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On Sunday I gave the closing keynote at the World Future Society’s “WorldFuture 2011″ event in Vancouver, BC. It was an energized crowd of inspired thinkers from around the globe, and I felt quite honored to be part of this event.

As I took the stage, my goal was to introduce the crowd to a series of Eight Grand Challenges, incentivized competitions designed to push humanity to another level.

But as with many crowds, there was a formidable issue in the minds of attendees, a hurdle of acceptance before these challenges would be deemed cause-worthy.

At issue was our obsession with solving all of today’s problems before we dare think about advancing humanity. How can we possibly justify advancing humanity when the money would be far better spent solving today’s massive problems?

Answering this objection first, was critically important, so here is the way I presented it.

If we only focus on solving today’s problems, we become trapped in the past. Every solution leads to another set of problems. Much like the whack-a-mole game at video arcades, as one problem gets pounded down, another pokes its ugly head out.

The only real way out is to advance civilization. By advancing civilization we change the nature of the problems we’re dealing with, and that is exactly what the Eight Grand Challenges have been designed to do.

Three Questions

I began by setting the stage with a series of questions. For this crowd the questions were framed around the vast areas of white space, what we don’t know, compared to the tiny areas of certainty, what we do know.

The three questions were as follows:

  1. “If you could live on any planet in the universe, where would you live?” Asking where we want to live on earth is a perfectly reasonable question. But as we all know, we know virtually nothing about the other planets in the universe. To some, this is merely a question too absurd to fathom. But to others, it demonstrated the very real limits we place on our thinking.
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  2. “If you had a choice of living at any time in the past or in the future, what would you choose?” Hmmm. Turns out that we don’t know anything about the future, and when we look backwards, we only have a very crude understanding of the past. For all our claims to brilliance and ingenuity, we remain a very unenlightened species.
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  3. “In a non-religious context, who is the world’s most famous person?”
    The answers I got from the audience to this question ranged from Leonardo DaVinci, to Isaac Newton, to Michael Jackson, to Thomas Edison, to Gandhi, to Oprah Winfrey. These are all good answers. But my assumption is that the world’s most famous person has not been born yet. Using that assumption, the logical next question is, “What is the accomplishment that will make that person so incredibly famous?”

Put another way, what are the big things that still need to be accomplished?

Answering this question is exactly what led the DaVinci Institute to develop the Eight Grand Challenges in the first place, as well as our work on the Museum of Future Inventions project a few years ago. While still a work in progress, the Museum serves as the long-term guiding vision of what we hope to accomplish in the years ahead.

History of Prizes

In the middle 1800s one of the most popular sports in the United States was billiards. Restaurants and saloons were quick to pick up on the game’s popularity, using it to attract new customers, and soon after the concept of a billiard parlor took hold, with many communities feeling left out if they didn’t have one.

One of the driving forces behind the sport was Michael Phelan, an Irish immigrant, who wrote one of the first American books on the game, and was influential in setting rules and standards of behavior for the game. He founded the Phelan and Collender company, which developed new table and cushion designs and heavily promoted the sport. Later, in 1884 his company merged with the Brunswick.

However, billiards was a sport that created a huge demand for ivory, the only known substance at the time for manufacturing billiard balls. By 1860 the demand for ivory had grown so intense that industry experts estimated over 100,000 elephants a year were being slaughtered to fill all the orders. To make matter worse, because of the imperfections in the ivory, they were only able to extract around eight billiard balls per elephant. A truly sad commentary on American consumerism.

Michael Phelan recognized the problem and in 1863 offered up the $10,000 Phelan and Collender prize for the best ivory substitute for making billiard balls. Six years later in 1869, John Wesley Hyatt came forward with his invention of Celluloid, the world’s first practical synthetic plastic. Although he was never paid the prize money, he went on to found the Albany Billiard Ball Company and the prize inspired a major milestone in the early days of the plastics industry.

Throughout history there are many examples of incentive prizes that produced amazing results.

  • In 1714 the British Parliament offered a cash prize for reducing shipwrecks by creating a precise method for determining a ship’s longitude. The prize of ₤14,315 was won by John Harrison for a specialized precision clock: a chronometer.
  • In 1919, Raymond Orteig, a New York hotelier, announced a $25,000 prize for the first person to fly nonstop between New York and Paris. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh won that prize, opening the door to transoceanic air travel.
  • In 1980, a $100,000 prize was created by computer science professor Edward Fredkin, for the first computer to beat a reigning world chess champion.  The prize was awarded to IBM’s inventors of the Deep Blue machine in 1997.  Deep Blue beat world champion Gary Kasparov in the final game of a tied, 6-game match in May, 1997.  The Deep Blue inventors were Fang Hsu, Murray Campbell, and Joseph Hone.
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  • Launched in 1996, the Ansari X Prize was a space competition in which the X-Prize Foundation offered a $10 million prize for the first non-government organization to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks. The prize was won on October 4, 2004, the 47th anniversary of the Sputnik 1 launch, by the Tier One project designed by Burt Rutan and financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, using the experimental space plane called SpaceShipOne.

