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Op-Ed: We Need An X Prize For Nearly Everything

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

On May 18, 1996, the X Prize Foundation announced a $10 million competition for the first private spaceship. It had to carry three people more than 60 miles above the Earth, and back; and then do it again within two weeks. Twenty-six teams from seven countries competed eight years later. The team behind SpaceShipOne received the largest prize in history.

The competition was modeled after the Orteig Prize, in 1927. Charles Lindbergh won that as the first person to fly nonstop from New York to Paris. In a piece in Wired magazine, Steven Johnson argues we need an X Prize for everything. He says incentivized competitions like this can spur innovation. He focuses on pharmaceuticals, but the principles could apply to many other fields.

CONAN: So we want to hear from you. Specify an ambitious but reachable goal in your field - 800-989-8255; email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org; click on TALK OF THE NATION. Steven Johnson joins us, now, from member station KPBS in San Diego. His piece in Wired magazine was adapted from his latest book, "Future Perfect." Good of you to be with us today.

STEVEN JOHNSON: It's great to be back, Neal.

CONAN: And was the X Prize more than a stunt? Did it actually change space technology?

JOHNSON: Oh, it engendered all this additional private sector funding, just as the Lindbergh achievement did in 1927 in terms of the private sector aviation industry. The beautiful thing about prizes, you get incredible kind of bang for your buck because, you know, you invest in the money that actually goes to the winner, but it ends up incentivizing all this additional research and experimentation that often helps kind of bootstrap a new industry.

CONAN: And we see now, with the space shuttles retired, deliveries to the space station from a private company.

JOHNSON: Yeah. We're going to see more and more of it. And it also has the — something more intangible effect of just creating awareness and attention for a particular issue or problem. And the beautiful thing about it, which is particularly important when governments are offering up these prizes, is that the money you spend on the actual prize doesn't get spent until the goal is achieved. So it's a tremendous kind of antidote to waste or a kind of bureaucratic inefficiency.

CONAN: You argue in your piece, in fact, this Orteig Prize that Lindbergh one was not unprecedented either. There were several British prizes for all kinds of technological innovations.

JOHNSON: Yeah, this one of the big arguments in "Future Perfect," the book, which is that there's this much older tradition that dates back to the Enlightenment, really, into an amazing institution in the U.K. called the Royal Society for the Arts, which began in the mid-1700s and decided to - basically it was a bunch of folks who got together and said, hey, there are all these problems out there, some of them technical, some of them engineering, some of them agricultural, that need to be solved and that the market isn't quite solving yet on its own.

And so they funded a series of prizes, they called them premiums. One of the first ones was growing this plant called the matter plant, which was important in creating dyeing kind of red - the Red Coats, for instance, were dyed with matter plants. And there weren't enough matter plants in England. And so they had to kind of export textiles off to the Netherlands and other places. So they created a prize for anybody who would get matter plants to grow in native English soil.

And they gave out the equivalent of about half a million dollars over the next kind of 15 or 20 years until those plants became, you know, firmly entrenched in British soil and they didn't need to incentivize them with prizes anymore.

And again and again in that period, you saw the RSA funding innovation in all of these different places. And what they were doing was basically widening the number of people who are involved in the process, incentivizing more people to come up with new ideas and innovations.

CONAN: And sometimes these competitions went on for quite sometime. Anybody who read the book "Longitude" - it was very difficult to figure out a way to figure out where you were. The word latitude, we could do that. Longitude, that was an intractable problem.

JOHNSON: Yeah. And, you know, it is a great book and a great story. In some ways, it's kind of a tragic story. I mean, the hero of it, Harrison, ultimately does get the prize, but he probably should have got them much earlier.

So sometimes the adjudication of the prizes is not done as well as possible. But it ends up producing these results. And now in the age of the Internet, we have, you know, so many more ways to get news of these challenges. We sometimes call them prize back challenges. And, you know, you can widen that pool on a global level, so that people who don't even live in the United States can contribute to a prize that is potentially sponsored by the United States government.

CONAN: Sponsored by the government, and that's where you get into an interesting area. You spoke specifically in your piece about pharmaceuticals and the fact that, well, the interest of the big drug companies and the interest of the world are not necessarily in sync, that there are all kinds of drugs that we might be interested in having that will not necessarily payoff big time for the major drug manufacturers.

JOHNSON: That's right. Well, we have this kind of disconnect where it cost so much money to develop a, you know, a new drug. And so there's a huge incentive to make as much money from that drug as possible, which means that you want to have a long period where the drug is patented, where you can sell it at premium prices before it becomes a generic.

And in general, we've decided as a society that that's the tradeoff. So we'll have new drug innovations. So we give these drug companies an artificial monopoly for a period of time, five to 10 years, generally. And - but that means that this new potentially life-saving drugs are incredibly expensive when they come on the market. And so what people have started to propose - actually Bernie Sanders has proposed this interesting...

CONAN: The senator from Vermont?

JOHNSON: The senator from Vermont, yeah, is creating a billion-dollar prize for new pharmaceutical innovations where the, you know, the winner, if you come up with something that solves some critical need, you'll get billions of dollars in prize money, partially funded by the private sector as well as the government. But the caveat is, if you win, you have to relinquish all, kind of, intellectual property of your innovation. So it has to go on the market as a generic, and you have to kind of open source what you've discovered so that other people can build on and improve on the idea.

So you get the economic incentive to solve a big, pressing problem. But that eventual solution goes into circulation much faster and is cheaper and more accessible and other people can improve on it with much more speed.

CONAN: So one of his proposals, for example, for an AIDS vaccine, you might get a billion-dollar prize, but you would not get the ability to then sell it under protection of patent.

JOHNSON: Exactly. And this is a great example. And this is what I've been trying to argue, both in the Wired piece and in "Future Perfect," for a way in which government can be a force for innovation, right? And in part by empowering people who aren't on the payroll of the government. There's a great slogan from Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems, which is no matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for somebody else, right?

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: And that's true of the government, right? The smartest people sometimes are in government. There are all these people outside of government who might have great ideas, who could solve problems that are important for society. And what a prize does is give those people a platform where they can contribute and be a part of that process even if they aren't working for the government at all. And it gives the government a way of setting goals but allowing the solutions to the innovations to be kind of creative from outside, the formal space of government itself.

CONAN: We're talking with Steven Johnson. He is the author of "Future Perfect." And we're looking for your help. We need a specific ambitious goal in your field that might be incentivized by a big prize. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

We'll start with Wilbert. Wilbert with us from Allendale, South Carolina.

WILBERT: Yes. One of the things I've seen that need to be done as far as protein is soybeans and corn. When you look at what had happened in the last few years with this dry spells, and the corn just part(ph) in the fields before you even toss out. And soybeans just burned out in the field with a little bush. And we could come up with a plan, like to survive these dry spells, we'll go a long more way toward solving the world problem of hunger.

CONAN: Steven Johnson, so much of the crop this year was destroyed by drought and heat in the Midwest. And this, of course, happens not just in the United States. Is this sufficiently ambitious, do you think?

JOHNSON: I think it's...

WILBERT: I think it will be sufficiently ambitious because with these dry spells, like in West Africa, Africa, United States that we suffer from these dry spells in the Midwest and the South. That will go a long way toward solving the protein problem because those two plants that I mentioned feed everything from chicken to pigs.

CONAN: Wilbert, thanks very much.

JOHNSON: Well, I think it's a great idea, and it's important to stress one of the themes that the caller just mentioned, which is that this is not just kind of shiny space exploration kind of toys. This is a great tool for global issues.

In fact, the Gates Foundation just did this wonderful kind of open challenge for people to reinvent the toilet, which sounds almost comical. But, you know, there is huge proportion of people living in the world who are not living in environments where they're not attached to a traditional sewer system. And so figuring out ways to reinvent toilets in those environments so that you can have standalone kind of waste removal that works and that recycles and things like that.

And so they had a big kind of challenge where all these people submitted these new designs for toilets. And, you know, that kind of innovation, coming from all around the world and solving problems for people all around the world, is one of the great uses of this kind of mechanism.

CONAN: Let's go next to Terry, and Terry with us from Brewster Town in Tennessee.

TERRY: Yes, Tom - I mean, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: That's all right.

TERRY: He's good too. Safe, economically, environmentally friendly emergency power.

CONAN: Ah, so something that's not a battery, in other words.

TERRY: Right.

CONAN: Or a better battery, not just the lead batteries we use now or the alkaline battery.

TERRY: Right.

CONAN: Yeah.

TERRY: Right.

CONAN: Well, better batteries. If you look at the demands for electric cars and other things, electric batteries would seem, to me, a field, Steve Johnson, that would be perfect for this.

TERRY: Well, the other, you know, side of this that's just kind of occurring to me, listening to some of these comments is prizes that are targeted not just at individual inventors but at larger groups or larger communities. So you could see the government setting up prizes to reward, you know, cities that reach certain milestones in terms of adoption of electric vehicles, for instance. And in some sense, interestingly, this is what the Obama administration was doing with Race to the Top, the education initiative...

