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How Galaxy Zoo Conquered Space

Peter Diamandis   |   November 14, 2012    2:50 PM ET

In this blog I'm going to show you how science can tap into the power of the crowd to analyze the mountains of data that our exponentially powered instruments are generating.

When I was a grad student at MIT, I had a chance to become friends with the Viking Mission's chief scientist, Dr. Gerald Soffen. Viking was the first Mars lander looking for signs of life on Mars. One of the shocking facts that Dr. Soffen shared with me was that over the decade after Viking 1 and 2 landed on Mars, NASA had only the capacity to look at and analyze just 1 percent of the data from those two missions. One percent!

It hit me back then that what we needed was a way for the data to be made available to the thousands, or even millions, of amateur scientists who would "kill" to have access to that data, to analyze it and perhaps to contribute to the science.

25 years later, that's exactly what Galaxy Zoo did.

I spoke recently with Kevin Schawinski, an astrophysicist who co-founded Galaxy Zoo when he was a graduate student at Oxford.

One of his projects was identifying elliptical galaxies, football-shaped transitional galaxies that are a sort of missing link in understanding galaxy formation.

It used to be that, in astronomy, a small team of people could look at photos of a few thousand galaxies and classify and catalog them relatively easily. But now, with a new generation of robotic telescopes scanning the skies constantly and producing millions of images, that's become next to impossible.

Schawinski himself had spent a week classifying 50,000 galaxies. "We'd extracted an awful lot of interesting science from this," he told me. But when he wanted to dig deeper and classify the million galaxies for which he and his colleagues had images, he knew it was an impossible task for one person.

"We hit on the idea of putting the images on a website and finding people, perhaps two or three amateur astronomers who'd be willing to help us," he explained. "Doing one of those back-of-the-envelope calculations, we figured it would take five years for the million galaxies to be classified."

So he and his colleagues decided to go ahead. They assembled a website, Galaxy Zoo, that they opened to the public.

Surprise: "Within hours of the site going live, we were classifying every hour more galaxies than I'd done in a whole week," he said. "And then more people and more people signed up." By the time Galaxy Zoo was turned off with the completion of the project a year and a half later, it had attracted 250,000 registered users.

What's more, the results were astonishing. The original goal of Galaxy Zoo was to have every one of the million galaxies looked at just once. It ended up that every galaxy had been classified over 70 times, Schawinski said.

"What you're really tapping into is the wisdom of crowds," he told me. "You end up with 70 independent measures of each galaxy, and you can do real science with it."

And out of Galaxy Zoo has grown Zooniverse, which we'll talk about in future posts. Why was this, and subsequent projects like it, such a success?

Schawinski and his colleagues asked the same thing. They worked with social scientists and sent out questionnaires and discovered that people's No. 1 motivation for participating in a project such as Galaxy Zoo was that they want to contribute to actual science. "They want to do something that's useful," explained Schawinski.

People want to contribute. "We'd hit an unmet need," Schawinski told me. "People wanted to do this."

That's a key to understanding the appeal of crowdsourcing: we want to feel that we contribute and that we make a difference.

In my next post, I'm going to talk about some of the things to be aware of when beginning a project like Galaxy Zoo.

NOTE: Over the next year, I'm embarking on a BOLD mission -- to speak to top CEOs and entrepreneurs to find out their secrets to success. My last book Abundance, which hit No. 1 on Amazon, No. 2 on the New York Times and was at the top of Bill Gates' personal reading list, shows us the technologies that empower us to create a world of Abundance over the next 20 to 30 years. BOLD, my next book, will provide you with tools you can use to make your dreams come true and help you solve the world's grand challenges to create a world of Abundance. I'm going to write this book and share it with you every week through a series of blog posts. If you enjoyed this post and would like your comments to make it into my book, head here to share your input and feedback. Top contributors will be credited within the book as a special "thank you," and all contributors will be recognized on the forthcoming BOLD book website. To ensure you never miss a post, sign up for my newsletter here.

How Big Data Could Determine the Winner of Today's Election

XPRIZE   |   November 6, 2012   12:56 PM ET

2012-11-06-Tarun.jpegBy Tarun Wadhwa
Tarun Wadhwa is a Research Fellow with Singularity University studying how exponential technologies can be used to solve public policy problems.

2012-11-06-Datamine300x225.jpgIf your favorite soda is Diet Dr. Pepper, the chances are that you'll be supporting Mitt Romney. Pepsi drinker? You're most likely voting for Barack Obama. If you drink Mountain Dew, you probably don't care either way.

These types of conclusions may seem simplistic and superficial, but both campaigns are betting that they will be the key to deciding who the next President of the United States is.

It's more than what you drink, what you shop for, who your friends are, what websites you visit: all reveal clues to your political leanings. Campaigns have entered the era of "Big Data"--they target voters based on scraps of information they gather from unlikely places.

Thanks to the rise of mobile technology and social media, the number of records collected by data brokers on voter behavior has tripled--from 300 pieces in 2004 to more than 900 pieces today.

Campaigns care about your personal life

Voters used to be the ones obsessing over details of a candidate's personal life. Now the tables have turned. Campaigns research the personal lives of the voter.

Micro-targeting, a technique that delivers ads based on the personal traits of a voter, was once considered impossible. But in 2004, it was recognized for helping George W. Bush defeat John Kerry. Now it is used by almost every campaign.

Because of the intricacies of our electoral system, a relatively small group of people ends up deciding the outcome of elections. In the 2000 Presidential campaign, hundreds of millions of dollars was spent on reaching just 7 percent of voters--fewer than 8 million people. Even a small advantage in mobilizing potential voters in a swing state can determine the difference between a win and a loss.

In this election cycle, more than $3 billion dollars has been spent on broadcast-television advertising, which has remained the dominant form of political communication for the last fifty years. But times are changing. Television purchases are no longer as effective as they used to be. A study showed that 88% of voters with DVRs skip ads and that 45% use something other than live TV as their primary mode for viewing videos. These proportions are even higher in younger demographics.

The next frontier: digital behavioral advertising

Just as television advertising revolutionized the field in the 1960s, this election will likely mark digital-behavioral advertising as the next frontier in voter outreach.

As a nation, we are already divided along partisan lines. We access different media, each with its own messaging and focus. Now we will receive different messages depending on who we are. Zac Moffatt, digital director for Mitt Romney's campaign, said to The New York Times that "two people in the same house could get different messages," and that "not only would the message change, the type of content would change."

In an article for Stanford Law Review, Daniel Kreiss, a journalism professor at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, explains how this can have negative long-term consequences for democratic participation. With so much sensitive personal information in so many hands, there are risks of data breaches and unauthorized disclosure.

Citizens may hesitate to engage in political discussion on line for fear of being tagged and put into a marketing database. And the high cost of political data and consulting activities may make it difficult for less affluent candidates to compete effectively. Perhaps most worrying, campaigns may "redline" an electorate (by ignoring voters who won't be sympathetic to their views because a model deems them unworthy of investment).

Political targeting - what's next?

Sophisticated modeling and targeting will become commonplace at every step of the political process. NGOs, interest groups, and candidates for local office will be the next to adopt these methods.

United in Purpose, an evangelical Christian non-profit, is currently using such technology to assign points to voters based on whether they like NASCAR or fishing, and whether they are on anti-abortion or traditional marriage lists. If these voters have a score of over 600 points, they are considered "serious about their faith". They will be contacted if they have not registered to vote.

Many voters would be surprised to learn that their interactions with both campaigns are being recorded and analyzed using technology similar to what Target uses to determine whether teenage girls are pregnant. When voters do learn what their candidates are doing, as many as 86 percent want this to stop. They regard it as an invasion of privacy. Yet these types of activities are legally considered political speech, so there are hardly any restrictions in place.

What is most worrisome is that there is no easy way to opt out of these databases, or to limit what information is collected about you, or how it is used. Sadly, we can't "de-friend" or "unfollow" the politicians.

Visit X PRIZE at xprize.org, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Google+, and get our Newsletter to stay informed.

This material published courtesy of Singularity University.

The Future of Online vs. Residential Education

XPRIZE   |   October 30, 2012    5:05 PM ET

2012-10-30-ray_kurzweil.jpgBy Ray Kurzweil
In this correspondence (posted with permission), Ray Kurzweil and MIT president L. Rafael Reif discuss the future of online education and its impacts on residential education.

Hi Rafael,

I enjoyed your insightful piece in today's WSJ on the emergence and future of online education. It eloquently makes the point that online teaching is here to stay. But I find it hard to accept the comfortable conclusion that "online education may improve the financial model of residential education. If a university's courses can be offered online for small fees to people around the world, we might arrive at a sweet spot where high numbers of online learners are getting extremely good value for their fees and the university that creates the content is using those fees to serve the mission of the university as a whole -- part of which is to make education, on and off campus, affordable."

This reminds me of the positions of leaders of the print book industry just a few years ago. It seemed inconceivable at that time that the print book business with its half-millennium history would become worthless in just a few years time, so the predictions by industry leaders were that the venerable print book business would coexist happily with the augmentation of e-books that would allow people to travel easily with their favorite book.

The situation now, just a few years later, is the following. In Microsoft's recent investment in the e-book division of Barnes & Noble, that division was valued at $1.7 billion. After the deal, the parent organization is worth about $800 million, so the brick and mortar part of Barnes & Noble actually has a negative value. Borders also achieved a negative value and no longer exists. It is my view that a similarly disruptive revolution is going to occur in higher education.

This revolution will be accelerated by the financial crisis that higher education now presents. That crisis is not simply that universities are finding their finances strained but rather is evidenced by the extraordinary escalation of the price of their service to its customers.

The rise in the cost of higher education has been worse than any other sector in the economy including health care. The reasons for this are not clear but a contributing factor has been the preoccupation with brick and mortar expansion.

There were criticisms of e-books a few years ago such as the lack of complete content, the limitations of the readers, and so on. These limitations have now been largely eliminated and a stunningly quick revolution has shaken that industry to its core. Other communication, media and knowledge industries have had similar experiences.

I think the first-tier universities, such as MIT, Stanford and the Ivy League schools, will have a bit more time to adjust, given their prestige and the buffer of their endowments, but this transformation will ultimately have profound consequences for all participants. After all, Barnes & Noble and Borders were premium brands also.

MIT does have a powerful -- and well deserved -- brand and that will serve it well in the new e-learning field. It is very positive that MIT is playing a leadership role in this arena.

And as I said before, it was very fitting that you were selected as the new President given your personal leadership in MIT playing this role. However, I do think that when the change gets going, it will happen faster and more profoundly than people expect. It is easy to get lulled by hundreds of years of tradition and stability.

Best, Ray


Hi Ray,

Thank you for your excellent and thoughtful note. I need to think about it some more, and I truly appreciate your candor and insight.

Warm regards,

Rafael

Visit X PRIZE at xprize.org, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Google+, and get our Newsletter to stay informed.

This material published courtesy of Singularity University.

Pushing Forward to Solutions for China's Energy Sector

XPRIZE   |   October 24, 2012   12:36 PM ET

2012-10-24-ChrisFrangione.jpgBy Christopher Frangione
Christopher Frangione is Senior Director of Energy & Environment at the X PRIZE Foundation.

China has about one-sixth of the world's people. It has one of the world's fastest-growing economies and now its second-largest one. With that economic success comes growing expectations among its 1.3 billion citizens. Ensuring that vast economy has the energy resources to power this success is critical.

To help meet those expectations, China opens a new coal-fired power plant every week to 10 days. The Chinese government's solar technology investments have created a billion-dollar business. In addition, China is investing heavily overseas to secure petroleum and natural gas supplies to fuel its booming transportation sector. Huge hydropower dams promise vast new electricity supplies. Few of these developments have come without some controversy, adding to the situation's complexity.

In short, China is a microcosm of the energy issues facing the entire world. At the same time, its energy challenges also provide many opportunities for innovation.

For that reason, China is the perfect place to convene the world's best thinkers to consider how to better use its energy resources, address thorny technological roadblocks and consider innovative new approaches. Importantly, making China's energy supply more sustainable has major implications, and applications, for the entire world.

Recently, the X PRIZE Foundation and Shell convened a day-long Energy Innovation Visioneering workshop in Beijing with 35 leading innovators from academia, private and state-owned energy companies, environmental non-governmental organizations and others. These key Influencers and social innovators focused on providing creative, actionable solutions that can spur radical breakthroughs in China's energy sector.

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During the workshop, we addressed ways to make China's traditional fossil-fuel resources more efficient and sustainable; to make wind, solar and other mainstream renewables more efficient; and to identify new sustainable energy resources.

The diverse participants quickly sketched out options for an energy future that is sustainable, efficient, safe, transformative, inexpensive and built around partnerships and collaboration. That's an ambitious goal, but participants believe it can be achievable - with support in the right direction.

That can come in part through two tools: open-innovation and incentivized innovation.

Open innovation helps companies accelerate progress in fast-evolving industries by reaching outside their own four walls and even their entire industry to find breakthrough ideas elsewhere.

Incentivized innovation, the basis of the X PRIZE Foundation prize approach, takes open innovation a step beyond, with monetary or other incentives to attract outside innovators and encourage a focus on major breakthroughs.

These two tools bring cross-disciplinary thinking to an issue, driving new perspectives on big, intractable problems otherwise beyond the reach of a single institution.

During the day's discussions, small groups of Visioneering participants designed several potential X PRIZE incentivized competitions, including projects that would:

  1. Help consumers understand their own energy consumption so they can make better choices in reducing power usage and bills;
  2. Create zero-energy homes that use no more power than they create;
  3. Better integrate electric vehicles and the power grid so energy can be transferred either direction as needed;
  4. Reduce particulate matter pollution to drastically improve Chinese air quality;
  5. Create valuable carbon-dioxide-based products that would provide incentives to reduce CO2 emissions; and
  6. Convert distributed, currently unrecoverable gases into marketable fuels and products.

Many of these ideas may benefit from the kind of incentivized competitions that X PRIZE has conducted in recent years to "unstick" other technological roadblocks, such as privately funded space travel and oil-spill cleanup. These competitions have attracted small, innovative companies that created unexpected approaches and ideas, leading to large technological leaps.

A day-long Energy Innovation Visioneering workshop won't magically solve every energy issue or leverage every opportunity facing China and the world. But it is an important step in quantifying the challenges and opportunities China faces and fleshing out concrete, collaborative ways to solve them. Now it's time to continue working together to help keep the momentum going.

Visit X PRIZE at xprize.org, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Google+, and get our Newsletter to stay informed.

This blog post is brought to you by Shell, our Exploration Prize Group sponsor.

How Indians Defied Gravity and Achieved Success in Silicon Valley

XPRIZE   |   October 22, 2012    4:16 PM ET

2012-10-22-Neesha.pngBy Neesha Bapat
Neesha Bapat is Lead Researcher for the "America's New Immigrant Entrepreneurs - Then and Now" project at the Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance, Stanford University. This article represents the views of the author and not necessarily those of Singularity University.

If you visited Silicon Valley in the '50s and '60s the only Indians you would meet were a few low-level engineers who came to the U.S. to study and ended up staying. Indians were stereotyped as beggars and snake charmers, and finding them in leadership positions in the technology industry was unimaginable.

Then in the '70s and '80s, waves of IIT graduates migrated to the Valley because they felt stifled by India's socialist regime (IIT's are India's top engineering colleges). One by one they mastered the Valley's unwritten rules of engagement and shattered its glass ceiling. Engineers such as Vinod Dham started creating breakthrough technologies such as the Pentium chip, and entrepreneurs such as Kanwal Rekhi and Vinod Khosla co-founded companies like Excelan and Sun Microsystems. They also started helping each other and formed their own entrepreneurial networks.

In 1999, UC-Berkeley School of Information dean AnnaLee Saxenian discovered that Indian-born entrepreneurs had founded 7% of all Silicon Valley startups between 1980 and 1998. By forming their own networks and mentoring each other, they had changed the perception of Indian technologists. They showed America that they could indeed be CEOs.

Nearly eight years after Saxenian published her findings, Professor Vivek Wadhwa partnered with her and Professor F. Daniel Siciliano of Stanford Law School to update and expand the research. The results were astonishing. Twenty five percent of the nation's startups and 52% of those in Silicon Valley were founded by immigrants. Indian immigrants were the leading company founding group. They founded 13.4% of Silicon Valley's startups and 6.5% of those nationwide. This was particularly surprising, because Indian immigrants comprised much less than 1% of U.S. population at the time.

I worked with Professor Wadhwa at Stanford University to once again update this research. Kauffman Foundation just published our report titled Then and Now: America's New Immigrant Entrepreneurs. We learned that because of flaws in the U.S. immigration system, immigrant entrepreneurship has dropped. Skilled immigrants are trapped in limbo and they cannot get the visas necessary to start companies. As a result, they are becoming more and more frustrated and returning to their home countries to start companies and bring innovation there instead of the U.S.

2012-10-22-ProportionImmFounders.png

The decline in the proportion of immigrant founded startups reflects this trend. Nationwide, the proportion has dropped from 25.3% to 24.3%, and the decline is even greater in Silicon Valley--from 52.4% to 43.9%. This is very bad news for America--the country needs startups now more than ever to revive its economy.

But the biggest surprise--or should I say shock--is that Indians are dominating immigrant entrepreneurship. Nationwide, Indians founded 8% of all technology and engineering startups and yet still comprise less than 1% of the U.S. population. Our research has shown that Indians now outnumber the next 7 immigrant groups combined and start 33.2% of all immigrant-founded startups in the U.S. The proportion of all immigrant founded companies has fallen in Silicon Valley, but Indians have resisted this downward trend. In fact, the proportion of all Silicon Valley companies founded by Indians has slightly increased from 13.4% to 14% since 2007.

2012-10-22-Chart1Countries1300x167.png

When we reviewed the initial survey results, we thought that something must be wrong. The Indian numbers could not have increased so dramatically. We took an additional sample of 160 Silicon Valley companies to retest our findings--but the results stayed the same. Indians are achieving extraordinary success in Silicon Valley.

It's not just Silicon Valley. We found that Indians start more companies than any other immigrant group in California (26%), Massachusetts (28%), Texas (17%), Florida (17%), New York (27%), and New Jersey (57%). This is amazing, especially since Indians only represent between 0.7% and 3.4% of the populations of these states. Indians also lead all immigrant groups in the number of companies founded in the following industries: biosciences (35%), computers/communications (28%), innovation/manufacturing-related services (29%), semiconductors (32%), software 33%), environmental (39%), and defense/aerospace (29).

It's remarkable that Indians have achieved such high levels of success in spite of U.S. immigration policies. Skilled immigrants of all nationalities are experiencing visa difficulties and hardships that hamper their efforts to start new businesses. Imagine what all of these immigrants could do if America provided the visas necessary to start companies and share the American Dream.

Visit X PRIZE at xprize.org, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Google+, and get our Newsletter to stay informed.

This material published courtesy of Singularity University.

Stairway to Heaven: Another "Giant Leap" for Mankind

XPRIZE   |   October 18, 2012    2:12 PM ET

2012-10-18-diane_murphy2.jpgBy Diane Murphy
Diane Murphy leads Communications at Singularity University. She is President of the Aquarius Group, a Trustee of the X PRIZE Foundation and UCLA's Dashew International Center for Students and Scholars, and "CapCom" of the first private deep space telescope mission, the B612 Sentinel.


Earlier this week, Felix Baumgartner stepped into a spaceship-type capsule, suspended from a hot air balloon filled with helium, and over the next two and a half hours rose 24 miles on his self-described "mission to the edge of space." He climbed higher than any human had ever gone before and even higher than a jet airplane.

Then... he jumped off.

When he did, he broke three records we all now know about, two, more than 50 years old: highest manned balloon flight (128,000 feet); highest jump; fastest dive (833+ supersonic mph). He also established one new one: most watched video on YouTube - attracting more than 8 million simultaneous viewers.

But, what did we, the millions of people who watched the mission directly from the three HD video cameras implanted in Felix's suit, citizen explorers and scientists, learn from the jump? In addition to testing new high-tech materials and sensors for future spaceflight, why was this jump so important?

2012-10-18-Felix.png

Aside from breaking three of humanity's most difficult records in one day, the Stratos Red Bull Mission can now sit comfortably alongside the flight of Spaceship One, winner of the Ansari X PRIZE, and the successful flights of the Space X Falcon 9 to the International Space Station, as proudly having broken records in the development of private spaceflight - proving that small groups of private entrepreneurs can now do the awe-inspiring missions previously only possible by governments. Felix's dive wasn't from space, but brings us steps closer to a future where the rest of us can experience what it is like to go safely to and from space at a price we can afford.

According to my friend and fellow X PRIZE Trustee, Richard Garriott de Cayeau, a well known game developer and bold explorer, son of NASA Astronaut Owen Garriott, and himself a private cosmonaut, who flew on the Russian Soyuz to the International Space Station, "we are living now in a new Golden Age of Exploration!"

"The previous age, which started and largely ended 40-60 years ago, saw many monumental feats. Humanity first orbited a satellite; then quickly advanced to walk on another world. We now regularly summit every high mountain and few frontiers seem unexplored. Yet, most of those grand expeditions often demanded the budgets of nation states!

Today, we are seeing that technology and innovation have reopened frontiers. Better yet, it no longer demands nation states. What the X PRIZE arguably began, is spreading like wildfire. James Cameron's journey to the deepest parts of the ocean. Felix's jump from the stratosphere. Bertrand Picard's upcoming Solar Impulse round the world flight. Soon private rovers on the moon. Bold new areas to explore are opening quickly for anyone who wants to be an explorer.

"On my own private terrestrial exploration, Richard continued, "I have discovered extremophile life forms and their unique proteins, of great use and value. An open source team just discovered the first planet known in a 4-sun system, just by parsing public data! We truly are in a New Golden Age of Exploration!

These private expeditions inspire youth around the world to dream about the day that they too will make their own dramatic jumps and discoveries and develop their own stairways to heaven - the ones they thought yesterday were impossible.

And, it's a lesson for big media, which no longer find it in their best interest to provide live coverage of these daring private missions. So, let's extend to them a challenge: Next time an incredible, daring and amazing entrepreneur steps into history and the future at the same time - maybe think twice before cutting away to a commercial.

Visit X PRIZE at xprize.org, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Google+, and get our Newsletter to stay informed.

This material published courtesy of Singularity University.

Affordable Health Care, Everywhere

XPRIZE   |   October 17, 2012    5:18 PM ET

2012-10-17-KarenField150x150.jpgBy Karen Field
Karen Field is Senior Vice President of Content at UBM Electronics.

Over the last 50 years, engineers have made great strides in the development of medical device technology.

Sparked by the first commercially integrated circuits in the 1950s and the promise of ever cheaper computing power, a whole generation of engineers would go on to invent an awe-inspiring list of medical devices: From artificial hearts to MRI and CAT scan machines to advanced linear accelerators that more accurately target radiation therapy for cancer, to name just a few.

2012-10-17-Engineer2.jpg

These inventions have had a dramatic impact, helping countless people live longer and more productive lives.

But developments in medical technology need to move further, faster. Our health care system in the U.S. today is wobbling: Instead of preventing disease in many cases, we spend billions to treat the symptoms. Far too many people have inadequate access to health care, while many more have none at all.

In places like East Africa, where there is just one doctor for every 50,000 people as compared to one doctor for every 390 people in the U.S., the situation is even more dire. Here, some people have never had their blood pressure taken or weight measured in their lives.

However, the momentum behind providing health care to everyone is growing.

In 2009, I was inspired by a keynote talk given by Khanjan Mehta, a senior research associate in the School of Engineering at Penn State University at NI Week, a worldwide conference for engineers on measurement and automation held by National Instruments. He described an innovative program that is bringing networked health solutions to developing regions like East Africa.

One of the primary engineering goals of the program is to develop low-cost medical devices such as a spirometer and a pulse rate monitor, which can operate under conditions that can be rugged and unforgiving.

The aim is to keep the devices simple - just a sensor, minimal hardware and a cardboard backing - and move the intelligence to the network. Once patient information is collected, it can be uploaded to a server, where a doctor anywhere can read it.

More recently, I was thrilled by the announcement of two new X PRIZE competitions designed to revolutionize healthcare: the Nokia Sensing X CHALLENGE, which aims to achieve affordable, personalized healthcare for all people through the application of sophisticated sensing technologies and devices, and the Qualcomm Tricorder X PRIZE, which challenges participants to develop a portable, wireless handheld device that will monitor and diagnose a person's health conditions.

Given their tradition of technical expertise and proven ability to solve some of the most challenging technical problems, I hope that a new generation of entrepreneurial engineers will seize these opportunities to help make the world a better place.

Visit X PRIZE at xprize.org, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Google+, and get our Newsletter to stay informed.

Building A Generation of Sustainability Mavericks Because We Can, Or Because We Have To

XPRIZE   |   October 15, 2012    2:56 PM ET

2012-10-15-RossShott.jpgBy Ross Shott
Ross Shott is the CEO of the Conrad Foundation & former Graduate Studies Alum at Singularity University and Carrie Taylor, Education and Outreach Director for the Conrad Foundation.

The often maligned Y-Generation is growing up in an age of abundance with regard to interconnectivity and access to knowledge. For the first time in history, young people have the tools of creation and implementation in their hands.

The question becomes, what responsibility do they have to use these tools to improve the world, to make a positive contribution through the gifts they received?

After all, their abundant inheritance is not limited to the benefits of industrialization, mobile devices, and free online education and collaboration tools. No, their "gifts" also include global health epidemics, dwindling natural resources and environmental disasters of unprecedented proportions - all theirs for the fixing. Yes, advances in technology have enhanced humanity's ability to more efficiently exploit natural resources. Yet alone this improvement isn't enough to provide for the earth's growing population and the rapidly increasing demands for higher standards of living around the globe.

Many of our current and future world innovators are still in high school and they are already hard at work creating solutions to major world challenges.

For example, there are young people researching cures for cancer, developing community-wide interventions for poverty and creating products we use in everyday life.

Seen in isolation the story of an amazing innovation or discovery by a teenager seems like an outlier, a one-off. But when you see them every day, over and over again around the world, you soon recognize it as our new reality. You quickly realize the ability of teens to grasp complicated problems and if given the tools and guidance, they come up with equally elegant solutions. You also begin to understand that these youth are not all prodigies with some rare genetic gift. Genius is a state of mind, not a trait of brain capacity and any teen can get their genius on under the right circumstances.

So how do we harness this creative capacity for the benefit of humanity? How do we unleash the innovative genius of the Y-Generation and what influence does this have on the development of our future workforce?

Everyday life is filled with interactions with technology in a way that has never been experienced by generations before. Jobs descriptions of all types are equally focused on employees with computer and other technological skill sets even at the entry level.

For many young people, entrepreneurship can become the bridge between science education and application of product solutions to global problems. The sooner teens are able to learn the key strategies of innovation, prototyping and commercialization the sooner they will have the ability to solve problems for their community. The "cool" factor of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) really shines through when harnessed to develop sustainable solutions for global problems.

An innovative, contemporary STEM education should become the foundation for everything students will do successfully in the future. Our youth are growing up as digital natives and need similarly based curriculum that will engage them through their K-12 years, college and onward into the workforce. Many new K-12 education models and methodologies are being tried to help entice the pursuit of engineering and science at university. One particularly successful approach is that of the Conrad Foundation and their Spirit of Innovation Challenge.

The Spirit of Innovation Challenge program engages students ages 13 - 18 by challenging them to create a commercially viable product or service to solve a global challenge for the benefit of humanity in one of four categories: Aerospace and Aviation, Cybertechnology and Security, Energy and Environment, and Health and Nutrition.

The Foundation supplies participants with training on innovation and entrepreneurship through a digital resource of videos, webinars, documents and forums. In addition teachers, engineers and executive mentors support the teams directly (in person or by utilizing a social network) as the students progress through the idea-research-implementation competition phases. The free program is supported by a website (available in 60 languages) which enables anyone in the world with internet or mobile access to compete for the $10,000 award in each category.

This STEM enhancement program transforms education through innovation, mentors young leaders, creates local community impact, supports social investment, inspires international collaboration and develops sustainable solutions for global problems.

Student-driven innovation becomes the new standard through this program. For example, one team developed a nutrition bar that states it will fuel brainpower. It was flown and consumed on the International Space Station because if fulfilled all the nutritional and microgravity requirements for NASA astronauts. In the development process the two girls who created the product discovered a patentable process for stabilizing DHA that if licensed could end up funding their college education. This accomplishment earned a trip to the first White House Science Fair where they received recognition from President Obama.

While, what the girls accomplished is commendable, they are one of many participating teams determined to use their imagination to improve their world. Another team from a public high school in one of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in Philadelphia successfully created a low carbon emissions and ultra-high efficiency alternative fuel vehicle which competed against collegiate and corporate teams. A month after winning the Spirit of Innovation Challenge the team went on to win the 100 mile race at the Green Grand Prix with their vehicle reaching 160 miles per gallon. They also received personal praise from President Obama and they were recently featured on PBS's Frontline in "Fast Times at West Philly High."

Yet another team received an invitation in collaboration with the U.S. Department of State to attend the Rio+20, United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. The team created a portable water purification system that could be used in disaster relief or areas without infrastructure for clean water resources. So innovative is their product, they were recently awarded the 2012 Heart of Haiti award by the national parliament and plans are in place to distribute the water purification device throughout the country.

No matter the domain in which they choose to create, these youth have the ambition combined with the newly learned skills of entrepreneurship to make a real difference in the world throughout their lifetime.

Saddle up Mavericks!

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This material published courtesy of Singularity University.

The Quest

XPRIZE   |   October 11, 2012    4:27 PM ET

2012-10-11-Erika.Wagner.pngBy Erika Wagner
Erika Wagner served as Senior Director, Exploration Prize Group at X PRIZE for many years.

As a species, we have scaled the Earth's highest mountains, dived to the bottom of her deepest seas, and crossed her most inhospitable desserts, jungles, and icy wastelands. There are but a handful of spots on the surface of our planet that we have yet to visit.

And yet, even with a map scrawled throughout with notes of "Kilroy was here", the promise of exploration is clearly not dead. The hunt for the unknown, the full court press against our own human limitations, and the revelations that seemingly sound out most loudly as we strain against these boundaries are still a vital undercurrent in today's increasingly globalized world.

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In fact, I think the quest for new frontiers is an absolutely critical part of what it means to be human. In an era where we are growing faster than ever as a species, expanding our knowledge of our world and our universe is critical to our survival. Continuing exploration is a modern-day imperative.

For me, at least, exploration is about more than exotic locales and heady rushes of adrenaline. It is about the ways in which frontiers reveal new things about our world and ourselves. It's about the ways in which standing at the edge of all we know forces us to innovate in ways that the safety of our own couches never will.

In the words of JFK: "We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills."

That's why I prize exploration.

Why do you?

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This blog post is brought to you by Shell, our Exploration Prize Group sponsor.

Launching the Next Era in Space Travel and Exploration

XPRIZE   |   October 4, 2012    1:39 PM ET

As the space shuttle rides off into history, private initiatives, incentivized competitions and new technologies are transforming the race into space.

2012-10-05-Peter_Diamandis.jpgBy Dr. Peter H. Diamandis
Peter is the founder and chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation and the co-founder and chairman of Singularity University.


The final flight of the space shuttle Endeavour across the country, and then across California, strapped to the back of a Boeing 747, brought to a bittersweet end a notable era in space exploration in the United States, perhaps what should be thought of as the Third Era of Space Travel and Exploration.

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I would say the Third Era because the First involved the decades of initial experimentation and unmanned rockets starting with Robert Goddard and then the German V2, continuing with the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 and ending with the Soviets' 1961 launch of Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space.

The Second Era, which saw Soviet cosmonauts and U.S. astronauts almost routinely venturing into space, was punctuated in 1969 when Neil Armstrong (who, in a sad irony, just passed at the age of 82) and Dr. Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to land on the Moon. That era continued through several successive moon landings, ending with Apollo 17 in 1972.

The Third Era began in earnest in 1981, with the launch of the first Space Shuttle, Columbia, a mostly reusable workhorse designed to ferry astronauts, research experiments, satellites and equipment into Earth orbit.

This era was notable also for greater international cooperation between the major space powers, the United States, Russia, the European Space Agency and Japan.  We also saw a significant increase in the diversity of our astronauts, in gender and from a variety of countries and professional backgrounds.

Now, even as the most notable creation of this Third Era of spaceflight becomes a museum attraction, we're already well into a Fourth Era of Spaceflight, marked by the first space tourists, the first private space companies and even, earlier this year, the first privately developed and operated capsule to travel to the International Space Station.

In fact, this new era will be known for democratizing space travel, moving it into the private sector, and making it available to the general public, rather than just a few highly trained and government-employed specialists. Sometimes, these private initiatives will work in cooperation with the government organizations that funded and conducted space travel in the first three eras, and sometimes they will operate independently of government involvement and support.

Indeed, this era got its start in 2001, when a Santa Monica investor named Dennis Tito purchased a $20 million ticket through Space Adventures, rocketing aboard a Soyuz mission to spend more than a week on the International Space Station. Since then, Space Adventures has sent seven more clients to the ISS.

The ensuing 11 years, have seen many other private space efforts:

  • The launch of Zero-G, which allows the public to experience weightlessness on a special airplane that also trains NASA astronauts;
  • The creation of SpaceX, which developed the Falcon-9 launch vehicle and Dragon capsule that made that equipment delivery to the ISS.
  • And, of course, the historic 2004 flight of SpaceShipOne, which won the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE from our foundation for its achievement.

Our first incentivized competition, the Ansari X PRIZE, went to Scaled Composites, which beat out 26 teams from seven countries to become the first to build and launch a private space vessel that could carry three people 100 kilometers into space twice within two weeks.

Pursuit of the prize spurred a flurry of investment and technological developments by private companies trying to create reusable space vehicles. In the process, they helped create a private space industry that is an increasingly viable partner with public space agencies.

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So where's it all going?

Well, recently, Space X founder (and X PRIZE Trustee) Elon Musk told ABC's Nightline that his company expects to be able to send humans to Mars in "roughly 12 to 15 years."

And one of our latest competitions, the $30 million Google Lunar X PRIZE, has attracted 25 teams from 16 countries that are building spacecrafts that can land and rove/hop 500 meters on the Moon's surface.  If they can meet the Dec. 31, 2015 deadline, they will help open the Moon for private and commercial exploration and exploitation.

The X PRIZE Foundation can be proud of its role in helping midwife this Fourth Era of Spaceflight and Exploration. The opportunities before us are remarkable, and we intend to continue our special role in encouraging private investment and research to open the skies for us all.

So, while we bid a very fond goodbye and thank you to Endeavour and her sister shuttles, I for one am more excited about the future of space than I've ever been.  For me, humanity's exploration of space is only just beginning!

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This blog post is brought to you by Shell, our Exploration Prize Group sponsor.

The Next Revolution in Healthcare

XPRIZE   |   October 2, 2012    3:17 PM ET

2012-10-02-Dan_Raskin.jpgBy Dan Raskin, M.D.
Dr. Riskin is the CEO of Health Fidelity, provider of a commercial-grade, cloud-based natural language processing (NLP) service, and is also a Consulting Assistant Professor of Surgery at Stanford University.

Every 50 years, there is a revolution in healthcare based on the trends of the era. In the 1870s, healthcare was revolutionized by the germ theory of disease and promotion of public health efforts. In the 1920s, the discovery of penicillin propelled forward the use of medication as treatment for disease. In the 1970s, use of the randomized controlled trial (RCT) ushered in an era of evidence-based medicine. As we approach the 2020's, the trend toward big data, tools and systemization of care will revolutionize the way hospitals and physicians work and, most importantly, the way patients are treated.

Big data refers to a set of information and data so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using conventional database management tools. At issue is how to access, distribute and utilize this vast amount of "unstructured" data. For patients, clinicians and hospitals that have massive amounts of clinical content in electronic health records (EHRs) that remains unused, the implications can be rising mortality rates and out-of-control medical costs.

Let's consider the current vanguard of data-driven healthcare in hospitals. At the best institutions, doctors and nurses are going room to room each day to mark down which patients meet which quality metrics and whether they're addressed. The result is a manually-entered, cumbersome flow chart that can, at best, address a handful of the hundreds of known quality measures and use limited data to address these. With a condition like deep-vein thrombosis for example, hospital staff relies on manual calculations to assess the risk of a patient. The problem is, if not treated properly, mortality rates rise. The real tragedy is that the information needed to properly assess the patient's risk and determine treatment is available in the clinician's notes, but without the proper tools the knowledge remains unavailable and hence, unused.

Today, the most formidable tools to effectively manage unstructured data include natural language processing, ontologies and data mining, which together support the effective use of unstructured data. Systemization of healthcare has been slowly implemented over decades, but has rapidly accelerated with EHR adoption and government mandates. Ultimately, the proper systems put into place allow the knowledge learned from big data to be distributed and used.

So, if data flow tools to manipulate data exist, and systems to implement process improvements are possible, how do these trends underlie a change in the field of healthcare? Data-driven healthcare has become increasingly well-defined and understood over recent years. It is the concept that large record sets can assure that best treatment algorithms are applied and that treatment algorithms are customized for individual patients. It means that although modern medicine treats the 83 year-old diabetic patient with hypertension similarly to the 45 year-old athlete with hypertension, based on them being grouped together in the same clinical trial, in the future, care will be personalized based on what worked best for millions of similar patients previously. This level of customized care offers the promise of better and more applicable care.

Financial outcomes are expected to improve as well. According to a 2011 report from McKinsey Global Institute, if health care in the US used big data creatively and effectively to drive efficiency and quality, the potential value from data in this sector could be more than $300 billion in value every year. Two-thirds of this figure would influence national health care expenditures, representing an 8 percent cost reduction.1

This is the future of healthcare: big data, robust tools and clear processes for intervention. It represents an opportunity for innovators and those that care about healthcare. It represents the potential for better outcomes and lower mortality rates for patients. Brace for a revolution in healthcare where we all have the opportunity to help and everyone has a stake.

[1] McKinsey and Company, McKinsey Global Institute, "Big Data: The next frontier for innovation, competition and productivity," May, 2011.

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This material published courtesy of Singularity University.

