Peter H. Diamandis is the Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation, which leads the world in designing and launching large incentive prizes to drive radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity. Best known for the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE for private spaceflight, the Foundation is now launching prizes in Exploration, Life Sciences, Energy, and Education. Diamandis is also the co-Founder & Executive Chairman of the Singularity University, a Silicon Valley based institution teaching graduates and executives about exponentially growing technologies and their potential to address humanity's grand challenges.
Along with fellow Big Think expert Steven Kotler, Diamandis is co-author of the New York Times best selling hardcover book Abundance—The Future Is Better Than You Think which was #2 on the NYTimes List and #1 on Amazon. Their latest book is titled Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World.
Diamandis has founded or co-founded many of the leading entrepreneurial companies in this sector including Zero Gravity Corporation, the Rocket Racing League and Space Adventures. He also counsels the world's top enterprises on how to utilize exponential technologies and incentivized innovation to dramatically accelerate their business objectives. Dr. Diamandis attended MIT where he received degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering, as well as Harvard Medical School where he received his M.D. Diamandis' personal motto is: "The best way to predict the future is to create it yourself!"
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.
Recorded on January 26, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman