The man whose map is the future

Disruptive technology, logic shifts, crazy ideas: these are survival tools and moral compasses for Peter Diamandis


Dr Peter Diamandis is a man who sees the future in the present. His mission he says is “to open the space frontier for humanity” and he believes it is inevitable that technology will allow us expand beyond Earth, and improve the lives of those left behind.

Best known as the chairman and chief executive of the X Prize Foundation, which put up a $10 million prize to foster private space-flight, Diamandis is also the co-founder of Planetary Resources, a company set up to design spacecraft to mine asteroids.

Add in his role as co-founder of Space Adventures, the only company to have launched private citizens to the International Space station, and it becomes easier to understand his fervent interest in promoting technology.

Small in stature, Diamandis wears an open-necked shirt as he prowls around the sweeping stage of the Lincoln Centre in New York at a conference run by Singularity University, the Silicon valley technology studies institute he co-founded.

He introduces an array of speakers from the cutting edge of science, from 3D printing to digital healthcare, in a fervent manner with just a dollop of ego, not uncommon in the very clever.

“The only constant is change, and the rate of change is increasing,” Diamandis tells his audience of technologists, IT specialists and business people anxious not to get caught out by the next big thing.

“You disrupt yourself or someone else will. Standing still is death,” he predicts. “Your competition is no longer multinational. It is the explosion of empowered entrepreneurs,” he continues.

Diamandis is a power-ball of energy as he outlines his vision of the world.

He mixes examples (like the fall of Kodak) with predictions (in the 1920s it took up to 65 years to disrupt a Fortune 500 company, but it takes only 15 today, and this will continue to fall in the future) to provide a stirring sermon about the benefits of technology for the world.

The threat it represents to businesses ill-prepared to adapt is another theme, which has allowed Singularity University attract senior executives from blue-chip firms like GE, Genentech, Cisco and Google.

In an underground meeting room afterwards, Diamandis is surrounded by half-a-dozen journalists including one from The Irish Times, as he squeezes in an informal press conference between speakers.

Singularity University

Diamandis begins with a brief explanation of why he decided to co-found Singularity University with Ray Kurzweil, the inventor and futurist who is also director of engineering at Google. In 2006, he said, he was backpacking through Patagonia when he read Ray Kurzweil’s book The Singularity is Near which predicts an exponential increase in technologies in areas such as robotics, genetics and artificial intelligence which will fundamentally change how people live by 2045.

“I read the book and had heard most of the content of it and realised how it was very cohesive and convergent,” Diamandis recalls. “There was no place on the planet you could get the level of education you need.”

He says that other universities educated their students in “very narrow niche” areas, but he and Kurtweil disagreed with this approach. “It is about getting a broader education and understanding what is in the lab and what is coming to market in the next two, five, 10 years at the outmost.”

Understanding new technologies and working out how they will interact, he says, was vital to businesses surviving. “Most CEOs today are focused on quarterly returns, ‘my next project’. They are unaware of [what is coming down the track] which will be “massively disruptive”.

Diamandis says he had discussed the impact of the self-driving or autonomous car with senior executives from Caterpillar, the heavy equipment and vehicle-maker for the construction and mining industries. He says they were aware that in the future they would need to make machines which could drive themselves but had not considered the knock-on-impact of this new technology.

“If you have autonomous cars you have more capacity on roads, you don’t have driveways, you don’t have parking lots. The machine transforms a lot of construction needs. A lot of people don’t understand the secondary and tertiary effects of new technology.”

Another example given by Diamandis is virtual reality, which he predicts would reduce the need for people to fly to meetings. “How will it affect air travel when you have virtual presence which is as good as going there?” he asks.

“How you think really matters. Innovation dies within companies unless it is incremental. If it is exponential, if it is a crazy idea, crazy ideas do not survive well inside well-established companies,” Diamandis says. Part of what he tried to do with Singularity University was to get companies to encourage new thinking.

