13 July 2012

"Have You Always Wanted to Change the World?"

The world has produced a handful of truly disruptive individuals for the current generation of change. Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, Burt Rutan, and Ray Kurzweil immediately come to mind. Many others who belong in that category prefer to remain out of the limelight. Others, such as Craig Venter and Dean Kamen, are on the brink of membership.

But one who is often overlooked -- but shouldn't be -- is Peter Diamandis, of X Prize fame. Here are excerpts from an interview with Diamandis, published in Wired.com:

Ted Greenwald: Have you always wanted to change the world?

Peter Diamandis: No. My first ambition was to get off the world. My childhood dreams were focused on being part of the effort to make humanity a multiplanetary species. I believe we have a moral obligation to back up the biosphere, take it off-planet, and give ourselves the safety of ubiquity. Ultimately it’s what we do. We have the exploration gene.

...A child of the Apollo era, Diamandis grew up expecting the US government to colonize outer space. But decades of NASA timidity eventually convinced him that the only way to get off the planet was to build a private space industry. His breakthrough idea was to resurrect a brilliant notion from the early 20th century: Offer substantial cash prizes for achieving milestones of flight. Civilian aerospace would grow contest by contest, innovation by innovation.

It worked. The $10 million Ansari X Prize resulted in the first repeatable private flight to the edge of space and became the first in a slew of aerospace competitions. Diamandis then applied the same method to other issues like fuel efficiency, oil spill remediation, and health care costs. The upshot was a series of breakthroughs and a mini-boom in innovation-spurring competitions.

Greenwald: When did you give up on the government’s ability to open the space frontier?

Diamandis: I can pinpoint the moment. The 500th anniversary of Columbus was in 1992. The first Bush administration was supposed to start a massive effort to go back to the Moon and on to Mars. It fizzled. That’s when I got it: This was never going to happen. Any time a new Congress came in, it would cut NASA’s budget. Commercial industry was the only way to generate long-term funding for bold, risky projects. I thought, how can I create the economic engine that will open space regardless of the government’s ups and downs? That’s when I cofounded Zero Gravity, which let customers experience weightlessness on parabolic airplane flights.

Greenwald: How does experiencing weightlessness drive space exploration?

Diamandis: Two forces have opened most frontiers: tourism and resources. People go for the experience or for the gold, spices, and tobacco. I had tried to get on NASA’s zero-g plane and couldn’t. I thought there must be a market for this, so in May 1993 I partnered with NASA engineer Ray Cronise and Byron Lichtenberg, a friend who had flown two Space Shuttle missions, and we raised $500,000. We walked into Federal Aviation Administration’s office and pitched the idea. They said the regulations wouldn’t allow an airplane to do parabolic flight and with passengers whose seat belts were unstrapped. I said that’s bullshit. I proceeded on an 11-year effort to get permission from the Federal Aviation Administration. We finally became operational in October 2004, and today we’ve flown 300 flights for 12,000 customers, most famously Stephen Hawking.

Greenwald: Where did the idea of incentive prizes come from?

Diamandis: It came from Charles Lindbergh’s memoir, The Spirit of St. Louis. In 1919 a hotel owner named Raymond Orteig put up a $25,000 prize for the first nonstop flight between New York and Paris. Nine teams spent $400,000 to try to win. Lindbergh had the least experience. He was called the flying fool. But he won, and within three years there was a 30-fold increase in passenger air traffic. Aviation didn’t get easier, but his flight changed people’s belief in what was possible. I thought, this is how I’m going to get my butt into space! How many things don’t happen because people don’t believe they can? Getting the public to change its beliefs is the underpinning of an X Prize: demonstration leading to paradigm change.

Greenwald: What contests do you now have in development?

