Growing hamburgers in test tubes. Mining for precious metals on asteroids. Taking a supersonic, ground-level trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco in less than 30 minutes.
The futuristic ideas that have been pouring lately from the fertile imaginations of some of the wealthiest U.S. technology entrepreneurs – and which, in a few cases, are being funded out of their own billions – have started to sound almost outlandish.
But that may be exactly the point. Testing their wits – and their fortunes – against the frontiers of technology has come to be seen as a mark of pride for the tech industry’s new super-wealthy, most of whom earned their money in the relatively low-tech environs of the consumer internet. Entrepreneurs such as Jeff Bezos of Amazon; Elon Musk, who made his first fortune at PayPal; and Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, have come to embody a new and ambitious era of technological ambition.
“The kind of people who are taking on the global grand challenges are interested in thinking big,” says Peter Diamandis, co-founder of Planetary Resources , the asteroid mining venture, and the creator of the X Prize for the first privately backed suborbital space flight.
Having disrupted entire industries, they have now become “interested in the world’s biggest problems”, Mr. Diamandis says. “The world’s biggest challenges are also the world’s biggest market opportunities.”
It is ironic that this eruption of ambition has come at a time when many in Silicon Valley have begun to question whether the golden age of technological innovation is over.
The pessimism was summed up two years ago by Tyler Cowen, an American academic, who argued that the low-hanging fruit of the digital revolution had been picked and that too little effort was being put into making the next big breakthroughs.
The theme has been echoed by technocrats such as Peter Thiel, another early PayPal executive who was also the first outside investor in Facebook. He has hit a nerve in Silicon Valley with the complaint that venture capitalists have lost their appetite for world-changing ideas, preferring the safer ground of making small advances in mobile apps and social networks.
Yet recent headlines suggest this is too pessimistic.
Last week it was the turn of Google’s Mr. Brin to show off one of the products of this new marriage of advanced science, massive personal wealth and untamed ambition. It came with the first public tasting, in London, of laboratory-grown beef, a project funded largely by Mr. Brin’s own $23-billion fortune.
“If what we are doing is not seen by some people as science fiction, it’s probably not transformative enough,” he said in a video explaining the project – a statement that could sum up the ambition of the new scientific adventurers.
The upshot, according to supporters of this billionaire-fuelled quest for the next big technological breakthroughs, will be an age of discovery that creates the industries of the future: private space exploration, new forms of transport, robotics, new medicines and advanced materials. Yet it could end up instead as an era defined by the hubris of a generation of the ultra-wealthy.
“I think there will be some stupendous failures – but if you’re not failing, you’re not thinking big,” says Mr. Diamandis, who admits that the inevitable setbacks could provoke doubts about the effectiveness of this approach to problem-solving on a grand scale.
According to the technology elite, many of them based on the west coast of the U.S., there is no alternative to thinking very big. What may seem like hubris is seen as a necessary response to a dangerous lack of ambition that has settled on the rest of the political and business class.
Government funding has been withdrawn from some areas of advanced research. And the organisations that might once have filled the gap – the innovative old research groups such as Bell Labs, created by AT&T – have atrophied as heightened competition wrecked once-comfortable monopolies and weakened their ability to fund longer-term ideas.
Yet others argue that the incentives for groundbreaking innovation have not changed significantly, and that the history of technological breakthroughs such as the telephone and telegraph show that it has always been left to individual entrepreneurs to pull off the really big game-changers.