Fly Me To the Moon, and Cheap!
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: 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.
Recorded on January 26, 2010
The price improvement curve ahead of us for space travel could improve from $45 million to $100, says Peter Diamandis.
The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.
- In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
Some back story
A Dunbar Correlation
Professor Dunbar's response:
Friendship, kinship and limitations
Gray matter matters
There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:
In the end
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