“I ask CEOs all the time which ideas are you trying that have a high probability of failure, that are crazy? That will eat your young? That will disrupt your company? That’s success allows you disrupt yourself rather than someone else doing it.”

Diamandis says part of what Singularity University tries to do is to inform executives about how new technologies will impact on their businesses, while at the same time trying to get them, as well as start-ups, to think about how to solve bigger problems.

Snags as nuggets

“Problems are goldmines. You want to become a billionaire, find a billion-person problem you can make a dent in,” he said. An example he is trying to solve is how to use drones to supply medicines to remote parts of Africa.

“It would cost a trillion dollars to provide proper roads to all parts of Africa. With the advent of 3D printing [making building prototypes and products cheaper], GPS, drones, and better batteries Africans can skip the roads, and get around it now.”

Solving big problems was behind his decision to found the X Prize in 1994. The prize was won in 2004 by a team led by aviation genius Burt Rutan with funding from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

Twenty-six teams from seven countries had competed to be the first to pilot a private vehicle into space twice within a short space of time.

Since then, the X Prize, which is backed by Google co-founder Larry Page and electric car maker Elon Musk among others, has expanded with major prizes in four areas: exploration (oceans and space), life sciences, energy and environment, and education and global development.

Diamandis says there is a lot of interest among technology entrepreneurs in supporting the X Prizes. “A lot of these people are interested in creating large impact on the planet. They are focused on global scale,” he said. “They view incentive competitions – X Prizes – as a means to having very high leverage and efficiency in solving major problems.”

“An X prize will get a 10 to 15 times return. If you put up $10 million, you will get $100 million spent by all the teams to win it. So it is high leverage. It is high efficiency.”

“You only pay the winner and you launch a new industry as a result! Somebody like Elon and Larry . . . they are all very busy but X Prize becomes a way you can make a big impact upon philanthropic purposes without having to start a company and run it.”

Diamandis says Europe, including Ireland, risks falling behind the United States unless it allows entrepreneurs fail and start-again quicker.

“We have bankruptcy laws that allow for failure [in the US]. A lot of countries from a legal standpoint do not allow for failure. They will never get the rate of iteration you see here. Iterative failure is critical to great things.”

Diamandis is also aware that new technology could lead to people losing their jobs as they are replaced by software or machines.

“The best example of this is in the 1940s and 1950s. There were giant rooms of women, all women, with giant ledgers. It was copying over ledgers and making notes and so forth. When the computer came in, it was like all these jobs are going to be lost. Yeah, they were but we have more finance jobs than we had before.”

Diamandis says he expects large numbers of jobs to be lost in back-office financial service hubs like Dublin, but he predicted new jobs would come along to replace them.

He says humanity needs to embrace, not fear technology.

“Technology is the only thing that has fundamentally, massively, massively improved the lives of billions of people on this planet.

“It is immoral and unethical to go backwards. If anyone says we shouldn’t be embracing technology, then what you are doing is you are killing and destroying the lives of countless people,” he maintains.

Technology is giving people new ways of making money or understanding their health or educating themselves.

“What gives people the ability to know that a tsunami is coming in 24 hours, so pull in my crops and save my kids? It is the satellites overhead! People who are anti-technology, bring them on!

Democracy of invention

“Technology democratises and demonetises the things that we care about! Thank God for those Wall Street guys who paid millions of dollars for their cell phones early on. Their doing that allows people today get microfinance of a dollar a day in the middle of no place.”

Is Diamandis afraid technology could isolate people from each other?

“When the written language was developed . . . I think it was Socrates who was saying ‘the written language is going to destroy our ability to storytell’ . . . and then books were invented . . . then the telephone was invented and it is going to ruin our interpersonal relationships! Every single technology . . .

“What we were born with is accepted but what is new after the age of 30 is threatening. I don’t buy it, I just don’t.”

Spoken, like a man with an exponential belief in our future.

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