It's not everyday that you get to see the future happening right before your eyes. We're so focused on the day to day, paralyzed by uninformative and amygdala-stimulating news reports, that we rarely allow ourselves to take some time off to think about the future of humanity. The challenges we face today seem so out of our reach, and we feel so insignificant, that even when we do ponder about what's coming next, it's no more than a mere intellectual exercise.
However, there are people who not only think about the future constantly, but proactively make plans on how to improve it, and often deliver on the promises. Last week I was privileged enough to be part of such a group at the XPRIZE VISIONEERING conference in Los Angeles.
XPRIZE is the child of my dear friend Peter Diamandis, and what this project has accomplished in just a few years is nothing short of extraordinary. The story goes that Peter's childhood dream was to become an astronaut, but he didn't qualify for NASA's standards of physical aptitude. So he decided he would go to space himself.
Most people would stop at that thought, knowing that it would remain a child's dream and nothing more. Then again, Peter is not like most people. He was so determined to go to space so much that over the past twenty years he almost single-handedly rekindled global interest for space exploration. The 1996 Ansari XPRIZE – a $10-million prize awarded to the first privately financed team that could build and fly a three-passenger vehicle 100 kilometers into space twice within two weeks – was the reason that led Richard Branson to start Virgin Galactic and his private space enterprise, and many say it gave Elon Musk the inspiration to pursue Space X.
Since then, XPRIZE has become the new standard for disrupting innovation in areas where things had been stagnating for decades, either due to market failures or because of circumstances beyond any individual's control. The concept is simple: put out a $10/$20 million prize for the first team to do X, x being whatever currently unresolved challenge humanity is facing. Many teams compete in a friendly "coopetition", but only the best wins. The genius idea behind this approach is that the total amount of capital spent and value generated is much greater than the prize to be won. Teams collectively spend huge amounts of money, sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars, in the off-chance of taking home the $10 million prize. But in the process, they jumpstart in their country and community an ecosystem of innovation in a sector that had been stagnating for years. The winners will open source their technology for the benefit of all humanity.
Since its creation, XPRIZE projects include:
- super-efficient vehicles that achieve 100 MPGe (2.35 liter/100 kilometer) efficiency, produce less than 200 grams/mile well-to-wheel CO2 equivalent emissions, and could be manufactured for the mass market
- successfully launching, landing, and operating a rover on the lunar surface.
- doubling the industry's previous best oil recovery rate tested in controlled conditions by exceeding 2500 gallons per minute (with at least 70% efficiency of oil collected over water)
- a mobile device that can diagnose patients better than or equal to a panel of board certified physicians
- free Android apps to spread reading, writing, and arithmetic skills, and prove their effectiveness over an 18-month period in African pilot communities
The list keeps growing every year.
So how do they decide what the next XPRIZE is going to be? Every year the team organizes in Los Angeles a two-day retreat called, quite appropriately, VISIONEERING. In the spirit of friendly coopetition, visioneers form teams and compete for the best idea, voting democratically at each stage. Some of these ideas might go on to become the next XPRIZE.
This year I was asked to lead the Future of Work session as visiting expert.
How a nerdy kid from nowhere self-published a best-seller and got noticed by Google CEO Larry Page and The Wall Street Journal
Reading time: 12 minutes.
Last week Larry Page, the CEO of one of the largest corporations in the world, and possibly one of the most powerful people on the planet, released an interview with the Financial Times endorsing my work and research on the effect of artificial intelligence and automation in the job market. That's quite remarkable, given that my school teachers told me I had no talent, that I wasn't good at writing, and that I was not even that smart. But let me take a step back.
I was born in a small village near the mountains, on the Italian Alps. There were only two schools, and not very good ones. Like many kids who like to think a lot, obsessively study things they're fascinated about, and dream big, I felt very alienated in such a small, provincial environment. There were a few bullies at school whose fathers were in jail, according to some rumors they were in for murder, some even said mafia. I never checked, I just knew I didn't want to mess with them. It was a pretty harsh environment. For someone like me who wasn't good at football, didn't like football, whose favorite bedtime reading was the CIA World Factbook and whose most beloved show was the French animated science cartoon "Once open a time... [Space, Life, etc...]," life didn't get any easier.
Beside my classmates, with whom I could never relate with but didn't particularly care, the biggest problem was the school itself. The teachers, the academic program, the tests, in my mind everything was wrong. Any interest I had was either considered irrelevant, not part of the standard curriculum and therefore not worthy of my time, or just plain weird. It shouldn't be a surprise that I looked for a way to escape.
First, I began with computers. I started with building websites, I must have been 11 or 12, but when I installed a Debian Linux on my machine I fell in love with system administration and programming. I would obsessively type on the keyboard unix commands all day long, writing scripts, hacking things apart and together, often times until late at night. It was exhilarating and incredibly satisfying. I remember once my mother came to my room to check on me at 4AM. "What are you doing up at this hour!?" she asked, "Coding stuff," I replied. I guess she was expecting me to watch porn. To this day, I still don't know if she was relieved or preoccupied that I wasn't.
If working late at night on my computer and reading books on science, technology, and economics was like drinking from the fountain of youth and wisdom, going to school felt like gulping battery acid from a rusty can. When I finished middle school, one of the teachers told my parents that I would have been better off going to work right away, because I was not smart enough to go to high school. Needless to say, we didn't follow that advice.