Tom Shipka

People who gush with hope and optimism about the future are few and far between. One of them is Peter Diamandis, a fifty-one year old aerospace engineer and medical doctor, who gives us an upbeat assessment in his book, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think. (1) The key to a prosperous planetary future, according to Diamandis, is to "raise global standards of living," with special focus on the worst off, mainly Africans, whom he calls the "bottom billion." Abundance, he holds, starts with satisfying the basic needs of everyone on the planet, a goal toward which, he claims, significant progress has already begun. While Diamandis expects the developed nations and the U.N. to support the quest for abundance, he argues that three other ingredients are essential.

The first is Do-It-Yourself "maverick innovators" who relish a challenge and who work in small groups, usually independent of government and universities, to develop technological marvels. Since technology matures exponentially, he argues, it has a "staggering potential" to improve global standards of living. Diamandis gives dozens of examples of Do-It-Yourselfers who have changed the world. For instance, Dean Kamen built a device that purifies water with miniscule amounts of energy; Burt Rutan inaugurated private space travel; Chris Anderson invented the drone; and a small group of friends in California, who dubbed themselves the Homebrew Computer Club, spawned twenty-three companies, including Apple. (2)

The second is a new breed of wealthy and generous benefactors who are committed to improving the world. Most of them earned fortunes early in life, mainly in computers and mobile phones. He calls them techno-philanthropists. For instance, Bill Gates of Microsoft is spreading a vaccine around the world to combat malaria, and Jeff Skoal of e-Bay has awarded $250 million to eighty-one entrepreneurs working to improve life on five continents. (3)

The third is significant cash prizes, sponsored by techno-philanthropists, foundations, governments, and corporations, to induce competition among teams of Do-It-Yourselfers to tackle formidable global challenges. Diamandis cites many historical examples of the success of such prizes. For instance, the lure for Charles Lindbergh'sNew YorktoParisflight in 1927 was a $25,000 prize. Diamandis is convinced that such incentives can produce technological breakthroughs to bring the entire world safe water, abundant food, electricity, toilets and sewers, basic health care, housing, education, modern banking and transportation, and hundreds of low-cost products.

Diamandis's message is refreshing, even inspiring, but he may be written off as a

modern-day Dr. Pangloss, the pie-in-the-sky optimist in Voltaire's Candide, unless he overcomes a major hurdle - funding. Although his X PRIZE Foundation has attracted sponsors of cash prizes for six projects so far, it hopes to secure funding for more than eighty others. One wonders how much nations stricken with debts and deficits can help. Hopefully, many more of the world's wealthy, including the one-thousand billionaires, will step up to the plate.


  1. Free Press, 2012, 386 pages. Steven Kotler, a science journalist, assisted Diamandis with the book, and is listed as a co-author. Diamandis established theInternationalSpaceUniversityto promote space exploration, the X PRIZE Foundation to provide incentives for discoveries that can benefit millions of people, andSingularityUniversityto offer courses, degrees, and conferences about problems facing the world and their potential solutions. He took undergraduate and graduate engineering degrees from MIT and a M.D. from Harvard.
  2. Also, Tony Spear came up with the proposal to use air bags to cushion the landing of an unmanned rover on Mars, which worked, and Craig Venter fully sequenced the human genome in less that one year for less than $100 million. By contrast, the U.S. Government spent ten years and $1.5 billion to do this. Venter is now developing synthetic life that can manufacture ultra-low-cost fuels.
  3. Techno-philanthropists also subsidize dozens of organizations such as Camfed, led by Ann Cotton, which has educated over a quarter million girls in Africa, and the Acumen Fund, led by Jacqueline Novogratz, which has invested $75 million in seventy companies in South Asia andAfricato deliver affordable health care, water, housing, and energy to the poor.

© 2012 Tom Shipka