The Guy Behind The X Prize On How Technology Will Disrupt Your Kids’ Lives For The Better
Parents Without Borders, produced with our partners at the United Nations Foundation, features influential parents leading programs and initiatives that make a global impact.
If your kid says they want to be a rocket scientist, and your response is, “That’s cool, but it would be cooler if you were also a doctor who co-founds a dozen companies all aimed at making the world a better place,” your kid would probably think you’re being a dick. But that’s a pretty accurate description of Peter Diamandis, who begrudgingly got a medical degree before pursuing a life-long passion for space by creating the X Prize, which kinda sorta jumpstarted the commercial space industry.
Since then, Diamandis’ X Prize Foundation has sought to spark similar world-changing innovation in everything from global literacy to oil spill clean ups. While he was at it, Diamandis also co-authored the New York Times bestselling Abundance, which explains in convincing detail why your kids can look forward to a future with better water, food, energy, healthcare, education, and personal freedom. In fact, the only thing about the past that Diamandis prefers to the future is science fiction. The guy is literally helping invent the tricorder, but even he doesn’t think you can top Star Trek. There are great thinkers, and there are great doers. Diamandis is both, and for the past 4 years one of the things he’s been doing is fathering twin boys. Most guys would sweat having their first kid (let alone kids) at age 50 — but most guys don’t run a company devoted to extending the human lifespan.
You write frequently on the topic of industries ripe for disruption, and recently wrote about something called “peer-to-peer health insurance,” which could have a huge impact on family finances. Can you explain that a little bit?
The concept behind peer-to-peer insurance is: If you’re a good risk — meaning you eat well, exercise, have no immediate health risks, and so forth, and you can know that and can digitally measure and demonstrate that — then you can actually self-insure with other peers who have an equally low risk. The benefits are you get a low rate; it’s crowd-sourced insurance. Now, this is a concept. There are going to be regulatory hurdles and all kinds of things that need to be done. But at the end of the day, it’s one mechanism of disruption that I see coming in the insurance industry.
How long until this becomes something that might save families money?
I think it’s in the next 5 years.
Another area where you have some interesting ideas, which are also relevant to families, is higher education. How do you see that changing between now and when your kids go to school.
My kids’ grandparents started a 529 college savings plan. I was very direct with them and said, “I don’t know if my kids are going to go to college. I really don’t know that college is going to be the best means of learning 14 years from now.” There may be very different mechanisms to accomplish the same thing.
I don’t know if my kids are going to go to college. I really don’t know that college is going to be the best means of learning 14 years from now.
I would say there are basically 3 elements [to college]: There’s a social element, which I think is not going to be displaced by technology. It’s being on your own, building a social sphere, all that stuff. There are other means to get that experience — you could go work on a commune, or join a sports team. Then there’s the basic knowledge: learning basics you get your freshman, sophomore year in philosophy or basic math and so forth. But there will probably be better ways to learn that than going to school and sitting in a lecture.
Then there’s specialization, and the challenge is that technology will change how we learn and specialize. I think colleges and universities are changing too slowly, and we’re going to reinvent higher education. It used to be that you would go to school for 4 years between the ages of 18 and 22 to learn a trade. You would then have a life expectancy of 50 years, so you’d practice that trade for 25 years roughly. And the rate of change was slow enough, 50 or 100 years ago, that it was right. You became an accountant, a typesetter, whatever the case may be — nothing changed. Today, it’s a false premise. School if anything teaches you how to learn, and then it’s really continual learning all your life. Interestingly, you often frame the idea of how education might evolve in a way that’s actually centuries old: the apprenticeship.
Yeah, I really believe that. I spent 10 years at MIT and Harvard, the best educational institutions on the planet. Honestly, I learned most everything that I learned from the projects I did on my own, self-motivated, through organizations or companies, or working with other people. The book-learning, the theoretical stuff is 5 percent of the value I got from school. Then 95 percent came from stuff I did with people and stuff that was self-motivated.
Human Longevity, Inc. is a business you cofounded that’s dedicated to extending the human lifespan. Did that project become somehow more personal to you when you had kids?
I’ve had a personal goal since medical school of a multi-hundred-year lifespan. When I was in medical school, I remember studying that certain sea turtles and whales had a multi-hundred-year lifespan. And my my thinking was: “If they could, why couldn’t we?” I have looked at it, studied it, followed it. I’m a late-stage father — I had my kids at 50 — so I want to be vibrant and alive when they’re having their kids.
Has your understanding of all these kinds of innovations informed how you parent?
One of the things we did was bank our children’s stem cells, which I think is a fundamental requirement and a moral obligation for every parent to do. I’m that hard over on this. Stem cells banked from the placenta and cord blood are basically the original source code for your child. And it is the insurance policy if they should ever have any kind of cancer or a variety of diseases. But beyond that, it’s also a method for them to continually replenish their stem cells.
I was a teenaged terrorist, literally. I built my own bombs.
Those stem cells will become the mechanism by which we’ll be able to regrow a heart, liver, lung, kidneys. They will be a mechanism for extending your healthy lifespan. I think it’s malpractice [for any doctor] to say it’s not useful.
Your books are a rallying cry for optimism about the future. Most people see huge problems, and you see huge solutions. Has the vulnerability of becoming a parent in any way hindered your optimism about these huge problems being resolved in your kids’ lifetime?
No, not at all. The data is clear. The world has been getting better at an extraordinary rate. My children are arriving into a world where their probability of dying from any diseases or problems are minimal compared to 100 years ago. They’ll be living in a world where they won’t be driving but using autonomous cars 10 years from now — at age 14, telling the car to take them to Billy’s house. Consequently, their chance of dying in an auto accident, the number one cause of death for a child, drops to nearly zero. People are living in a time when they’re being practically abused by the news media, which delivers every piece of negative news on the planet to your living room.
Do you share the common concern about social media having a negative effect on today’s kids?
I need my kids to understand that they have to follow a much higher code of conduct, because everything they do will eventually be imaged. It’s going to be harder and harder to get away with shit. I was a teenaged terrorist, literally. I built my own bombs. I had huge supplies of potassium perchlorate, sulfur, charcoal, and magnesium. I built rocket engines and explosives. And I would have been arrested. Today, it’s really hard to get away with that stuff.I think social media and ubiquitous imaging and knowledge is going to end up driving a higher level of morality because people are watching. You’re going to think twice.
For example, one startup company made a social media platform where you can post “I really like Mary” or “This guy is a jock” or whatever the case might be, and only people in your school can get it. And it started to becoming a place for bullying. It started getting banned. And then they realized they had a responsibility, and they flipped it. They put some A.I. on there to watch out for any bullying and report it. Then it actually became a mechanism for policing bullying. These are problem that can be solved, and people do solve them.
Most parents get stuck on the fact that social media tends to embolden a kid’s worst tendencies, and not the other way around.
One of the things that gives me the greatest hope for Abundance is 1,000 years ago, the only people who could impact the world and make a difference were the kings and queens. Even their options for doing anything were still very limited. 100 years ago, the people who could impact the world were the robber barons, the industrialists who built the libraries and roads and so forth. Today, it’s all of us. Anybody who wants to find a problem and fix it. And that makes for a much better world.