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Liquid Robotics to Usher Era of Smart Oceans With Autonomous Robots

  |   September 18, 2012    4:19 PM ET

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Insights From Student Innovators

XPRIZE   |   September 13, 2012   12:54 PM ET

2012-09-13-Stephanieheadshot150x150.jpgBy Stephanie Shapiro
Stephanie is an Associate in Prize Development at the X PRIZE Foundation.

When I joined X PRIZE a few months ago, I was given the task of coordinating the judging process for the 2012 MetaPrize award. This $2,000 award is given to students participating in a semester-long Prize Design course through our X PRIZE Labs, which are designed to engage the next generation of leading thinkers in recognizing areas that are ripe for breakthrough innovation. As a recent grad student and a strong proponent of experiential learning, I was particularly interested in this prize, which gives students a hands-on opportunity to research and design their own prizes.

The winners of the 2012 MetaPrize are Jill Arnow and Jesse Burns, students from the University of Washington's Evans School of Public Affairs. Their H2Energy proposal focuses on low-water aviation biofuels. The goal is to address water, land, and energy constraints by incentivizing the creation of 3rd+ generation aviation biofuels with no impact on food supply and minimal impact on water supply. The prize would incentivize a round-the-world demonstration flight using the winning biofuels.


I asked the winners a few questions about their experience with prize design:

X PRIZE: How do you think prizes can solve social and environmental problems?

Jill Arnow: Prizes can incentivize change where market forces are weak. There is little incentive, in our current economic structure, to search for environmental or social fixes. The Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup CHALLENGE is a good example where companies had no impetus to improve the technology prior to the prize offering. The work of finding a potential prize area, in a way, starts to clarify areas that are ripe for change or ready for people's creative input.

Jesse Burns: Furthermore, prizes seem to be an effective tool for targeting a specific piece of a larger social or environmental problem. Prizes seem to offer the opportunity to decompose these complex problems into discrete problems that can then serve as the focus for the prize. While the traditional analytical method for public policy typically focuses on creating mathematical models to understand and address social and environmental problems, prizes take a different approach. The process of decomposing problems to create a prize provides a similar, though less intuitive, model of what is causing the problem. Additionally, prizes address behavioral and social variables that traditional mathematical models do not adequately capture.

X PRIZE: What is unique about the prize design process?

JA: Designing a prize feels like thinking sideways -- we're so accustomed to solving problems, it takes a while to re-adjust your thinking to defining a problem and a prize that incentivizes a solution. Once you've defined the problem, then you have to define the boundaries that are grand enough and broad enough to allow more than one or two possible paths to a solution while also being interesting for the participants of the prize. Overall, designing a prize is a very multidisciplinary activity, as it requires using and combining insights from a variety of fields, such as marketing, economics, anthropology and psychology.

X PRIZE: How do prizes encourage people to think differently about problems?

JA: When designing a prize, it's tempting to say there's a big problem and a prize will automatically solve it. Instead, prize design requires finding a way to describe a problem in a solvable package and think about making it intriguing to try to solve that problem.

JB: This is challenging, as it requires not just identifying a problem, but thinking about the barriers to overcoming the problem. Often, the emphasis on prizes seems to focus on making a new product or technology. However, the success of the prize may hinge on less defined variables, such as how quickly will the product diffuse in the market and how quickly new technologies are evolving. Thinking simultaneously about creating a new technology as well as how to diffuse the new technology in the market requires developing a holistic view of what the problem truly is that the prize is addressing.

X PRIZE: What was the most exciting part about your course?

JA: We had some amazing guest speakers from around the University of Washington and the greater Seattle area talking about philanthropy, innovation, water issues (which was the focus of our prize design) and more. The class was also so different from any other course I was taking that it forced thinking out of the box.

JB: As a public policy student, I think seeing how prizes can serve as another tool to address market failures was the most exciting. The tools currently used by policymakers to address market failure, such as rules and regulations, tend to follow a top-down implementation method that values certainty. Prizes, on the other hand, offer a way to reframe a problem in a way that may uncover new insights for policymakers.

X PRIZE: Which of the eight X PRIZE design criteria did you find to be the most challenging to address in your prize concept? (Grand Challenge, Market Failure, Transformative, Measurable, Achievable/Audacious, Marketable, Leverageable, Operable/Fundable)

JA: For our prize, I think measurability was the most challenging aspect. Developing a new metric that incorporated water consumption into fuel efficiency involved understanding what fuel and water metrics are currently being used. Additionally, trying to determine how a new metric might work in practice, make sense to the market, and resonate with consumers was challenging.

