Peter Diamandis is the founder and executive chairman of the XPRIZE Foundation, which designs and operates large-scale incentive competitions to, in essence, change the world.
In the words of its own criteria, an Xprize must be bold, audacious, and achievable. It must target market failure, drive investment, and give birth to a new industry. And, of course, it must give other innovators hope.
At the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas on Monday, Diamandis and his organization announced a new $10 million competition to develop “real-life avatars” to enable humans “to remotely see, hear, and interact with physical environments and other people.”
The four-year global competition, announced in partnership with All Nippon Airways, challenges the public to form teams and register by Oct. 31, 2018 to compete for several $1 million prizes (awarded in April 2020 and 2021) and a grand $8 million prize (awarded in October 2021).
Fortune spoke with Diamandis to learn more about the new contest and better understand the role of the Xprize in 2018. Here’s what he said, lightly edited for clarity.
Fortune: Explain the new X Prize
Diamandis: We go through a process every year called our Visioneers Summit in which we look at big ideas that would have potential to change the world—to solve grand challenges. In 2016, the concept of an avatar was put forward as one of the nine teams competing in that year. The concept was funded by ANA Airlines. It was fascinating because ANA came to us, they knew we had the Xprize, they were very excited about sort of our innovative mechanisms and impact focus, and they asked a question that was really unusual for a company to ask: What’s the future of travel and how would we disrupt ourselves? What’s the alternative to getting into an airplane and flying across distance?
So we hired a brilliant innovator, Harry Kloor, who led this team. And it came up that the future of travel—not all travel but some travel—is, rather than moving your body to a place across the planet, what if instead you could send your senses and your actions to the location you desire? The Avatar Xprize is a $10 million purse. It will take place over four years. We’re basically asking teams to combine various technologies and demonstrate a robotic avatar that allows untrained operators to compete a diverse series of tasks, from simple to complex, in a physical environment that’s at least 100 kilometers away. And you can imagine that if you’re the untrained operator, you put on a pair of VR goggles, headphones, a haptic suit, and as you move your fingers the avatar’s fingers move. And as you move your arms and walk around, the avatar moves its arms and walks around. And you can see through its eyes and hear through its ears. You’re effectively, for lack of a better term, Uber-ing your senses into that avatar in a different location. It’s a way of ultimately bridging the gap between distance and distributing skills and hands-on expertise to a location where they’re needed.
The lowest-hanging-fruit example that rationalizes this is if there were a disaster someplace and you need to get an expert to that disaster. The Fukushima nuclear reactor explosion that occurred six, seven years ago. You could put someone into that avatar and have them walk in there and turn knobs and shut down system—whatever needed to be done.
I work with a team that’s predominantly in New York but also in London, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and so forth. You’re not talking about a work telecommute here; you’re talking about an area that would otherwise be harmful for a human. The example that comes to mind is drilling and mining operations in northern Australia, which is not terribly hospitable. Is that the kind of thing you’re trying to solve?
Yeah. That’s the first kind of use or application where it can make a difference, save lives, allow people to go into environments that are not safe and allow experts that might not be physically available to transport their knowledge, ability, or senses to that location to perform what needs to be done. That’s an important first element.
It goes from there. You know, my Mom lives in Boca. I live out here in L.A. Right now, I will FaceTime or Skype with her, but I can’t help her if she needs help. In the future I will have an avatar that is effectively in her closet and available and I can go help her with something that she needs. That same avatar, if needed, a doctor can avatar into her home and examine her and see how she’s doing, move her arm and shoulder and see what’s going on. Or a repairman for her dishwasher. It becomes a way to instantly translocate expertise to a person who needs that help.
What is so complicated about this? Obviously if you’re putting this much money and technology on this it’s more complicated than the average person thinks it is.
This is about systems integration. We’re not changing the laws of physics, we’re asking teams to create a fully operational system that an average untrained user can utilize. You don’t want, after a disaster, to have an expert in to give hours of training. People can put on this outfit and go naturally do what they need to do. So this is about integrating a variety of technologies. We don’t specify which, but it’s going to be virtual reality, robotic technologies, machine learning capabilities—what makes it easy. The same way that the original Xprize in 2004 was won. Why was it so hard? We launched people in space 50 years earlier, sure. But to do it cheaply, more easily, in a user-friendly fashion so that it actually gets used? That’s critically important. The last thing we want to do is have a prize that doesn’t actually change the world.
The Xprize is long-running. Why this one, this year?
