Making The Impossible Possible

Terry McCarthy, President & CEO of the Council, interviewing Peter Diamandis M.D., Chairman & CEO of XPrize,

With his unquenchable optimism about the future, Peter Diamandis, creator of the X Prizes, does not like to be told something is impossible. So when the physicist Stephen Hawking said he would like to fly in zero gravity in a high altitude plane, Diamandis had to fight hard to overcome the objections of the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) and skeptical medical professionals. “What could be cooler than getting the world’s expert in gravity to experience no gravity?” said Diamandis at a LAWAC event in Santa Monica on Thursday evening. Hawking, who suffers from ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, is largely paralyzed and communicates with a single cheek muscle attached to a speech-generating machine. Diamandis hired four doctors and set up a miniature ER facility on board the plane, wired up Hawking with a range of medical sensors, and then the plane took them on a series of parabolic arcs. The plan was to do one or two, but Hawking indicated he didn’t want to stop, and they did eight arcs, at one point spinning the physicist around inside the plane. “We had a beautiful, perfect flight,” said Diamandis.

Space flight had been a passion for Diamandis since he was a young boy. After reading Charles Lindbergh’s book The Spirit of St Louis about how he flew from St Louis to Paris to win the $25,000 Orteig prize, Diamandis decided to create a $10 m prize for the first private company that could build and fly a spaceship that could take three passengers 62 miles up from Earth into space, and return.He called it the “X Prize” because at the beginning he had no idea who would be the sponsor.That prize was won by Burt Rutan in SpaceShipOnein 2004. Diamandis was aware of the dangers, but is a strong advocate of risk taking. “We have become so risk-averse.As Americans we are sitting here because 500 years ago thousands of people risked their lives to cross the ocean, and 200 years ago people risked their lives to cross the great plains – as any explorer, we risk our lives for what we believe in.” He said that research has a high probability of failure – if it was something we already knew, it wouldn’t be research. If you take away the risk, you only ever achieve incremental progress. “Before something is a breakthrough, it is a crazy idea!”

Diamandis, who describes himself as a "libertarian capitalist" and likes to say the best way to predict the future is to invent it oneself, has firmly anchored his endeavors in the private sector. “I gave up on the government long ago, because the incentives are perversely wrong – the government doesn’t take risks any more, it is only incrementalizing.” Much has changed since the 1960s, when a government program put American astronauts on the moon in 8 years. “Today the space program has become a peacetime program for the military industrial complex.”

The XPRIZE Foundation starts with the question “What is a challenge in the world that should be solved but isn’t?” Then a measurable target is set, and teams are encouraged to compete for a cash prize to reach that target. After the BP oil spill in the Gulf, it emerged that the machinery for skimming oil off the water had not been changed in 20 years – an X Prize was created, and within a year a team came up with a method that was three times more efficient than the best machinery used by the major oil companies.

The latest challenge is the Global Literacy Prize, which offers a purse of $15 m for the best Android app that can help teach reading, writing and arithmetic skills to children in areas of the developing world that have no schools. The app must prove its effectiveness in 18-month pilot projects in Africa.“This may well be our most important prize ever,” said Diamandis. “One billion people in the world are illiterate – two thirds of them are women, and many live in parts of the world where we will never build schools or send teachers.” The aim is to get children to a level of literacy where they can use the web, “which is your portal to the world.” This prize now has 400 teams registered to compete, and will run for about three years.

Asked if there were any problems that could not be solved, Diamandis said “I fundamentally believe that all problems can be solved….But, I think problems in politics…those I am not so sure about…”On the future of education, Diamandis, who has two young sons, said “I think about what their education will be like – what do I want them to learn?” First, he said it was important to discover what each child is passionate about… and second, to make sure that they remain curious, because with technology changing our world so rapidly, anything we learn today will be outdated in five years. "I didn’t learn anything I use today in college – but I did learn to be independent in college, how to deal with people, how to handle setbacks."

On global warming, he says there is an X Prize in the works for carbon capturing mechanisms, and he is also a big supporter of solar energy as an alternative to our current energy sources. On philanthropy he is an advocate of “impact giving” – finding a cause to fund that can make a difference. And his biggest fear is not of failure – of the 17 companies he has founded, he says a third have failed. What he is most concerned about is over-regulation: “the clash of linear thinking against things like Uber and Airbnb that are trying to make something revolutionary – I’m concerned about irrational regulation of things that should not be regulated.” And the prize for that goes to…