“Governments are concerned about congressional investigations, they’re concerned about failure,” Mr. Diamandis says. “Big companies are concerned about stock prices.”
Hubristic, idealistic or both, the technocrats see themselves as the ones to deliver large-scale breakthroughs to solve the world’s social and economic ills. Mr. Brin, for instance, was drawn to the idea of growing beef in test tubes by the environmental benefits of reducing the world’s cattle population, as well as animal welfare concerns.
“We’re moving into an era where talking about things that have seemed impossible has become dramatically important,” says John Seely Brown, who once ran Xerox’s famed Silicon Valley research centre, which was credited with many of the breakthroughs that led to personal computing.
As older industries are disrupted by the internet or global competition, the competitive advantage for an advanced nation such as America has become intimately tied with its ability to accomplish big technological advances, according to this view.
Yet while the wealth of nations may ultimately be at stake, the tendency to think big has come to seem like a personal mark of pride for the tech billionaire class.
This week Mr. Musk, who has scored successes with electric cars and private space exploration, took a step further into the realm of science fiction with his proposal for a hyperloop: an elevated, sealed tube through which pods carrying passengers could shoot at 700mph. Such a transport system would be far cheaper to build and more attractive to travellers than a proposed high-speed rail link between San Francisco and Los Angeles, he claimed.
If there is a need for such grand personal ambition as this that stretches the imagination – and sometimes the credence – of the uninitiated, the time could be ripe.
Some experts say that a rare point in technological history has arrived when unimaginable breakthroughs will come to seem almost routine, giving the unbridled ambition and fortunes of today’s super-rich technocrats a lasting impact on the world.
“It’s an incredible moment in time,” says Mr. Seely Brown. “Things I would have thought were unthinkable five years ago” have seen the light of day, he adds, such as the driverless car developed by Google’s advanced research and development arm, Google X.
New tools used in scientific research have accelerated the process of discovery, researchers say. The ability to analyse massive data sets and use “deep learning” in computer systems that can adapt to experience, rather than depending on a human programmer, have led to breakthroughs. These range from drug discovery to the development of new materials to robots with a greater awareness of the world around them.
Nowhere has the ambition of the new entrepreneurs been more apparent than in the private space race, as some of the richest internet billionaires have moved to fill the gap left by the retreat of U.S. government funding for space exploration, Mr. Bezos, who took an old-economy tack last week with his $250-million purchase of the Washington Post, has committed part of his billions to making space travel more affordable. He has been joined by Google billionaires Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, who are among the backers of Mr. Diamandis’s venture to launch rockets to mine resources from passing asteroids.
For his part, Mr Musk has set his sights on Mars – having already built, through his company SpaceX, the first private rocket to reach orbit and dock with the International Space Station.
The space entrepreneurs have much in common with a much earlier generation of explorers, says Paul Saffo, a futurist based in San Francisco. “Commercial space is just like the great age of discovery around 1500,” he says. Once one ventures beyond the bounds of previous exploration and returns successful, others inevitably follow, producing a race for new riches that seemed out of reach before.
Even the most unlikely sounding breakthroughs are less out of reach than they might appear, according to their supporters. Mr Musk’s hyperloop idea, for instance, has been discussed in scientific circles for decades and is based on existing technology.
Mr. Saffo, who carried out a study of the hyperloop concept in the early 1980s, says that “people just laughed” at the idea at the time. With the backing of a bold entrepreneur who can show success in other fields, though, the air of disbelief that surrounds an idea may dissipate.
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