CONAN: Education.

JOHNSON: ...which interestingly was kind of not, you know, a lot of people see this as a big success and a really innovative program. And it seemed to disappear in the campaign we just went through. But the idea was, basically, to set a series of goals for school systems around the country kind of state-by-state. And the schools - each state would kind of propose their reforms that would show that they were going to meet these goals. And a small number of states would be the winners and they would win.

Actually, a very small portion of the overall education budget, but because there was a prize, people loved to try and win, all these states got involved. They all - many of them initiated these reforms, even though they didn't win the prize. So again, the money was very effective. And it focused a lot of energy and attention on education reform. But the winner wasn't so much an individual brilliant inventor. It was a whole system, a statewide system of educators that were being, kind of, incentivized to move in a certain direction because of this prize mechanism.

CONAN: Terry, thanks very much.

TERRY: The states have actually disincentivized - some of the states have disincentivized electric vehicles by charging a road tax.

JOHNSON: Right. Exactly. So it's, you know, and again, it's an interesting mechanism philosophically, because it's not about the government kind of commanding certain things to happen, and it's not about a bureaucracy coming in and forcing change. It's about the government saying, here are our goals. Here's where we'd like to steer people. But we're going to let people figure out exactly how to get to that goal on their own.

So it feels like a marketplace in that you have lots of different people experimenting and tinkering and coming up with new ideas, but the overall goals can be set by a government agency, or a government force or an elected official, which is a really nice balance, I think. And it's suggesting a slightly different model of politics than we're used to.

CONAN: Again, our guest is Steven Johnson. His piece "Inventors' Gold" ran last month in Wired magazine. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And I wanted to ask you about that. There was sort of a model of innovation set, I guess, the Manhattan Project. They needed to develop the atom bomb. They needed to do it in secret. And this huge project was built entirely in secret and was ultimately successful. It's also vastly expensive, of course, too. The B-29 bomber, much the same kind of idea. Nevertheless, those models where the government not only funding it, but developing itself - setting up this vast bureaucracy. This is a different model.

JOHNSON: Right. Well, those are maybe kind of unique situations in the sense that there was so much inevitable secrecy involved, right? The beauty of a lot of the things that we've been talking about is there's really no risk in kind of releasing the information or releasing the challenge and allowing the group, the extended network of minds to work on the problem, because we're not building a secretive, you know, atom bomb or trying to solve world hunger or whatever it is they're trying to solve, or find a cure for AIDS.

It's - so I think, now, we have the opportunity - and also because we have the Internet, and so it's so much easier to kind of bring, you know, an amazing number of people to focus on a problem thanks to those communication tools. I think we have the opportunity to innovate, in public, in a way, and bring more people into these kinds of problem-solving exercises that we ever dreamed of before.

CONAN: Let's go to Craig, and Craig with us from Sacramento.

CRAIG: Hi, Neal. Great topic. Love the show.

CONAN: Thank you.

CRAIG: So coming on the heels of really one of the most divisive, you know, presidential elections, in several years, anyway, it seems to me incentivizing somebody to come up with a set of tenets that, you know, we're getting more and more people that are gravitating towards the middle of the political spectrum always seemingly holding the nose to vote for one of the other candidates.

How about we have one set of tenets, maybe of 10 or 15 limited, where you could capture 60 to 65 percent of the imagination of the American electorate where people can go to, who are tired of gridlock in this country.

CONAN: Bold enough idea when you're talking about and AIDS vaccine, Craig. I think when you get to the political system, you're walking on dangerous grounds.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: Well, I like the optimism. And, you know, in some ways, this is what I've been trying to write about, both in the Wired piece and in "Future Perfect." And prizes are part of this conversation, which is to say that there are a set of new values, many of them built around kind of networks and kind of network technologies that do, in fact, break from that left-right gridlock.

And prizes is one of those places where, I think, a hardcore, you know libertarian can look at it and say, all right. I like that because it's not just a bureaucracy. And someone of the left can look at it and say, hey, I like that because it involves the government pursuing its goals in an important bottom-up way. So I think that kind of compromise is possible with these kinds of tools.

CONAN: Steven Johnson, thanks for your time today.

JOHNSON: Thanks. Always a pleasure.

CONAN: Again, the name of the book: "Future Perfect." Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here. I'll talk to you again next week, though we will be without our technical director and chief problem solver Melissa Marquis. She's taking on a new assignment for now. We expect you back. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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