The next XPRIZE: Education software to end global illiteracy

June 7, 2014


If you want a vision of what the world will look like in 25 years, have a chat with Dr. Peter Diamandis. This MIT aerospace engineer and M.D. from Harvard is an international pioneer in the fields of innovation, incentive competitions and commercial space. As the chairman and CEO of the XPRIZE Foundation, best known for its $10 million Ansari XPRIZE for private spaceflight, he is helping to jump-start a commercial space industry in the U.S.

An emissary for “social entrepreneurship” with a goal of harnessing technology to help mankind, Dr. Diamandis has launched a number of private ventures, including Planetary Resources, a company designing spacecraft to mine near-Earth asteroids for precious materials; and Human Longevity, a genomics and cell therapy–based diagnostic company focused on extending the human lifespan.

To fast-forward change and help failing industries, he partnered with Ray Kurzweil, the director of engineering at Google, to launch Singularity University six years ago. The unaccredited university in Silicon Valley teaches leaders how to apply “exponential technologies” to address humanity’s grand challenges. Educators are well-known entrepreneurs and scientists who want to mentor the next generation of world-class innovators. In a recent interview with CNBC’s senior editor Lori Ioannou, Dr. Diamandis talked about his upcoming plans for the XPRIZE Foundation and the rapid pace of technological change.

“If you can make a big impact on the global literacy problem, you can uplift a big portion of society.” -Dr. Peter Diamandis, founder and chairman, XPRIZE Foundation

CNBC: You talk about exponential technologies. What does the term mean?

A: These are technologies—artificial intelligence, robotics, infinite computing, ubiquitous broadband networks, digital manufacturing, nanomaterials and synthetic biology—that will enable us to make greater gains in the next two decades than we have in the past 200. They will have transformational impact hard for us to imagine today.

CNBC: What industries are being turned upside down by rapid technological advances?

A: A good example is the financial industry. Already we see new approaches to the markets with the introduction of digital currency known as bitcoin and block-chain trading. There is also an arms race going on with the use of artificial intelligence and quantum computing. Look at what’s happened with algorithmic high-frequency trading. You have to ask, ‘Will the NASDAQ or the NYSE still exist a decade from now?’

CNBC: Do you think most people are aware of this revolution?

A: No. There is so much tech disruption going on, I don’t think investors and money managers are aware of the rate of change coming down the pike. The rate of change is too hard to fathom. But they need to be aware that many of today’s F500 are in danger. A study from the John M. Olin School of Business at Washington University estimates that 40 percent of today’s F500 companies on the S&P 500 will no longer exist in 10 years.

CNBC: What trends are at work?

A: In my book “Abundance,” I note some of the broad ones. Robots and AI are replacing people in the workforce; virtual commerce and telecommuting is having an effect on real estate trends. Digital manufacturing, known as 3-D printing, is allowing anyone, anywhere, to create physical items from digital blueprints, and it is ushering in an era of do-it-yourself innovation. People need to understand how exponential technologies are impacting the business landscape. They need to do some future casting and look at how industries are evolving and being transformed.

CNBC: So what’s the next big XPRIZE competition going to focus on?

A: We hope to launch one on global literacy over the next six months. There are 1 billion people who are illiterate on Earth. About 100 million are children with no access to schools or teachers. Our focus will be on launching a competition to create software that can operate on any mobile or tablet device that can teach reading, writing, math and other subjects in a two- to three-year period. My feeling is that if you can make a big impact on the global literacy problem, you can uplift a big portion of society.

CNBC: You are one of a number of “technophilanthropists.” What led to this new era?

A: Many entrepreneurs that made their fortunes by founding successful technology companies want to give back and solve the world’s biggest problems on a grand scale. There is tremendous opportunity in this approach.

Lori Ioannou, Senior Editor,

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