Billion-dollar babies: Far-out pet projects of the tech elite

From Ellison to Musk to Bezos, technology's richest can't seem to stay away from wacky desires to live forever, colonize other planets, and recreate the plot line of "Deep Impact," minus the apocalypse.

If you had as much money as Larry Ellison, you too could hold a gigantic sailing trophy over your head. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The amount of wealth concentrated in Silicon Valley and the greater technology industry offers no small amount of conspicuous consumption: owning a fleet of private jets, maintaining extravagant estates, and throwing parties with live tigers.

The industry's wealthiest company founders and CEOs have so much money that each day offers a new invitation to chase their wildest dreams and indulge, from flying catamarans to building floating cities. Consider this: Thanks to a surge in Google stock, co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin made roughly $3 billion each in 24 hours last week.

They aren't alone. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has seen his personal fortune balloon as the social network's stock has soared more than 70 percent in the last two months, while Elon Musk has watched his Tesla Motors shares jump from $24 to as high as $194 in just one year. Amazon may not be churning out profits -- in fact, it loses money each year -- but its share price has jumped 150 percent since 2010, boding well for the personal fortune of CEO Jeff Bezos.

Share the wealth? That demand doesn't fare much better among the tech elite than it does on Wall Street. And running a company -- or two, as in the case of Musk, CEO of both Tesla and SpaceX -- involves enough work to prevent even the most adept multitasker from impacting the world much beyond what his or her company does on a daily basis. After all, Bill Gates had to step down from Microsoft to turn his philanthropic foundation into an industry trailblazer.

To their credit, for every silly-sounding idea a tech titan throws money at, it's easy to find a donation, foundation, or moon-shot project that affects the world positively. Take Page's insistence that Google X focus on self-driving cars and balloon-delivered Internet and his establishment of the Global Impact Awards; Brin's investments in researching Parkinson's disease and lab-grown meat that addresses sustainability and animal welfare; or Zuckerberg's $100 million public education donation and billion-dollar charitable fund aimed at health and education advancements.

Still, a well-timed gift of cash or a fascination with select scientific causes can never blur out the more questionable splurges, the ones that turn tech industry leaders into billionaire caricatures. We've rounded up the expensive toys and far-out investments of six of the brightest and richest in tech who, despite their smarts, can't seem to stay away from those wacky desires to live forever, colonize other planets, and recreate the plot line of "Deep Impact," minus the apocalypse.

Elon Musk's transformable James Bond submarine with Tesla parts

The Lotus Esprit is a working submarine used in the 1979 James Bond film "The Spy Who Loved Me." It doesn't convert into an actual road vehicle, but Elon Musk -- who bought the prop at action for nearly $1 million -- is going to give it the old college try. RM Auctions

When he's not launching SpaceX rockets that can move laterally and land themselves or planning an 80,000-person Mars colony, Musk chases his childhood dreams with cash on hand. But unlike the rest of us who don't run two huge tech companies after cashing out of PayPal, those dreams involved hatching ideas more akin to a mad scientist's.

One of those boyhood fascinations lies with James Bond. Indulging in that meant  buying a Lotus Esprit submarine  from the 1979 film "The Spy Who Loved Me" for close to $1 million. It won't just sit in his garage either; Musk hopes to make it a true land-and-sea spy car.

"It was amazing as a little kid in South Africa to watch James Bond in 'The Spy Who Loved Me' drive his Lotus Esprit off a pier, press a button and have it transform into a submarine underwater. I was disappointed to learn that it can't actually transform," Musk said in a statement following the revelation that he was the secret buyer of the spy mobile. "What I'm going to do is upgrade it with a Tesla electric powertrain and try to make it transform for real."

No small feat. But we're inclined to say (and we're not alone) that if anyone can do it, it's Musk.

Larry Page and Eric Schmidt back asteroid mining in the name of ... money

An artist's rendition of how absolutely not dangerous this concept is. Planetary Resources

When you team up with James Cameron to turn a plot point of "Avatar" into reality, you know you're dealing with a really crazy idea. Surprisingly, mining rocket fuel and valuable minerals from asteroids has a small industry behind it and Google CEO Larry Page and Chairman Eric Schmidt teamed up with the "Titanic" director to back one of its key players, Planetary Resources. The goal is to achieve asteroid mining by 2020.

After incorporating planet mining into his blockbuster 3D sci-fi film, Cameron apparently became interested in the idea of turning to space for natural resources. As for Page and Schmidt's involvement, the two seem to simply like the idea of bankrolling something that was once exclusively a science fiction concept; neither have spoken publicly about their interest in the idea. The basic concept is akin to a gas station in space, and would add "trillions to the global GDP," Planetary Resources claims.

"We're in this for decades. But it's not a charity. And we'll make money from the beginning," Eric Anderson, a NASA veteran and Planetary Resources co-founder, said at the time of the announcement. Everyone already knew that, but it was nice of him to point out that the idea is a basically a money-printing scheme that piggybacks off the the wow factor of real world companies tackling futuristic concepts.

Sure, Page has done his fair share to promote the advancement of alternative energy here on Earth with the Google.org initiative. But asteroid mining, without any regard for how it would fit into the current economic ecosystem for natural resources, falls a little on the far side of the rich wanting to get richer.

"We're out working in that field, to really open up the solar system for business," Anderson told Space.com. Because the final frontier in space is, of course, corporations.