Smart Gloves Turn Sign Language Gestures Into Vocalized Speech

XPRIZE   |   September 27, 2012    1:56 PM ET

DavidJHill.jpgBy David J. Hill
Contributing Writer, Singularity University.

Giving a voice to the voiceless has been a cause that many have championed throughout history, but it's safe to say that none of those efforts involved packing a bunch of sensors into a glove. A team of Ukrainian of students has done just that in order to translate sign language into vocalized speech via a smartphone.

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With the motto "We're giving a voice to movements," Team QuadSquad came in first place for their glove prototype in the Software Design Competition of the 2012 Microsoft Imagine Cup, winning $25,000 and garnering interest across the world, including developers anxious to bring their expertise to the project. Now the Ukranians have launched Enable Talk, a website that openly shares their ambitious vision, design documentation, and a business plan for how to bring the device to market. Furthermore, the team is looking into the possibility of enabling the same technology to allow cell phone conversations using the system.

That could mean a new way for about 70 million people with hearing and speech impairment to verbally communicate and connect to people around them.

The video that the Ukranian team used in the Microsoft competion gives a better feel for how the glove works:

The inspiration for the gloves came from observing fellow college students who were deaf have difficulty communicating with other students, which results in them being excluded from activities. Initially, the team looked at commercially available gloves that could be modified to interpret a range of signs, but in the end, they opted to develop their own.

In their glove, a total of 15 flex sensors in the fingers measure the degree of bending while a compass, accelerometer, and gyroscope determine the motion of the glove through space. The sensor data are processed by a microcontroller on the glove then sent via Bluetooth to a mobile device, which translates the positions of the hand and fingers into text when the pattern is recognized. Using Microsoft APIs for Speech and Bing, the text is spoken by the phone running Windows Phone 7. The glove can also plug into a PC for data syncing and charging of its battery.

Working with other developers, the glove will ultimately be supported on Android and Apple iOS.

Although the money the team won for coming in first place helps, they estimate that initial startup costs at $400,000, which includes development, testing, and marketing. The base cost of each glove is currently $150 but they forecast that this will drop 50 percent once they refine the development and being mass production. The projected initial retail price of one glove is $250 and $400 for a pair but with minimal competition, EnableTalk is optimistic about their ability to find customers.

At the competition in July, the system could only translate a small number of phrases, such as "Nice to meet you," so building up the library of recognized signs is of great importance. To do this, the team plans to work with native signers and deaf college students, according to Forbes. Additionally, the recognition algorithms must be revised to improve accuracy from its current 90 percent to 99 percent. The team also wants to improve the processing speed, which is vital for regular conversation flow.

For deaf people or those with significant hearing loss, these gloves offer hope against the locked-in feeling that the community can experience due to the low numbers of signers in the general population. Perhaps one day, a glove like this could be part of a universal translator, which is something that will continue to be pursued as mobile computing, speech recognition, and translation advance.

While EnableTalk is initially targeting the deaf community, the smart glove technology that they are developing has a much broader market, one that is embracing the very real prospect of wearable computing. The same hardware in Enable Talk could easily be adapted to make keyboard commands faster or even be used as an alternative to a mouse, just as the Leap Motion is aiming to do through a completely different approach. In fact, touch computing has eliminated the mouse on mobile devices and speech recognition like Siri and Evi could eliminate the need for a keyboard. And of course, one of the most recognizable uses of a smart glove is to interact with a graphic interface as shown in the movie Minority Report.

In other words, smart gloves are poised to be a big part of the future of computing, so EnableTalk's work has the potential to have a much broader impact in the marketplace even if they started the project with a much more philanthropic motive.

For some the notion of using your hands to speak may seem odd, but considering how often we communicate through emails, chats, tweets, blogs, and articles without a single vocalization, those of us who can verbally communicate are in a better position than ever to celebrate EnableTalk's efforts alongside those look forward to the technology hitting the shelves.

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This material published courtesy of Singularity University.

Stop Wasting Foreign Aid: Let's Import Millions Of New College Students Instead

XPRIZE   |   September 24, 2012    4:57 PM ET

2012-09-24-Iqbal_Quadir.jpgBy Iqbal Quadir
Iqbal Quadir is the founder and director of the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

As students in universities across the country enroll in fall courses and the school year begins afresh, new ways of thinking are more appropriate than ever. List America's top export industries, and higher education will be absent. Given the tremendous potential of the industry, this omission deserves some further examination.

America's institutions of higher education dominate global rankings and are the envy of the rest of the world. Our $400 billion plus industry is hugely strategic on a global scale and has massive growth potential. Yet only 3.5% of students in the US are foreign nationals. Still, these 700,000 students contribute about $21 billion annually in tuition and living expenses--America's third largest services export industry behind financial services and management consulting services. Millions of families want to send their children to US universities. Internet-based initiatives from Khan Academy to MITx are poised to give greater access, very possibly altering the nature of education in some ways, but concurrently fueling interest for US education in general and the deep, interactive learning that only on-campus instruction can provide--not to mention the unmatched networking opportunities of physical universities. Despite the transformative potential of online education, traditional universities are far from likely to become obsolete, and the interest boost from internet-based initiatives can help attract to US universities at least a small fraction of people from developing countries--say, 3 million of the more than 3 billion currently living in these countries.

Why shouldn't we increase university capacity (through resources I later describe) and accommodate an additional 3 million foreign students, bringing in over $100 billion to US universities and possibly $1 trillion in various ripple effects to the US economy? The answer starts with thinking differently. Australia and New Zealand already do: Australia's top service export, at about $16 billion, is its education of 225,000 foreigners, or 22% of all students. My proposal of 3 million new foreign students would bring the percentage of foreign students in the US from 3.5% to a still comparatively modest 15% of all students--on par with the UK's percentage.

Thinking differently starts by recognizing that the US economy actually advances by becoming more knowledge-intensive. In the last three decades as some manufacturing has moved to other countries, the US economy has more than trebled by moving up the economic ladder through continuous innovations, past outdated manufacturing to services and the production of knowledge. Further, as manufacturing moves toward a more information-intensive, automated, and flexible future, it is returning to the US. With new materials, new techniques and demands for mass-customization, manufacturing will increasingly rely on knowledge, design capabilities, innovation and research. The US has these advantages, but a more successful reclaim in new manufacturing hinges on the expansion and enrichment of its universities--which builds with the addition of new foreign students.