These are but a few of the many prize competitions used to shift public attention.

The Hamilton Project, an effort spearheaded by the Brookings Institute, endorses the use of prizes to stimulate technological innovation. It states that technology prizes are “an old idea whose time has come again.” The project went on to state, “Prizes can also generate public excitement and enthusiasm for science and technology, and encourage more young people to pursue careers in science, engineering, or technology-based entrepreneurship.”

Our Need to Compete

The most famous prizes in the world today are the Nobel Prizes. However, those are backward-looking prizes intended to reward some of the world’s best and brightest for past accomplishments.

Incentive prizes are different. They serve a vastly different purpose, to incentive people for future accomplishments.

Our need to compete is something that has been instilled in us at an early age. We compete with people physically in athletic competitions, and intellectually in academic competitions. But when it comes to science and math, the fundamental building blocks needed to advance civilization; we have very few finish lines.

Eight Grand Challenges

The Eight Grand Challenges have been framed around incredibly difficult fetes and at stake will be a combination of national pride, personal legacies, and laying claim to unprecedented achievements in science and industry.

Here is an overview of the “Eight Grand Challenges”:

  1. Race to the Core: First team to build a probe that makes it all the way to the center of the earth with a communication system capable of sending real-time sensory data to the surface.
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  2. Viewing the Past: Create a technology capable of replaying an unrecorded event that happened no less than 20 years earlier in actual-size, in holographic form.
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  3. Disassembling Matter: First team to reduce a solid block of granite (2’ cube) to particles no larger than molecules in less than 10 seconds, using less than 500 watts of power without causing an explosion or physical damage to objects more than 10′ away.
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  4. The Gravity Challenge: Demonstrate gravitational control over an object weighing no less than 2,000 lbs. by doubling the force of gravity to 4,000 lbs., reducing the force of gravity by 50% to 1,000 lbs., and creating negative gravity by lifting the object 1,000 ft and returning it back to the original position with no explosions and in less than 10 minutes.
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  5. The Ultimate Small Storage Particle: Create an electron-based data storage system no larger than 10 millimeters cubed that can be manufactured for less than $1 per 100 terabytes and is capable of uploading, storing, and retrieving a volume of information equal to the U.S. Library of Congress in less than 10 minutes using less than 1 watt per TB/month.
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  6. Travel at the Speed of Light: Create a scientific probe capable of traveling at the speed of light for a distance no less than the Earth to Saturn with information sensors to capture stresses, impacts, and details along the way.
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  7. Swarm-Bots: Create a swarm of 10,000 synchronized micro drones no larger than 10 millimeters across (height, width, and depth) capable of lifting a 250-pound person to a height of 100 feet and gently returning him/her to the ground.
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  8. The 10-Second Interface: Create a direct-to-the-mind interface that will allow 25 average people to answer a series of questions within 10 seconds with no harmful side effects to the user.
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Teams

Unique to these competitions, only countries will be allowed to enter teams, and each country will be limited to no more than two teams. All teams will be required to maintain accurate records of their personnel, research data, and stages of progress.

The Prize

Similar to the Olympics, members of the winning team will each receive a gold medal. However, the true value will come from the accomplishment. Each has the potential to unlock vast new industries.

More importantly, the team that wins will have carved out their own legacy with a permanent place in the next generation of history books.

Entrance Fee

The cost of managing competitions of this nature will be significant. For this reason the entrance fee for each team has been set at $1 million USD per team. The money will be used to fund an endowment to insure the long-term viability of each competition.

As the competitions ramp up, an entirely new organization will be created. The resulting organization will require a highly skilled management team and staff members who possess extraordinary technical expertise. The management team will need to be in place for many years, perhaps even decades.

The entrance fee represents a tiny fraction of one percent of the amount each team will need to budget for their efforts. Team budgets for each competition will likely be in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Governing Bodies

Each competition will also require its own governing body. Since each will be a venture into the unknown, pushing the limits of science and technology, there will need to be an international governing body responsible for oversight and dealing with unforeseeable circumstances.

The exact makeup and responsibilities of the governing bodies will be determined over the coming months. But minimally they will include one representative per team from the countries they represent.

Final Thoughts

Some competitions may not be completed in our lifetime, and each will be constructed around a framework that will allow it to evolve with our understanding of science.

They are designed to stretch human thinking and push the envelope. More than just a series of competition, we view them as a turning point in world history. Our hope, at this stage, is that they will stir the imagination of people around the world and incite a global conversation.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything

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