his name, became a bus boy, moved up and eventually bought the hotel he worked at, started a second hotel, and just after World War I, when aviation just started getting going, he became enamored by this idea of aviation.  He decided to put up a prize for the first person that could go non-stop between his birthplace and his new home, in either direction.  But if you knew about the trade winds, you’d go East. 

As it turned out, nine different teams from around the world, mostly the U.S., mostly France, went after this.  And the nine teams spend $400,000 to win this $25,000 prize.  Sixteen times the prize amount.  I went, oh my god.  I’m making notes in the margins about how much money is being spent.  Admiral Byrd, the first guy to fly to the North Pole, for example, spends $100,000 to try to win this $25,000 prize and he crashes on takeoff because he overweighs his airplane with Champagne in China to celebrate when he lands in Paris, as if there would be no Champagne in Paris when he gets there.  And the most unlikely guy to do this, Charles Lindbergh, who had been flying the mail for just a handful of years, makes this effort.  No one would sell him an airplane; no one would sell him an engine because he was unproven.  Who is this guy?  I mean, for God sakes, we don’t know who he is.  He’s going to kill himself and set back aviation a decade. 

Well, of course, he does just the opposite.  He makes the flight; 33 ½ hours later, he lands in Lebourget and he becomes famous overnight.  And still today, all school kids know his name.  But what hit me was not the efficiency of this prize, which was amazing, right?  You put up $25,000; you get $400,000 spent to win it.  But that within 18 months of Lindbergh making this flight across the Atlantic, something miraculous happened.  We go from, in 1927 when there were 6,000 paying passengers in all of the United States.  And people who flew in airplanes were called aeronauts and dare devils.  This is Eric Lindbergh, Charles’ grandson.  He is a great friend on our Board of Trustees who tells us the story.  Went from being aeronauts and dare devils, 6,000 of them to 18 months later where they were passengers and pilots and there were 180,000 of them.  This 30-fold increase, this prize caused this dramatic change in the paradigm.  And that inspired me to create the Ansari X Prize for space flight.  And so that’s how it got started.

Question: What fields have the potential to innovate with prizes?

Peter Diamandis: One of my goals is to reinvent philanthropy.  Today, philanthropy is a very unsophisticated, old world process where people who make a shitload of money go and give it away and when they’re making their money, they’re focused on 10x, 100x returns on the dollar.  Every dollar they use has got to be basically leveraged.  But then when they go and they give the money away, they’re happy with 30 cents on the dollar, ten cent – oh they really tried hard, too bad they didn’t do it.  That’s ridiculous.  You should command and demand the tenfold leverage on your dollars when you give it away as well. 

So we look for areas that are stuck, where there’s a stigma, where there is – people have given up that there can be a solution for it.  You know, in the space business, space had gotten very much to be the aerospace industry.  This is something that governments only do and it’s where the Boeings and the Lockheed’s and the Northrop’s and so forth.  And there’s no way these small companies could do it.  The automotive industry is the same way.  So, these industries have become old age and they’ve become ossified.  They can’t innovate themselves out of a paper bag sometimes.  This is where putting up a clearly defined measurable prize that says to the world, “I don’t care where you’ve gone to school, what you’ve ever done.  You do this and you win.”  And it brings really orthogonal thinking to the table.  People who don’t have the degrees, people who would never get a National Science Foundation Grant because they don’t have the education or haven’t done the research, but they may have the most brilliant idea because they’re not stuck in the way they think. 

It was Henry Ford who said, “An expert is someone who can tell you exactly how something can’t be done.”  And it’s true. 

Question: What is the process by which you build the prizes?

Peter Diamandis: We bring prizes together in a number of different ways.  First of all, we have our Board of Trustees who we built very carefully.  It’s a large number of really self-made innovators; Larry Page, **** Camen, Elon Musk, Ratan Tata from India, the Ansari family that funded our first Ansari X Prize are incredible individuals.  And then we have our Vision Circle, which hare our largest benefactors.  These are individuals like Sergei Brendon and Eric Schmidt, again the Ansari family.  And these groups, the Board of Trustees and our Vision Circle members get together twice a year with us and we have a visioneering session and for two days we debate and we discuss what are the world’s biggest problems.  Where are they stuck from diagnosing tuberculosis in three hours in remote areas, to diagnosing cancer early, to mapping the ocean floor, to trying to deal with the ocean plastics issue, or reinventing education.  And we debate and we discuss what would make a great X Prize. 