X PRIZE: What advice do you have for other students designing prizes?

JA: Have fun, be willing to try many, many ideas before finding something that works, talk to lots and lots of people, and work collaboratively.

JB: Prizes are about problems, so really understanding the problem and not jumping to solutions is critical. A quote attributed to Einstein became more relevant throughout the prize design process: "If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding solutions."

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

Self-Driving Cars From Google On The Road Toward Approval In California

  |   September 7, 2012    6:48 PM ET

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Can high speed rail compete with self-driven cars, improved airlines and all the technology of the future?

  |   September 6, 2012    2:06 PM ET

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How To Live Forever*

XPRIZE   |   September 4, 2012    4:50 PM ET

2012-09-04-Mark.Wexler.jpgBy Mark Wexler
Mark is a preeminent documentary filmmaker, an award-winning photojournalist and an aspiring centenarian.

As a photojournalist and a documentary filmmaker, I have always been drawn to stories of the human connections that define us, an interest reflected in my work. The retreat of my hairline and the arrival of my AARP card led me to examine the most fundamental human connection of all -- life itself. Somewhere between the hyperbaric chamber and the cryonic pod, I began to fully appreciate the complexity of the issue.

A few years ago, I decided to indulge my life-long fascination with health and life-extension by making a documentary, How To Live Forever*. I added an asterisk after the title which says "Results May Vary." This was partly to be cheeky, partly to avoid being sued, and partly because my worldwide quest to discover the secrets of a long and healthy life yielded surprising and often contradictory lessons. How else can I explain Jack LaLanne, an avowed health and fitness enthusiast living on liquefied carrots to the ripe old age of 96 while Buster Martin, a chain-smoking, marathon runner (no water, thanks, only beer), lived to be 104 years old? How can that be?

I recently came across the Archon Genomics X Prize presented by Express Scripts. It is a global competition run by the X Prize Foundation that challenges teams to sequence 100 genomes of 100 centenarians (including the world's oldest known person, Besse Cooper, who recently turned 116) to a level of fidelity never before achieved. Is it entirely possible to live beyond 100 due solely to the genes of your ancestors or is it something more? While my movie explores the lifestyles of certain centenarians and how they lived to this remarkable milestone, the X Prize competition seeks to give the world the technology and the DNA so that researchers can unravel the secret of longevity. Should be very interesting.

And while the Archon Genomics X Prize will not be won until October 2013, I'm grateful that the X Prize Foundation is working to solve one of life's grand challenges and to finally remove that asterisk, because frankly, I'm getting really sick of green tea. In the meantime, I will share some of the things I learned making the film. First, never underestimate the power of the humble chili dog. By this I mean to say that the predominant trait my subjects had in common was a real hunger for life -- they were active, engaged, involved. For some, this meant competing in Ms. Senior USA pageants, for another, it meant beginning a porn career as a septuagenarian. Second, welcome each stage of your life as it comes and it won't kick your butt. Enough with the botox already. Spend that time and money helping kids in your community. You'll get back what you give ten-fold. Third, there are some really smart people figuring out how to save our bacon. Wouldn't it be great to have the health you had at twenty yet the wisdom you have at 60? Fourth, if all else fails, chill out. Cryonics might buy us the time to enjoy all the great advances our scientists will discover, and maybe we'll finally get those flying cars they promised us back in the sixties. Last, but not least, watch my film How To Live Forever* now available on DVD and iTunes. You'll laugh, you'll cry, and you might just buy a juicer.

Follow How to Live Forever* on Twitter here: @How2Live4ever

Check out the How to Live Forever* Facebook page here.

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

New Software Can Diagnose Parkinson's Disease Simply By Listening To Your Voice

  |   August 30, 2012    8:04 PM ET

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Artificial Intelligence Will Defeat CAPTCHA -- How Will We Prove We're Human Then?

  |   August 29, 2012    1:47 PM ET

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Exploration -- Around the World Or Around the Corner

XPRIZE   |   August 28, 2012    3:27 PM ET

2012-08-28-joe150x150.jpgBy Joe Capra
Joe is a Los Angeles-based photographer and filmmaker, and winner of X PRIZE's recent "Why Do You Explore?" Video Contest for his piece "Midnight Sun | Iceland".