We’re looking for ideas that are inspirational, future-forward, that can solve problems. We’re looking for things that are at the knee of the curve—meaning that we see them as doable but not being done and a prize would accelerate the future. A prize would bring teams together, help attract capital, help change the regulatory regime if needed. It’s a seed crystal that causes change. We believe the time is right. We have prizes going on in adult literacy, children’s literacy, water, energy, a whole slew of things. This came to us. We find our prizes through interactions with philanthropists, corporations, family offices, governments. This one came to us with a partnership from ANA, which put forward an idea that we got excited about.
The Xprize has been around a long time. Do we still need it? I’m thinking about how Alphabet CFO Ruth Porat has been managing that company’s famous moonshots in recent years.
Number one, we’re going from just a focus on prizes to a focus on impact. Here’s the basic concept. We’re living at a time when individual entrepreneurs are more powerful than governments were 20 years ago. You, me, any one of us have access to the world’s information on Google or Baidu. You could spin up a thousands processor cores on Amazon Web. You could design something and 3-D print it in the cloud. We’re entering a period of extraordinary capability and power. There’s more capital available than at any time in human history. I meet thousands of entrepreneurs through Singularity University, the Xprize, through my Abundance community, through my venture fund, and a lot of people are trying to figure out what to do, to work on. They’re looking to go from success to significance. What the Xprize does is, it says, “This is important. This will change the world. This is a problem that governments aren’t solving, companies aren’t solving. In success, it will change the world.” So we inspire teams to form and try and take on difficult problems.
Last question. You’ve been rather busy yourself, speaking of entrepreneurs. Tell me about your new project.
You mean Celularity? There are a number of new projects.
I’ve got three primary massively transformative purposes, or MTPs. The first one I ever had was opening up space—that was since my childhood and that gave birth to the Xprize. A related MTP was inspiring entrepreneurs to solve the world’s biggest problems and I do that through the Xprize Foundation, Singularity University, and through my Abundance group. It’s really about helping people find their MTPs, design their moonshots and go after them and empowering and inspiring them. The third area which I’ve had now slightly since medical school but really most powerfully in the last 10 years is the field of human longevity. I fundamentally believe that we’ve reached an important inflection point that we’re going to be able to to extend the healthy human lifespan by 20 to 40 years in the next decade. That’s going to come from genomics, machine learning, and cellular medicine. It’s an extraordinary time. I’ve started a number of companies. Human Longevity first with Craig Venter and Bob Hariri five years ago, and that’s really been on the genomics and human learning side. And most recently, about two or three weeks ago, Bob Hariri, who’s an incredible scientist and one of the top thinkers in cellular medicine in the world, M.D.-Ph.D., jet pilot, brain and spinal trauma surgeon turned cellular medicine scientist, I support him in building Celularity. We raised about a quarter of a billion dollars and are really focused on these placental-derived stem cells as a means to fight and cure…they call it augmented immunity and longevity. How do you extend the human life span?
A fundamental question: Why should we live longer? We’re built to die, aren’t we?
Great question. Let me give you my pitch. I’m 56. The average human life span by design was about 26, 27 years old for most of human history. You would enter puberty at age 13 at which point you’d have a baby. This is the days of the caveman, 200,000 years ago. By age 26 your baby was having a baby. At that point, the theory was the selfish gene—you are a vehicle for promoting your genetics. If you were a grandparent at age 27-28 and taking the food from your grandchildren, because you’re bigger, stronger, more capable, at this time in history when food was scarce, before agriculture existed, you would die. The species would die. So the best thing you would do from an evolutionary standpoint is die in your late 20s. In the Middle Ages that extended to the mid 30s. By the turn of the last century, average age of man was about 40. Today it’s extended to 78 and we’ll double it again.
So what is normal aging? Was it 27 or 28? Mid 30s? 40? You tell me. The reality is, without modern science and technology to fend off your infections or get an appendectomy when needed, most of the world would not be around today. Why should we extend and double the human lifespan again? If you asked that question 100 years ago, half the planet wouldn’t be here. But let’s take it a step further. The reality is, most people who I know at age 65, or 70, or 75 who at the top of their game, the last thing they want to do is die. If you could extend their healthy life by 20 or 30 years and they worked for another 20 to 30 years, it would be one of the biggest GDP gains for any nation on the planet. I would have loved to see Einstein or Marvin Minsky or any number of incredible scientists live a healthier, longer life and be more productive and add to the body of knowledge that they built. But at the end of the day, why shouldn’t people live to 150? What’s wrong with that?