Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

The futuristic ideas that have been pouring lately from the fertile imaginations of some of the wealthiest U.S. technology entrepreneurs have started to sound almost outlandish. But that may be exactly the point
The futuristic ideas that have been pouring lately from the fertile imaginations of some of the wealthiest U.S. technology entrepreneurs have started to sound almost outlandish. But that may be exactly the point

Are the superwealthy's futuristic ideas vain or visionary? Add to ...

“Often, hubris works,” says Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business in Silicon Valley. “If you say it often enough, people will believe it.” That can lead to money and talent flowing to an idea that would once have seemed absurd. “The belief becomes reality,” he says.

Mr Diamandis is hoping for a similar dynamic to take hold with his plan for mining asteroids. Like other ambitious tech dreamers, he claims that no big technological leaps need to be made to bring his idea to fruition, and that capital will flow once enough investors can see that the goal is achievable. Like Mr Musk’s hyperloop, all depends on ingenuity and execution.

As with the arrival of deepwater drilling in the early 1980s, says Mr. Diamandis, the potential returns from asteroid mining will come to be seen as so great that the resources needed to overcome the technical challenges will inevitably be found. “Some of these asteroids are worth trillions of dollars in assets. Will it happen? Absolutely.”

The new internet tycoons are not the first billionaires to take on pressing global issues – though their methods and the scale of their ambition certainly set them apart. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, with the backing of Warren Buffett, has ploughed billions of dollars of his own money into fighting infant mortality, along with efforts to develop vaccines to conquer debilitating illnesses such as malaria.

Like the super-wealthy before them, Mr. Gates and Mr. Buffett have “used their money to do good works”, says Mr Saffo. Their tech industry successors, however, have a different plan: “This generation of hyper-entrepreneurs wants to launch new industries.”

Until the ambitious new tech dreams of the internet billionaires have run their course, it will be impossible to tell whose money has been better spent.

Model evolves from the Beagle to Google

Charles Darwin would have felt at home in a world where breakthroughs in the advanced sciences are becoming increasingly dependent on the generosity of the super-rich.

As the son of an angel investor who had made his fortune during the industrial revolution, the younger Darwin was the beneficiary of a similar fount of personal patronage, says Bill Janeway, a veteran start-up investor and economic historian.

Yet even if it has a long history, some argue that dependence on personal generosity may not be the best way to organise important scientific research. Such work is often better left to governments or established corporate research labs rather than individual benefactors, Mr Janeway says, since there is a risk that ambitious individuals will brush aside established scientific disciplines, such as peer review, in the race for high-profile achievements.

Others, however, argue that a breakout from the old forms of scientific research may be in order.

In periods of very rapid technological change, the biggest opportunities often lie on the fringes of science research where little work has been done before, making traditional approaches to peer review less useful, says John Seely Brown, a former head of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center .

Whatever the source of funding, most agree that some form of institutionalisation of advanced research is in order – although new types of institutions may be needed to capitalize on the immense opportunities that some believe are now opening up.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation , with an endowment of $37-billion, is a model for how to institutionalise personal support of science, taking traditional approaches to research to shape fields such as vaccine research, says Mr Janeway.

Mr. Seely Brown, however, points to Google X, the search company’s advanced projects lab, as an alternative model that is in keeping with the impatience and ambitions of Google’s founders. The company has attracted some of the top brains from a range of disciplines, given them advanced research tools made possible by the company’s massive computing resources, and primed them with the ambition and money to pursue world-changing ideas.

Report Typo/Error
Single page

Next story




Most popular videos »


More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular