Visionaries: Peter Diamandis says innovation will increase exponentially

Peter Diamandis: To innovate, we must be fearless dreamers

Peter Diamandis is founder and chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation and co-founder of Singularity University, a TEDMED 2011 speaker, and author of “Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think.”

What kinds of external conditions lead to innovation on an individual and societal level, and how can we bring those conditions to more people? 

We need to be a society that is full of people who are willing to dream and are willing to take risks. We also need to be a society that also doesn’t pre-judge who can come up with a breakthrough.

The challenge is that right now, we’re unfortunately filled with fear, and that is problematic. If you’re fearful, you become risk averse. You have to view failure as acceptable, because trying something new requires the ability to do that.

If you really want to have a breakthrough, know that the day before it’s a breakthrough it’s a crazy idea, and that you’re going to have multiple failures on the way to success.

In Silicon Valley failure is accepted – two, three failures before success are considered normal. In other parts of the world, failure represents a black mark that you’re going to have a hard time overcoming. It’s mostly old-world Europe, and Asia and Japan. It’s less so in the U.S., which is why we have such a high rate of entrepreneurship.

Was there any era in human history particularly conducive to innovation, in your opinion?

There was a lot of innovation at the turn of the century when people were experimenting, and if you failed and screwed up in a royal fashion you could move someplace else and no one would know and you could start afresh. The ability to have a frontier to move to was very important. Now, if you can screw up anyone can find out on the web. But the web also promotes the rapid exchange of ideas. As populations increasingly move into cities now, too, people are exchanging ideas that drive innovation.

If, per your TED talk, we preferentially pay attention to negative news, what does it take to point people towards the forward-looking optimism that innovation requires?

I think it’s basically to make sure that you are cognizant of the fact that the news media is a drug pusher, and negative news is the drug.

When you hear something negative you need to realize that it’s not probably a full story.  You need to make sure to proactively look at whatever field you’re aware of to find the good news.

Launching the Google Lunar X PRIZE

There are websites and blogs like and that will share with you each day the latest breakthroughs in curing cancer, life extension, imaging molecules, new ways of communicating, and new discoveries on the elements of physics. It makes you realize how fast things are progressing.

We have, and will have more of, access to personal technology. Do people value intangible benefits – better communication, access to knowledge across fields – as part of human abundance?  If not, why not?

When humans get a new capability, they accept this new baseline, and they don’t value it until it’s gone and they lack access to it. It’s like, ‘What has technology done for me lately?’ This stuff didn’t exist two years ago – Google, YouTube.

We get this new stuff this is cool, this is great, it improves our lives and that becomes the new normal.  You forget that it didn’t exist before.

Plus, I think when we get something new, we expect it to work right away.  We’ve become spoiled to some degree.

Have we become accustomed as well to an ever-greater influx of new innovations?

Yes, and that will continue.  The rate of innovation is a function of the rate at which ideas exchange and mutate. As there are more people connecting online – five billion on the Internet by 2020, up from two billion in 2010 – that’s going to increase the rate of exchange.  Tools of artificial intelligence and cloud computing, and our move to the cities, will also allow us to exchange ideas at greater rates.

Can you speak to some specifics as to what abundance brings to medical advances, such as research data and drug discovery and dissemination?  Do you have case studies to share?

What we’re going to be seeing is an increase in pro-active diagnostic tools.  We have recently announced the Qualcomm Tricorder X PRIZE, a competition that will award $10 million dollars to any team in the world who builds a hand-hand mobile device that can diagnose you better than a board of certified doctors.

We have also launched the Nokia  Sensing X Challenge.  This is about developing a new generation of biometric sensors that will detect the air you breathe, the food you drink, the body’s vital measurements and all of the sensory information that will become part of a Tricorder chip.

When I drive my BMW, it has about 60 to 80 microprocessors monitoring what’s going on in the engine at any time.  When I fly my plane, we’ve got about an equal number of microprocessors. But as a human, I get only a few bytes of data once a year from my doctor.  I should be living in a world where I get a few gigabytes of data daily. This allows me to become the CEO of my own health. I can monitor my own data and know when anything is out of whack. Plus, if you have millions of people being monitored, we start to have knowledge of what’s going on, such as disease breakouts in environmentally dangerous places.

Can you speak further about how inventions like Dean Kamen’s Slingshot will actually help us either create new resources – energy, materials, food – or make better use of what we’ve got?

Technology takes that which is scarce and makes it abundant, and makes more of what we’ve got.  We talk about scarcity of water, but we live on a watery planet.  We talk about energy scarcity, but we live on a planet bathed in energy.  We have vast amounts of mineral deposits.  For planetary resources, we’re looking at mining asteroids.

It seems we already have the technology that would lead to greater abundance for those in dire need of essentials in developing nations.  What kind of capacity-building forces, market or otherwise, need to come to pass to make these innovations commonly available?

I think that is happening automatically. Much of the technologies that are being developed today are frankly going end up in the developing world anyway.

Many of the top technologies in the Tricorder chip, for example, may not end up in the U.S. because of regulatory concerns.   A lot of things may begin in Africa because there are fewer regulations.

–Interviewed by Stacy Lu

Click here to watch Peter’s 2011 TEDMED talk.