THE BLOG

Moonshots - A Call to Action to Meet the World's Greatest Challenges

02/18/2015 12:33 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

-- All moonshots funded today are not enough to meet the Grand Challenges facing humanity
-- There is a growing moonshot ecosystem that can rise up if we join in this effort and unleash the talent of our people

As a species, we face a range of challenges that pose threats to our survival. When we analyze the fall of major civilizations of the past it was not war but more often environmental and resource implosion which did them in.

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Here are some of the top challenges we face today:

1. Access to clean water for 1.2 billion people
2. Access to basic healthcare for 1 billion people
3. Three billion people not connected to the net
4. Access to zero-emissions, affordable energy
5. Climate change from carbon already released
6. Lack of literacy for 1 billion people
7. Longevity (includes genomics, cancer, etc.)
8. Food distribution
9. Extra-planetary human bases
10. Zero emissions and safe transportation

The good news is that innovation can solve each one of these challenges. Who will meet these grand calls for breakthroughs at scale? Our governments cannot face these issues head on since they are structured to think in short-term election cycles and focus on local issues; they are unable to attack problems that span larger tracts of time and space.

We will not see the breakthroughs from most establishment scientists since they must support themselves through the byzantine grant process that we as a society have set up and so they apply for incremental work to increase their chances of funding.

Private sector companies are rewarded for increasing shareholder value, not spreading solutions to those who cannot pay for them or uprooting sunk-cost plants that may be destroying the planet but are already paid for. Thankfully, there are some standout exceptions as we shall see in this piece.

In the face of the lack of leadership from traditional sources, new organizations have stepped up to the plate. These organizations and companies have initiated "moonshots" which are large scale efforts that can tackle one of the great challenges -- inspired by the moonshot program of the 1960's which put a man on the moon.

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X Prize, for example, launches multimillion-dollar prizes which give incentives to teams around the world to compete and meet a grand goal that will affect our future. The Ansari X Prize for Space successfully ushered in the era of private space enterprise. This prize demonstrated that governments did not have the monopoly over work in space and that small teams could accomplish big things.

The Tricorder X Prize funded by Qualcomm has the promise of bringing key medical diagnostics in a portable and cheap form factor to a billion people globally who lack adequate access to medical care.

The Global Learning $15 million X Prize is addressing childhood illiteracy through a novel approach using self-teaching software on low-cost devices.

I serve on the board of the X Prize along with Peter Diamandis, Elon Musk, James Cameron, Larry Page, Ray Kurzwel and other innovators who are each pushing the boundaries of what is possible. Peter's recent book, Bold, spells out the vision following on his previous book, Abundance.

In addition to the X Prize, Google has stepped up in a big way for moonshots with Google X Labs. Google X, led by Astro Teller, now has a range of moonshot projects which range publicly from the self-driving car to universal wifi to advancing genomics and healthcare. Google has dedicated significant resources at these projects.

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Moonshots can be companies as well. I count Tesla a moonshot - it has the goal of producing a mass-market EV known as the Model 3. While there is much hoopla over the current model S and the coming model X, these do not represent moonshots as they cannot be widely adopted. The future Tesla model 3 (or E) which will be in the range of $30K will be that gamechanger.

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The US federal government to its credit is now offering a wide range of challenge prizes. They have a great site which lists dozen of challenges across different agencies. This was the result of great work done by the Office of Science Tech Policy of the White House (OSTP) with advice from the X Prize and others. However, none of these are moonshots which will scale or solve our grand challenges.

Richard Branson offered up the $25 million Virgin Earth Challenge (VEC) in 2007 which does address one of the grand challenges, but the VEC team determined that none of the finalists met the criteria and so the prize has not yet been awarded.

A spinout site from Google X called Solve for X is a wonderful collection of moonshot ideas, but these ideas do not yet have funding.

Some may argue that companies working on financing and installing solar energy, for example, are meeting the energy grand challenge. While it is true that solar installations are up worldwide, these are still small numbers are will not move the needle either in overall climate change, access to cheap electricity or clearing pollution for billions of people.

We would have to engage in a moonshot to deploy more than 200 gigawatts a year of solar starting this year to have a significant impact, for example, on the energy landscape. We are now at a fraction of that rate. The US alone needs more than 1,000 gigawatts of generating capacity to power itself. Since solar is able to produce power about 40% of the time, even 200 gigawatts of installed panels translates to 80 gigawatts of nameplate capacity.

We must begin to address these areas with non-linear, exponential thinking. Singularity University is training teams of people in exponential and moonshot thinking, but one program alone is not sufficient. We must transform education to unleash the potential of students young and old to address these problems. We must leverage the kind of thinking evident at TED to bring together multiple disciplines to solve problems.

Memorization and testing schemes do nothing to advance our ability to think creatively and in groups to address these issues. Quite to the contrary, our current mode of education discourages big thinking and sends the message the mindless cycles of regurgitation is what is in store for the rest of our lives.

The author Neal Stephenson has warned us that lack of imagination from such pursuits as science fiction will limit what we can create. Neal has developed a challenge called the tower which dares us to imagine what we would do with a 15 mile high tower.

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With clean water we see similar trends of lots of activity with no clear scalable moonshot. There are many wonderful NGO's and private sector companies working on making clean water available to the 1.2 billion that do not have access to this life force. Yet, progress can be counted in giving a few million each year clean water - that is not a rate that would put a dent in the overall challenge.

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We must recognize that current speed and trajectory is not sufficient to meet the challenges before they engulf us in large-scale impact. We are already feeling this impact -- 50% of all hospital beds worldwide are due to lack of clean drinking water.

Similarly, we are moving at too slow a rate to affect climate change. While many of us had hopes for a climate change global compact back in Copenhagen, this now seems like a mirage on a hot baked desert road. There is no global compact coming. There is only more carbon and all the carbon that is the atmosphere now is already enough to cause significant changes.

The ocean sink into which we have put tons of carbon is already acidifying to the point where many biospecies on which we depend are challenged for survival.

We are seeing more hopeful signs in addressing healthcare the major diseases. three efforts are now underway which could have moonshot effects. Calico, a spinout of Google, is building a worldclass team led by Art Levinson.

Craig Ventor along with Bob Hariri and Peter Diamandis have built Human Longevity Inc which is leveraging genomics, stem cells and the microbiome to address key diseases and life extension. The Palo Alto Prize,on whose board I serve, holds great promise to address many diseases such as high blood pressure and to extend human life with quality by focusing on a novel approach to homeostasis.

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In total, we count only about fifteen funded moonshots worldwide. This is not even remotely sufficient to address our grand challenges. We need dozens if not hundreds of moonshots to make sure that some of them will be successful and meet the goals.

We have the knowhow to implement these moonshots. All we need is the will.

Comment below or contact me if you know of additional moonshots that can scale to meet the needs of 1+ billion people. Let's engage in the greatest challenges of our time so that we can build a future much better than today.