Exploring is something that can be done and enjoyed by everyone in this world. It doesn't matter where in the world you are, what your financial position is, or what physical shape you are in. You don't have to travel the world, go on a major expedition, or sail the world to be an explorer. Exploring can be as simple as taking a new route home from work one day, picking up a camera and photographing your surroundings, or visiting your favorite National or State parks. Often times my most memorable experiences exploring are the ones that have occurred the closest to my home, and are places most familiar to me.

One day I decided to drive a different route home from work, taking roads and side streets I had never been on. I distinctly remember coming to a fork in the road and having no idea where exactly I was or which way to go. I opted to take the left fork, which led me up into the mountains around Los Angeles. At this point I had already gone way out of my way and in the opposite direction I needed to go to get home, but hey, I was exploring and having fun. I continued up the road which ended up leading me to the top of the Hollywood hills and an amazing view of Los Angeles, all the way from downtown to Santa Monica. I had no idea I would stumble upon such an amazing location and view of the city I have lived in for 15 years. I have returned to this viewpoint many times since my initial discovery of it, and it has turned out to be my favorite secret spot in L.A. All because I decided to explore those unknown and unfamiliar streets on the way home from work that day.

Getting into photography was probably the best decision I have ever made. Photography has allowed me to not only see and explore, but also experience this world in ways most people don't. It has also been the reason for many of my travels and exploration. Photography is really what sparked my love for exploration and has become an enormous passion of mine. There is nothing I love more than travelling around this world with my camera. Photography gets me up off the couch, out of the house, away from computers and television, away from everyday life, and brings me out into the world ready for new experiences. I encourage everyone to pick up a camera (it does not have to be expensive), and go walk around your neighborhood taking pictures of anything you find interesting. I guarantee you will see some things you have never seen or noticed before. Photography allows you to stop and smell the roses, as they say. Even though your neighborhood is something that is familiar to you, walking around it with your camera and photographing it will make you see and experience it in a new way. This is what exploration is to me. I love being in familiar places, but seeing and experiencing them in new ways.

Another easy way to explore this world we live in is to visit some of your favorite places (State/National Parks, beaches, mountains), but visit them at uncommon times. As a photographer I tend to be up and outside ready to photograph well before sunrise, during and after sunset, and also well into the middle of the night. These are, and have been, some of my favorite and most memorable times to be out exploring. I have stood in Yosemite Valley many times at 3:00 a.m. and felt like I was the only one in the park, having the entire place to myself. I have done the same in Death Valley, Iceland, and many other places as well. It's a whole new experience being in places like this in the very early morning or in the middle of the night. You hear new sounds, see new things, and experience the location in ways that most people don't.

Exploring is whatever you make it, and it can be as hard or easy as you want it to be. Either way, the enjoyment you will get from exploring will be very rewarding.

Capra drove throughout Iceland for 17 days capturing 38,000 photos to create this enchanting time-lapse video, "Midnight Sun | Iceland".

Visit X PRIZE at, 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.

Startup Aims to Install Pipelines With Helicopters... Seriously!

  |   August 27, 2012    8:42 PM ET

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The Exponential Rise of Lean Business

  |   August 23, 2012    4:19 PM ET

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Healthcare -- 5, 10, 20 years in the past and future

  |   August 23, 2012    3:21 PM ET

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Stunning Progress in Technology: The Death of Unskilled Labor

  |   August 22, 2012    4:47 PM ET

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Forget the Euro Crisis and the Supreme Court -- the Future Is Better Than You Think

XPRIZE   |   August 21, 2012    1:32 PM ET

2012-08-06-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.

We are all unknowingly addicts. Addicts of bad news. Twenty-four hours per day, seven days a week, the news media is constantly feeding us negative stories on every digital device in their arsenal -- our mobile phones, tablets, computers, radio, television and newsfeeds. Every murder, terrorist plot, economic downturn, no matter how remote, is brought to us live, instantly, over and over again.

The reason for this is simple. Our brains are hardwired to pay far more attention to negative news, than positive stories. Millions of years ago as our brains were evolving, if we missed a piece of good news, that was an inconvenience, but missing a piece of bad news could mean the end of your life and your germ-line. For that reason, we've developed portions of our brain that are constantly scanning for bad news and thereafter putting us on high alert. The old newspaper adage, 'if it bleeds, it leads' is as true today as it was a century ago.