Jeff Bezos' space tourism dreams and his 10,000-year clock

If all goes according to plan, this 10,000-year clock will keep ticking long enough for Jeff Bezos to purchase immortality. James Martin/CNET

Like many of his fellow tech industry chieftains, Amazon's Jeff Bezos likes space. So much so that he sent gear 14,000 feet underwater to retrieve one of the F-1 engines that powered Apollo 11 on its trip to the moon.

He also founded Blue Origin in 2000 to make space travel more affordable. When we say affordable, we mean for the well-heeled class of people that will actually be able to purchase tickets to space in the next 10 to 20 years. Still, Bezos is intent on making space tourism an industry, and he spent his high school years envisioning a future in which he could build space hotels and amusement parks for millions of orbiting Earthlings.

However, the plan isn't going as great as the one he hatched to become the Walmart of the Internet. In 2011, an unmanned Blue Origin rocket exploded in Texas, and the company has yet to produce a spacecraft that could meet the safety standards that would clear it for human flight and dock with the International Space Station.

Blue Origin also happens to be in a heated dispute with SpaceX and Elon Musk over the leasing of NASA's Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center, prompting Musk to compare Blue Origin showing up with a reliable spacecraft in five years to finding "unicorns dancing in the flame duct."

But Bezos isn't one to back down from a wild idea, like constructing a 10,000-year clock that will sit inside a Texas mountain and keep time for millennia. Bezos paid the Long Now Foundation $42 million to make the project happen, presumably so future generations of smugglers who strip the titanium and quartz construction for its metals in the year 3206 can thank the Amazon overlord for his contribution to the resource-deprived remnants of the US. That, or he likes clocks. 

"In the year 4000, you'll go see this clock and you'll wonder, 'Why on Earth did they build this?'" he told Wired magazine in 2011. And he's right. They really will wonder that.

Larry Ellison buys the sixth largest island of Hawaii and one of its airlines

The island Oracle's Larry Ellison bought for $500 million came with a complimentary Four Seasons Hotel. Four Seasons

Where does one even start with Oracle's Larry Ellison, the US's third-richest man?

The world seemed to forget that Ellison turned the America's Cup competition into a financial arms race that narrowed it down to the only four competitors that could afford to build its mandated 130-foot-tall flying catamarans, a sailboat design that would wind up getting one British man killed during training.

Why? Because Team Oracle's amazing come-from-behind victory -- achieved in part thanks to a setback imposed on Ellison's team for cheating -- was a sporting marvel. Forget the fact that Emirates Team New Zealand fruitlessly spent about $100 million, and Ellison likely more than that, though he won't say.

Still, it's not the most ridiculous expenditure in the 69-year-old billionaire's history. In June of last year, Ellison completed his purchase of Lanai , the sixth largest island in Hawaii, for more than $500 million. It goes well with his $200 million home modeled on a 16th century Japanese imperial palace, and would have gone great with the 454-foot yacht he used to own that came equipped with a wine cellar and basketball court. Ellison sold that modest vessel for roughly $300 million to music mogul David Geffen.

Following the island purchase, Ellison bought one of Hawaii's airlines , because why not.

The Oracle founder is perhaps the easiest target among the tech billionaires primarily because he spends his so stereotypically for a self-indulgent and recurring member on Forbes' wealthiest list. To be fair, Ellison did sign Warren Buffet's Giving Pledge, an initiative to get the world's richest men and women to donate half or more of their wealth.

On the site, Ellison claims to have pledged years ago to give away 95 percent of his money to charity. Luckily, that would still leaves him with about $1.8 billion.

Peter Thiel wants to live forever

Imagine the number of Facebooks you could invest in if you lived to be 150. Araya Diaz/Getty Images for TechCrunch

When it comes to Paypal mafia member Peter Thiel, it's hard to overlook his investment in the Seasteading Institute, a proposed society on the water that would aim to "test new ideas in government," presumably of the libertarian variety considering Thiel's public distaste in government meddling.

The idea has been catching on more and more of late, as Silicon Valley adopts an aggressive persecution complex akin to that of Wall Street's and increasingly discusses the merits of a secessionist movement toward proposed techno utopias .

Though more eye-catching than a floating city, if you can believe it, is Thiel's intent on funding research into anti-aging processes. Because why worry about improving the health of those less fortunate than yourself when you can simply prevent death for the wealthy?

Thiel kicked off his search for youth with a $3.5 million gift to Cambridge's anti-aging researcher Aubrey de Grey. Since then, Thiel's Founders Fund has invested in about 14 companies whose focus involves anti-aging and life extension solutions.

"Probably the most extreme form of inequality is between people who are alive and people who are dead," Thiel told The New Yorker for a profile piece the magazine published in 2011. See, he's fighting to end inequality. It all makes sense now.

Update on Sunday, Oct. 17 at 4:18 p.m. PT: A previous version of this article mistakenly said that Peter Thiel's Founder's Fund ran the 20 Under 20 fellowship program. That program is not affiliated with Founder's Fund and is run entirely by the Thiel Foundation.

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About the author

Nick Statt is a staff writer for CNET. He previously wrote for ReadWrite and was a news associate at the social magazine app Flipboard. He spends a questionable amount of his free time contemplating his relationship with video games while continuously exploring the convergence of tech, science and pop culture.

 

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