We have our X Prize labs.  We have an X Prize lab at MIT, at USC, at the University of Washington, and IIT, Bombay.  And these are interdisciplinary graduate level programs where young students that don’t know what’s not possible come up and say, let’s create an X Prize around this area.  And then the staff, the senior staff that really is constantly thinking, so whenever I’m meeting somebody, I’m interviewing them and saying, what do you think a great X Prize would be? And brainstorming it over lunch.  So, that’s sources for ideas. 

Question: Why does this prize mentality work so well?

Peter Diamandis: At the end of the day, the people who end up funding our prizes are corporations and philanthropists.  And they end up literally, if you’re a venture capitalist, you’re interested in moving a technology forward.  You’ve got to choose your horse ahead of time.  So, if you’re interested in water technology, energy technology, you get to choose between the three or four companies that you have insight into.  And you have to make a bet on them before they prove anything out.  And you don’t know about the other hundred out there that might have much better technology.  And it seems really silly to me to do it that way. 

When you put up a large incentive prize, you get the entire world.  So it pulls out of the woodwork all hundred companies and you get to see them all.  And you automatically back the winner.  So, for me it’s a very logical, it’s highly leveraged, typically 10 to 50 fold the amount of money you put up, you got spent by the teams to win it.  You are creating brand new industry and you have full industry insight.  And in the winning of the prize you create a brand new marketplace.  Instead of just buying the product that you incentivized in the first place. 

You know, Paul Allen, who backed Burt Rutan in a recent interview with Dave Moore, who ran Paul Allen’s venture here.  Dave said that Paul Allen invested somewhere between $20 and $30 million and that he got probably 5 or 10x the money back by backing it in terms of the licensing rights and the tax deferrals and the technology they developed and the media and so forth.  So, in this time when money is tighter and tighter and tighter, we believe that incentive prizes are extraordinarily efficient way for companies to drive breakthroughs in their industry.  You’ve got companies like Netflix, and Cisco and others creating incentive prizes inside their company or in their area to drive.  You have to ask yourself the question, do you have the smartest people in the world working for your company?  And if you do, you’re lucky.  But if you don’t, put up the incentive.  We get what we incentivize and cast it out to the world.  And have someone who is absolutely brilliant who’s a 22-year old in India who says what about this way?  And who revolutionizes the way you do business. 

We become stuck in the way we think.  We have to.  We as the leader in the field has been doing what they do all of their lives.  And when someone comes through that is doing something that is extraordinarily risky, they have a lot to lose.  And so their willingness to take the risk is very low.  But when you bring people in who’ve got nothing to lose, they are literally willing to risk their lives, that’s where breakthroughs come in.  The day before something is truly a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea.  So, the question companies have to ask, or governments have to ask is, where do we allow crazy ideas to bubble up?  Because if there is a failure, what happens?  Someone gets blame.  There’s a lawsuit, there’s a congressional investigation.  And so, those things shut down the creative engine. 

And one of the people who I have a tremendous level of gratitude for and excitement about is Ratan Tata, the Chairman of Tata Industries.  They give out an award every year for the team in their company that took the biggest risks.  That’s going to drive innovation.  So, you get what you incentivize, and I do believe that the best way to predict the future is to invent is yourself.  So, that’s what we do.  We drive people to invent the future they want to create by incentivizing it. 

Question: How cheap do you think space travel can get, and how soon?

Peter Diamandis: One of the companies I co-founded is a company called Space Adventures.  And we are the only company, to date, to have flown people privately to space.  We have flown eight passengers to the space station going up on the Soyuz.  Dennis Tito was our first, Richard Garriott who is the Chairman of Space Adventures and a trustee of the X Prize Foundation for a second generation astronaut, and our latest was Gila Laliberte, the Founder and CEO of Cirque Du Soleil.  These people spend about $45 million to go up for 10 days at the space station; incredible experience. 

If we could buy a seat on the shuttle, which we cannot, the cost per seat is probably $100 million on the shuttle.  So, the Soyuz is somewhat cheaper.  If you went and had a super efficient system, the closest you would ever get down is probably in the $4 or $5 million per seat using existing propulsion systems.  If your whole system is reusable and you flew it on a very frequent basis.  But if you go and you do the energy calculations of how much it cost to put you and your space suit into orbit, high school physics student can do this.  It’s easy, it’s mass times gravity, times height to get your potential energy, and then ½ MV2 to get your kinetic energy.  And if you do that for you in a 200 kg spacesuit, it turns out the total energy spent over an hour is about 1.6 GJ.  And if you bought this off the electric grid at 7 cents a kilowatt-hour, the cost of getting you and your spacesuit into orbit is about $120.  So, the price improvement curve ahead of us is about $45 million to $100.  That’s a pretty big motivation. 