So it's no wonder that people think the world is falling apart, and many are in a very dark contemporary mood. But what is curious about this situation is that in nearly every measurable way, the world is much better off than it has ever been.

I'll start with poverty, which has declined more the in the past 50 years than the previous 500. In fact, during the last 50 years, while the population on Earth has doubled, the average per capita income around the world (adjusted for inflation) has tripled.

We're not just richer than ever before, we're healthier as well. During the last century, maternal mortality has decreased by 90 percent and child mortality by 99 percent, while the length of the average human lifespan has more than doubled.

As Steven Pinker has made clear, since the middle ages, violence on Earth has been in constant decline. Homicide rates are a hundred-fold less than they were when they peaked 500 years ago. So we're not only healthier, we're safer as well.

If your measure of prosperity is tilted towards the availability of goods and services, consider that even the poorest American's today (those below the poverty line) have access to phones, toilets, running water, air conditioning and even a car. Go back 150 years and the wealthiest robber barons couldn't have hoped for such wealth.

Right now, a Maasai warrior on mobile phone has better mobile communications than President Reagan did 25 years ago; And, if he were on Google, he would have access to more information than President Clinton did just 15 years ago. We are effectively living in a world of communications and information abundance.

Even more impressive are the vast array of tools and services now disguised as free mobile apps that this same Maasai Warrior can access: a GPS locator, video teleconferencing hardware and software, an HD video camera, a camera, stereo system, vast library of books, films, games and music. Go back 20 years and add the cost of these goods and services together -- and you'll get a total well in excess of a million dollars. Today, all these devices come standard with a smartphone.

During the last two decades, we have witnessed a technological acceleration unlike anything the world has ever seen. Exponential progress in artificial intelligence, robotics, infinite computing, ubiquitous broadband networks, digital manufacturing, nano-materials, synthetic biology, to name a few, put us on track to make greater gains in the next two decades than we have had in the previous 200 years. We will soon have the ability to meet and exceed the basic needs of every man, woman, and child on the planet. Abundance for all is within our grasp.

But it won't happen without your help. While accelerating technology is an awesome force, in itself it is not enough to bring on this golden age. However, there are three additional forces emerging -- and this is exactly where you come in.

The second of these forces is the rise of the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) innovator. No longer content with hot-rods and homebrew computers, in the past decade, DIY'ers (working both in small teams or collectively, via crowdsourcing) have made major contributions to fields like healthcare, energy, education, water, freedom -- areas that were once the sole province of large corporations and governments. This means that whatever challenges we face in the world - climate change, AIDS in Africa, energy poverty -- more than ever before, we are now empowered to individually help solve these problems. And it's our ability to do so, this new-found power of the maverick DIY'er, that is the second of our four forces.

The same technologies that enabled the rise of the DIY Innovator have also created wealth much faster than ever before. Tech entrepreneurs like Jeff Skoll (eBay), Elon Musk (PayPal), Bill Gates (Microsoft), etc., became billionaires by reinventing industries before the age of 35. Maintaining their appetite for the big and bold, they are now turning their attention and considerable resources towards global betterment, becoming a new breed of philanthropist--technophilanthropists -- and, as such, yet another force for abundance.

Perhaps the most significant change of the next decade will be the dramatic increase in worldwide connectivity via the internet. The online community is projected to grow from two billion users in 2010 to five billion by 2020. Three billion new minds are about to join the global brain trust. What will they dream? What will they discover? What will they invent? These are minds that the rest of society has never had access to before and their collective economic and creative boost becomes our final force: the power of "the rising billion."

We are living in a time of unprecedented opportunity.

So while I can't tell you to ignore all the negative news coming your way, I can say that the future, much like the present, is going to be a whole lot better than you think.

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

This material published courtesy of Singularity University.

Meeting the Cleanup Challenge

XPRIZE   |   August 20, 2012    2:50 PM ET

2012-08-20-Don_Johnson.jpg By Don Johnson
Elastec/American Marine Team Leader, Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE

I remember the audible gasp from most everyone at the awards ceremony last year. Robert Weiss, President of the X PRIZE Foundation, had just announced that Team Elastec/American Marine had won the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE. Our skimmer system had delivered an astonishing oil recovery rate of 4,670 gallons per minute at a nearly 90 percent efficiency ratio of oil to water. In just six months, the X PRIZE Foundation had become the catalyst to advance the efficiencies of oil spill recovery more than in the previous twenty years.