Diamandis: Perhaps the most audacious and important one is the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize. It’s a $10 million challenge aimed at developing version 0.9 of the Star Trek tricorder, the medical device that allowed Dr. McCoy to assess someone’s health status. By 2020 the US will be short 91,000 doctors. There’s no way we can educate enough doctors to make up that shortfall, and other countries are far worse off. You’ll talk to this device, cough on it or do a skin prick, and it’ll diagnose 15 disease states more accurately than a board-certified doctor.

Greenwald: What persuaded you that the world is headed toward an era of unprecedented abundance?

Diamandis: As I watched what small teams could accomplish with powerful, change-the-world technology, it struck me that the world’s biggest challenges are also its biggest market opportunities. Multi-hundred-billion-dollar industries will form at the leading edge of exponentially developing technologies. Think about AI and robotics. Each one of these fields will displace and reinvent existing billion-dollar industries. We’re on the verge of reinventing life. In the next five years, people will program living systems the way we program computers today. I became utterly convinced that abundance is where we’re going to end up. That’s the direction we’ve been heading for 100 or 200 years. A Maasai tribesman in Kenya today has better mobile communications than President Reagan had 25 years ago. If they’re on a smartphone, they have access to more information than President Clinton did 15 years ago. Their Google is as good as Larry Page’s.

Greenwald: Could anything derail us from this path?

Diamandis: Yes: the risk aversion we’ve developed as a society. Lawyers have ubiquitous power. If someone is always to blame, if every time something goes wrong someone has to be punished, people quickly stop taking risks. Without risks, there can’t be breakthroughs. I got this from Internet law expert Jonathan Zittrain: We’ve gone from a society where if something wasn’t prohibited then it was legal to a society where if something isn’t explicitly permitted it’s illegal. In the early days of aviation, you could do anything you wanted as long as it wasn’t illegal. Now the laws are so extensive that they say, “Show me where it’s allowed.” _Peter Diamandis in Wired
Read the entire interview at the link above.

Disruptive individuals are generally driven to bring important change to the world. This drive is not necessarily something that they have ever thought through, nor have they necessarily come to understand it clearly. And without that drive, it is unlikely that they would have accomplished even a fraction of what they have done.

The intelligence was always there, as was the executive function and future orientation. The persistence and grit was there. But the importance of a focused drive cannot be overstated.

Diamandis has functioned more as a facilitator than as an inventor or discoverer. In this complex age, truly skilled facilitators are extremely valuable -- and are well compensated in the corporate arena.

Freelance facilitators can have a tough go of it at times, but if the grit and drive are there, they are likely to find their way into a generative -- if not outright disruptive -- niche.

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Blogger sykes.1 said...

With the possible exception of Venter, none of these men has had or will have any measurable impact on our society. While their activities and ideas are interesting to technically literate people, they lead to nothing. Kurzweil, in particular, is a fantasy writer.

In order to be disruptive, ideas have to have concrete consequences. They have to lead directly and quickly to material things. Once upon a time, Venter's work on DNA sequencing met this criterion, but he has been bypassed by others using different methods, and he is no longer relevant.

Saturday, 14 July, 2012  
Blogger al fin said...

I suspect that many disruptive changes originated from developments whose origins are lost in time. Disruptive ideas may not lead to material things for years, centuries, or longer. Ask Gregor Mendel, for example.

Timothy Leary, in his later years, traveled the circuit promoting his idea of SMI2LE: Space Migration, Intelligence Squared, Life Extension. Any of the three, if developed skillfully, promise to be disruptive. Any individuals who can successfully push the skillful development of any of the three goals can be rightly tagged a disruptive individual.

We come back to the concept of stasism vs. dynamism. The "stasist" promotes the status quo, a condition of stasis. The "dynamist" promotes advancing change and creative disruption.

These concepts are generally anathema to the PC world of modern academia, media, and politics -- which have given themselves up to stasism and protection of rent-seeking turf.

Best not to dig your trenches too deeply in this area, since the battlegrounds are likely to shift quickly once things heat up.

Saturday, 14 July, 2012  

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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