Question: What are some key breakthroughs that we need right now? 

Peter Diamandis: I’m not naïve enough to think that we’re not going to have amazing physics breakthroughs.  I mean, technologically, we’ve been a technological species for a hundred or 200 years depending on where you measure that.  So, I think there is much we do not know.  But in the near term, I’m betting on a technology, which is very doable today.  In fact, I’m in the middle of talking with a number of benefactors about creating an X Prize around this concept.  It’s called beamed power propulsion.  And the concept is, today rockets haven’t changed in the last 2,000 years, since early Chinese rocketry.  You have a tube, you burn something inside, and hot gases come out one end.  That’s – they’ve gotten bigger and more expensive and more elaborate, more efficient.  But they’re still the same basic concepts.  So, on of the X Prize ideas I’m excited about that I really want to have is called beam powered propulsion. 

The way it works is you have a source of energy on the ground, either lasers or probably microwaves.  And that system is getting more and more efficient every year.  The price to generate a megawatt or a gigawatt of energy is coming down year after year.  We’re learning how to print it, make it more efficient.  And what you do is, you beam the energy to the rocket and the rocket basically converts that energy to heat and heats up a working fluid, like hydrogen, and then the hydrogen goes out the other end.  That can reduce the cost of space flight by 50 to100-fold, and it’s technology that can be done right now.  But no one’s doing it because no one’s doing it.  And that’s where an X Prize really comes in if you can demonstrate something just enough. 

Like for example, with the original Ansari X Prize for space flight, we demonstrated a ship carrying three people up to 100 kilometers twice in two days and then Richard Branson comes in and says I commit a quarter of a billion dollars to commercialize that technology.  So, I’d love to demonstrate beam-powered propulsion.  And once that’s demonstrated enough, then new technology will come in. 

Question: At which point does the prize end and the marketplace to drive the idea begin?

Peter Diamandis: Every prize that we design has to meet certain attributes.  Number one, clear and measurable; three people 100 kilometers, 100 mile per gallon or its equivalent car with X parameters, sequence 100 human genomes in 10 days.  The second thing is it has to be addressing a grand challenge.  It has to be something which it could have a paradigm change on the back end.  The third is, if it’s properly designed, when it’s won, the world is paying attention and it ignites a new industry.  For me, the fact that Branson was there committing the money and then all of a sudden people started buying tickets.  There have been over 1,000 tickets sold to fly into space, is what made this really exciting. 

Yes, Spaceship One is hanging in the air at Space Museum, right above Apollo 11, next to the Spirit of St Louis. That’s great, but the fact that we have an industry going is what makes it awesome. 

Another thing is, I am looking for prizes that are winnable in three to eight years in X Prizes.  If it’s less than three years, it was too easy, more than eight years; no one gives a shit any more.  The other thing though is we are now creating something called X Challenges.  X Prizes are these bigger $10 million or more, the X Challenges are a million level prizes that are more winnable in a year or two years.  They’re about moving technology forward in a demonstrable fashion. 

Question: In terms of ground transportation, what are some game-changing ideas out there? 

Peter Diamandis: The paradigm I want to change is that, you can have a car that is beautiful, manufacturable, affordable, safe, fast, and oh, by the way, does 100 mpg, or its energy equivalent.  Why wouldn’t you?  So, we put out this competition.  We had 135, 136 vehicles registered to compete.  We whittled it down not to 51 vehicles.  They’ll be a few winners, and at the end of this, besides having a few winners, three winners in particular for the Progressive Automotive X Prize, my goal is there’s a new generation of cars.  And people can say we’re living in a new day and age.  A new day and age of cars that are beautiful, affordable, safe, and of course every car gets over 100 mpg, why wouldn’t it. So, that’s a game changer, a change in the paradigm, a change in the kind of cars that we drive. 

Another game changer is another X Prize I am itching to get launched, and it is the Autonomist Car X Prize.  I think 100 years from now, people will look back and say, “Really?  People used to drive their cars?  What are they, insane?”  Humans are the worst control system to put in front of a car. You know, we have these 100 mms delays, you know, our attention is on our PDA, we’re always in a rush.  We drive around in these 4,000 pound metal wombs, these 4,000 pound containment systems to protect us from these 6,000 pound cars from smacking us.  And you know, “I’m going to buy a large SUV because I scared about the other SUV’s.  I’m not going to buy this small little car.”  And of course, they’re right in that regard.  But if we can build autonomous cars that are so smart, and so sensitive to what’s going on that they can’t be hit, then you’re thinking.  When cars have the sensory systems around them, GPS intelligence, they’re looking at the world not only in visual spectrum, but infrared, ultraviolet and everything else that’s going on and they’ve got reaction times in microseconds.  Not a tenth of a second.  They’re a hundred thousand times faster.  Then you’re talking. 

Three things come out of it.  Today, there are about 2 million major injuries, 50,000 losses of lives in the United States alone.  You’ll get rid of those, first and foremost.  If you care about saving 50,000 lives, that’s one option. 

The second thing is, cars will get a lot lighter because they’re not worried about it.  So, you don’t need 4,000 pounds.  1,000 is plenty.  And if you’re carrying around – the idea of a young thin woman who weighs 100 pounds driving herself around in a 4,000 pound SUV is laughable.  So, she doesn’t need that.  A thousand pounds is plenty to give you all the the room and such.  So, you reduce the energy usage by a large factor. 

And the third is, all these autonomous cars know where all the other autonomous cars are.  They can fan out and they can take the most efficient route to get you from one place, and you’ve gotten rid of traffic jams.  Eventually, frankly, no one’s going to own a car.  What you’re going to own is on your PDA.  The ability to say, I need a car from here to here and you can say, I need a car now, in which case they’ll charge you a premium, or I’m willing to pay 50 cents for that drive, in which case the car willing to take your 50 cents – or I need a Ferrari because I’m on a date.  And you’ve got this pantiplea of cars that you can choose from and you will own the ability to command transportation.  Not the need to have a car.  So, those are the futures there. 

Question: What could the Federal Government be doing to advance this vision?

Peter Diamandis: The Department of Energy has come on as a major partner for the Progressive Automotive X Prize and I am extraordinarily thankful to them for that.  I think that there’s a lot more that the government can do.  But it’s a start.  The idea of starting to envision the rules and regulations to allow for autonomous cars is a hard one to think about.  When I did the Ansari X Prize originally, the rules and regulations to allow for private space flight didn’t exist.  You could not legally put a human and fly them into space.  In fact, you couldn’t bring a spaceship back.  All those spaceships we were sending commercially into space were one way.  You sort of like, got rid of them.  And most passengers, who go up, do want to come back down.  So, we had to go and change the rules and regulations.  And the momentum of the competition allowed us to do that. 

I imagined there would be new rules and regulations on the autonomous car X Prize.  And I didn’t mention what two of the ideas for the autonomous car X Prize.  One is the first car to win against a top seated NASCAR or Indy car driver.  So, it’s really the deep blue equivalent from the chess world in the automotive space.  And the alternate would be the first car to go autonomously from LA to New York in under three days, obeying all the rules and regulations.  And I have a heck of a time going through state lines and local police and all of that, but – anyway, those are two concepts.  Looking for, again, a dramatic demonstration of autonomy showing itself to be far more safe than worrying about whether the person on the street next to you is texting, or has had a drink, or is paying attention.

Question: What could go wrong in our attempt to colonize elsewhere?

Peter Diamandis: What can go wrong is that we can become landlocked.  One of the things that is going on right now is that we have this amazing debris cloud in space; orbital debris is what it is called.  Where you’ve had anti-satellite weapons blowing up satellites, you have old satellites decommissioned and left in orbit and other satellites smacking into them.  And every time there is a collision, hundreds of parts break off.  And these components are traveling at 1,700 miles per hour so there much faster than a speeding bullet.  And there reaches a point at which all of this debris starts to grow exponentially and we will literally have this, we’ll be locked in, or sending a spacecraft up to space to get through the debris cloud will be taking your chances.  So, solving that is another X Prize that we’ve talked about. 

One of the other major things, I think to really incentivize and open the space frontier; we need to allow for ownership.  You know what opened up the American West?  It was the fact that you owned the real estate.  You owned the gold mines, the oil wells.  The creation of these, back then, million dollar industries drove the railroads and eventually the airlines to provide this kind of transportation.  So, I’m extraordinarily passionate, for example, about the idea of asteroid mining in the future.  Asteroids out there, we know them from those that have fallen on the Earth, there is a class of asteroids, sub-class of nickel/iron asteroids, which are 50,000 times more enriched than Platinum mines on earth.  Extraordinary wealth that can be created; the first trillionaire can be made in space.  The question is, do we have the structure to allow for the ownership of these?  If we do, or when it’s finally created, we will have really, the impetus the real market creation that will cause billions to be invested privately in space transportation to gain access to the trillions that are out there.

Recorded on January 26, 2010

Interviewed by Paul Hoffman