Why had the breakthrough taken so long? It wasn't because we could not do it. We, as an industry, simply chose not to. Several advancements had been made over the years. But the bottom line is that if we had invested the money and developed a larger system, would customers have been willing to spend the money to inventory equipment and wait for an accident to happen? The answer was no, so we chose not to attempt it.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident prompted the X PRIZE Foundation and Wendy Schmidt to invite not just the oil recovery industry, but anyone with imagination and drive to take on a daunting challenge. The goal was to produce a system capable of recovering oil from the surface of water at a minimum rate of 2,500 gallons per minute, with an oil to water efficiency of at least 70 percent, while being towed at 1 to 4 knots -- and to do this in both calm and wave conditions.

Over 350 teams from around the world took up the challenge. Ten finalists from four nations tested their technologies in actual oil on water conditions at the National Oil Spill Response Research and Renewable Energy Test Facility (Ohmsett) test tank in New Jersey. The X PRIZE Foundation provided the right mixture of competition and monetary incentive.

The secrecy surrounding the competitors' entries lent additional incentive. When we at Elastec/American Marine first tested our grooved disc (the heart of our system), we knew we had something extraordinary. The question was, what were we comfortable with? The minimum requirement was 2,500 gpm, so that was not a "goal." We assumed that everyone else was aiming at 3,000, but what if those teams that aspired to 3,500, or even 4,000? Prior to the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE, if you were to bring up those figures in relation to skimming possibilities, you would have been dismissed as a dreamer. But the dream of winning $1 million and the fame that comes with winning one of the X PRIZE Foundation's competitions now seemed within reach.

Hearing our name announced as winner of the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE gave us reason to celebrate all the hard work. However, it turned out to be just the beginning of what we believe is a new direction in the field of mechanical oil spill collection. To conform to all of the requirements of the competition, we had to develop a forward moving skimmer collection system. That had not yet been successfully accomplished.

Conventional oil spill clean-up methods prior to the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE involved containment, then collection. Some systems could move forward and collect oil, but then the whole process ground to a halt while a skimmer was either put into the collected oil or activated so that the collected oil could be pumped into a holding tank. Attempts had been made to couple skimmers and collection booms so one could keep skimming, but you still had two different systems trying to act as one. They just did not work efficiently.

The elusive goal was to maximize the encounter rate. The Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE forced us to create a system able to encounter large quantities of oil spread over the surface. It doesn't matter if you have a system "capable" of pumping 10,000 gallons a minute. If you are not encountering the oil, you are not picking it up. Our system did just that, on a grand scale.

Now the challenge is to prove that this technology can be scaled to meet the many different environmental, transportation and deployment scenarios that occur in real-world spill situations.

The system's first generation targeted the footprint needed to fit in a small cargo plane for fast response. We developed a towable boom and skimmer system, the X150, signifying cubic meters per hour. We returned to Ohmsett to test this system, and results were good -- so good that an X250 is planned. The concept of a skimmer that can handle a large flow of water while also skimming oil opens up several possibilities: large systems for ocean spills, for instance, or systems that could be positioned across rivers, downstream from a spill, establishing a "fire line" for the capture of the oil.

The Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE brought together teams that have been in the industry for some time -- and some with fresh new ideas. We have been in communication with some of those teams and have shared technologies and ideas to enhance each other's systems. Competitive collaboration: another plus for the competition.

It is hard to describe all of the benefits we have experienced because of our association with the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE, primarily because that book has not been completed. Our system has already been honored by National Geographic and the Washington Post as among the best innovations of 2011. We also received the Regional Clean Sea Organization's "Excellence in Environmental Technology" award earlier this year in Dubai. We feel the technology that was developed as a result of the competition has definitely raised the bar and will continue to set new standards for the performance of the equipment used in the oil spill clean-up industry.

The X PRIZE Foundation and Wendy Schmidt set out "to inspire a new generation of surface oil spill cleanup technologies." With the help of all of the teams involved in the competition, they have accomplished just that. We at Elastec/American Marine thank the X PRIZE Foundation, Dr. Diamandis and Wendy Schmidt for their efforts to help keep our world clean. I hope that others will appreciate the foundation's contributions and will support it in each of its future challenges. I know that we will.

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