Strengthening the tertiary education industry gives rise to at least three benefits beyond increased university revenues: expertise and resource development in educational institutions; enrichment of the knowledge ecology from foreign graduates who remain in the US; and connections between this augmented American knowledge base and foreign graduates who return to their countries. With an additional 3 million foreign students, some will stay in the US, providing greater technical expertise and significantly enriching the US economy. Even today when 20 million Americans are out of jobs, there are 3 million job openings requiring technical expertise that remain unfilled. Moreover, a greater emphasis on tertiary education in the long run energizes the overall educational system, even prior to the college level.

To further illustrate the far-reaching benefits of a strong higher education sector, let us look to Massachusetts, home of an exceptional number of universities (California, with a state population six times larger, confers only 2.5 times as many bachelors' and higher degrees). Perhaps because an ecosystem of innovation and prosperity organically develops around universities, this higher educational intensity has allowed Massachusetts to earn a per capita income 19% greater than California's and 27% higher than the national average.

Exporting education opens possibilities that extend outside the US to the world at large. Beyond educating foreign students in existing programs, the US can draw on a major strength--entrepreneurship--to create new programs aimed at educating entrepreneurial students from countries that could greatly benefit from enterprise-driven growth. Research has shown that face-to-face interaction with seasoned entrepreneurs is key to the effective training of budding ones, and the US has a wealth of highly successful entrepreneurs, many of them originally from developing countries, who can help universities train students from developing countries. Furthermore, bringing ambitious and entrepreneurial students to our shores delivers a compounded effect on the U.S. economy. Even when they leave and start businesses in their native countries, they expand US exports. The brain gain/brain drain debate is in the past. Opportunities have dispersed; "brain circulation" is the new reality.

The U.S. already has the financial resources to strengthen its universities--we need only follow the history of our own economic progress, achieved through entrepreneurial efforts rather than state-led programs. We waste hundreds of billions of dollars on foreign aid to governments, through policies first used during the Cold War that now serve only to centralize power and stall bottom-up progress. Today, remittances sent by immigrant workers and the spread of the Internet and cell phones should render state-to-state management obsolete. Indeed, even the State Department is looking to promote entrepreneurship in developing countries.

Instead of aid, we should redirect money to U.S. universities for program expansion to accommodate 3 million new foreign students and have a much more tangible and beneficial effect on the rest of the world. These redirected funds could be used to create capacity for the new foreign students without taking away spots from American students, both by expanding existing universities and creating new ones, while also creating scholarships to enable talented students from developing countries to attend.

As students around the country start a new chapter in their lives, the U.S. and its academic institutions should also open a new chapter. Even in an unrecovered economy, the number of foreign students in the US jumped nearly 5% in academic year 2011. Students from India and China, where growth has been the highest, increased by 12%. Economic growth elsewhere can work to our advantage. We should stop taking for granted our strengths, lamenting progress elsewhere, and preparing for markets of yesterday--we must build the markets of tomorrow.

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This material published courtesy of Singularity University.

The Good Grid and Why Bragging About Being "Off the Grid" Is Silly

XPRIZE   |   September 20, 2012    1:29 PM ET

Gregg_Maryniak.jpgBy Gregg Maryniak
Gregg Maryniak is the Chairman of the Energy and Environmental Systems Track of Singularity University and the Senior Vice President of Education at the X PRIZE Foundation.

If you had a friend who suddenly started bragging about having a really slow Internet connection, you'd probably think that he was crazy.   No one looks at their cell phone and says,  "Hurray, I've only got one (signal strength) bar!"  Yet there are people who still talk about being "off the power grid" as if that was a great thing to voluntarily do.

One of the reasons we in the developed world are as rich as we are is our astonishing easy access to low-cost, clean, reliable electrical power.  This enables much of our present production of goods and services.  By contrast, one of the characteristics of the developing world is that people often have to leave energy-poor rural areas and travel to cities to find this economic opportunity.

Most of the United States was a developing country (at least in terms of electrical power) until the Rural Electrification Act was passed in 1936, as part of President Roosevelt's New Deal.  Life outside of the urban power grids was pretty restrictive. Relatively well-off farmers who wanted the benefit of radio programs from the outside world could take batteries into town where they could be charged over a period of a couple of days, much as people journey to distant towns in Africa today to charge their cell phones at great expense. Thousands of those American farmers set up small windmill generators to run their radios and sometimes lights.  Very few people had reliable refrigeration.

When the Rural Electrification Act was passed in 1936, only about 10 percent of rural America had access to utility scale electric power.  Fourteen years later, more than 90 percent of rural America was connected to the grid. And, most of that infrastructure was built by Rural Electrical Cooperatives, many of which are still in operation today.  The legacy of universal electrical power is that economic benefits (as well as improved living and working conditions, especially for women) were more evenly distributed - further reducing the economic polarization between urban and rural areas that unfortunately still characterizes much of the developing world.

Back in the 70's some of the early proponents of solar power argued against what they called evil centralized power generation. In reality, what they wanted to replace was not the grid, but rather the primary energy source.  But their argument threw the baby out with the bathwater and much of this misdirected anti-grid argument persists today.

Surprisingly, renewable power advocates are now among the strongest supporters of the power grid, in large part because they use the grid to sell their power back to local utilities in places that support "net metering."

The grid also provides a substitute for energy storage from renewable energy systems.  A friend of mine who recently built his dream home near Denver installed a large photovoltaic system on the roof.  When I asked him what kind of storage system he would use he told me that he did not need to have a bunch of messy and expensive batteries because he is connected to the grid.  He sells power to his local utility when he has a surplus-which in his case is almost anytime the sun is overhead - and uses the resulting accounting credits to pay for power at night or when his need for energy exceeds the sun's immediate bounty.

The larger your energy network, the better you can deal with the fundamental problems of cyclical power like solar and intermittent sources like wind, by pooling available energy and getting it to the users when needed.  Many innovators are suggesting implementing new local energy networks called microgrids to improve this ability to pool and share locally generated electricity.

One of the biggest impediments to increasing the percentage of renewable energy at scale is the present lack of grid capability.  The existing US grid is really an ad hoc assembly of many networks that grew together and gradually developed interties and the ability to sell power to each other.  It is becoming more and more difficult for transmission companies to get permission for new rights of way for power lines.   The joke is that the slogan NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) has been replaced by BANANA:  Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone!  Fortunately others are beginning to realize that we need better, bigger and smarter networks if we are to increase the overall standard of living for humanity, while transitioning to renewable energy sources.

To achieve a dramatic increase in the use of solar, wind and other renewables, we need energy networks that concentrate, transport (and someday store) this power.  It's time to realize that the grid is one of the developed world's greatest economic engines and a perfect example of what economists call "a public good."

How about a little respect for the good grid?

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This material published courtesy of Singularity University.