We know from psychology that giving out rewards of any kind, and specifically cash can be a very poor motivator, it seems people work harder when there's less on the table and tend to slack off when the pot overflows. X prize seems to be the exception that proves the rule however. Competition for the Ansari X prize was hot, and I seem to remember any number of early test rocket crashes, luckily not carrying passengers. Fail again, fail better indeed.

This prize ushered in the era of private space flight; handing $10 million to Burt Rutan for building and launching a spacecraft capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometers above the earth's surface, twice within two weeks. An amazing feat, and one that many people thought was impossible. In fact the X prize embodies a particular American spirit of optimism and determination harnessed to astounding depth of support and resources. I can't think of any European country that would attempt such a thing.

Currently the X prize is standing by to give $10 million to anyone who can sequence the whole human genome quickly and cheaply. Another major challenge in world science that has the potential to not only increase the net self-knowledge of mankind, but take us into the long promised realm of gene medicine and who knows, the evolution of a third sex? Gene bending between humans and animals? Humans and machines?

A staggering $30 million is on offer to the first privately funded team to safely land a robot on the surface of the Moon, have that robot travel 500 meters over the lunar surface, and send video, images and data back to the Earth. A more modest $1.4 million goes to oil cleanup ideas. More recently, the legendary Star Trek Tricorder has attracted the attentions of the X prize, with a pot of $10 million up for grabs to the first team to develop the kind of passive scanner Bones used in a long series of alien encounters on far flung sound stages. Lots of people think it's going to be a convergence of technology that makes this possible, including remote-sensing, genome-sequencing and advanced imaging techniques. Until all that falls into place, there's the FDA to battle, who say publicly they'll never license a technologically based diagnostic device.

The person in the enviable position of checking out all the contenders and handing out the cash is Eileen Bartholomew. She's a Harvard biologist with heavyweight management experience and a quizzical look in her eye. Bring 'em on! it says. She's been encouraging people to come forward and raising the stakes in the competition.

She's going to be at TEDx Brussels to tell us about the major challenges of the future and what our best hope for solving them might be. Make sure you're there too.

John Fass Art Director TEDx Brussels

1 Comment