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X Prize group sets sights on next challenges (Q&A)

Peter Diamandis, who helped get private space flight off the ground, tells CNET where the X Prize Foundation sees the next big technological gains.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--Having already set private space travel in motion, the organizers of the X Prize are ready to unveil the future of the cutting-edge competitions.

On May 15, at a gala fundraising event to be held at George Lucas' Letterman Digital Arts Center in San Francisco, X Prize Foundation Chairman and CEO Peter Diamandis, along with Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin and "Avatar" director James Cameron will unveil their five-year vision for the famous awards.

X Prize chairman and CEO Peter Diamandis. Diamandis.com

The X Prize first gained fame for its promise of a $10 million prize to the first private team that could put a manned spaceship into space twice in two weeks. That prize, which was announced in 1996, was won in 2004 by inventor Burt Rutan and his SpaceShipOne project. And in the years since, the X Prize has continued to offer juicy purses to teams capable of solving some of humanity's most pressing issues in the areas of the environment, education, global development, life sciences, and exploration.

In 2007, the X Prize group announced a vision statement at a similar event at Google headquarters. But over the coming three months, the foundation is putting its biggest thinkers through a rigorous period of prize design intended to lay out an entirely new roadmap.

Already, three funded prizes are in the works: The Archon X Prize, which will award $10 million to the first team to sequence 100 genomes in 10 days; the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize, which will go to the first "privately funded team to send a robot to the moon, travel 500 meters and transmit video, images and data back to the Earth;" and the $10 million Progressive Automotive X Prize, which will be awarded for producing "clean, production-capable vehicles that exceed 100 MPG energy equivalent (MPGe)."

Now, as the foundation ramps up its design phase, it is focusing on several potential new prizes that could change the world of medicine, oceanic exploration, and human transport.

The first is the so-called AI Physician X Prize, which will go to a team that designs an artificial intelligence system capable of providing a diagnosis equal to or better than 10 board-certified doctors. The second is the Autonomous Automobile X Prize, which will go to the first team to design a car that can beat a top-seeded driver in a Gran Prix race. The third would go to a team that can generate an organ from a terminal patient's stem cells, transplant the organ into the patient, and have them live for a year. And the fourth would reward a team that can design a deep-sea submersible capable of allowing scientists to gather complex data on the ocean floor.

For the next week, Diamandis is spending the majority of his time at the second executive program of Singularity University, which he founded with futurist Ray Kurzweil. Diamandis sat down with CNET on Saturday to discuss the vision for the future of the X Prizes.

Q: Tell me about what's happening in advance of the May 15 gala?
Diamandis: Over March 8-11, we have our four advisory groups coming together. On March 8, the subject of energy and the environment. On March 9, the subject of education and global development. On March 10, the subject of life sciences and on March 11th, the subject of exploration, which is space and oceans.

So, we will be discussing the areas that are stuck. What's the opportunity space for X Prizes, which are $10 million prizes, and X Challenges, which are $1 million-level challenges. We define X prizes as large-scale competitions with a prize purse of $10 million or more that are focused on global grand challenges that typically can be competed for and won in a three- to eight-year time frame. Less than three years is probably too easy, and more than eight years, no one cares anymore. It's off people's radar.

X Challenges are nominally $1 million-level prizes that are more focused on technology challenges or breakthroughs that can be in competed for and won in one to two years.

So, we'll take the work of these advisory workshops and feed it into a two-day meeting of the board of trustees and our vision circle, which is taking place on May 14 and 15 and during which our board shapes where we focus a lot of our energy. And then on the evening of May 15, we're rolling out our vision. The event on the evening of the 15 is co-chaired by Larry and Sergey [Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin] and ["Avatar" director] Jim Cameron and myself [and our spouses]. And that's a benefit to help underwrite and fund some of the top prize ideas that are coming out of this process.

Q: So what does the future of the X Prize look like?
Diamandis: We are looking at a wide range of X Prize ideas that we're excited about. I'll just name a few.

One in the life sciences area that I'm very interested about is an artificial intelligence physician, called an AI Physician X Prize, and this would be for design of an AI physician that can speak and listen in natural language and can diagnose a patient as good or better than a panel of 10 board certified doctors. It's a very measurable, objective test. And it's An X Prize that Ray Kurzweil and I have worked on defining together, and one that we're looking for a benefactor or corporate sponsor to underwrite.

The implications of that are that by the end of 2013, 80 percent of the world's populace will have a cell phone, and anyone with a cell phone can call this AI and the AI can speak Mandarin, Spanish, Swahili, any language, and anyone with a cell phone then has medical advice at the level of a board certified doctor, and it's a game change.

Another X Prize that we are working on and looking for a sponsor or benefactor for is the Autonomous Automobile X Prize. Imagine this as the Deep Blue of car driving, the first time an autonomous car is able to succeed against a top-seeded driver in a Gran Prix auto race.

Q: What would be the game-changing element of that? < br /> Diamandis: Today there are 2 million people who lose their lives worldwide because of automobile accidents. We drive 4,000-pound cars to avoid the injuries of a 5,000-pound car hitting us. As a result of that, our cars are very heavy and consume a lot of fuel. And then cars all go down [U.S. highway] 101 instead of fanning out and taking more efficient routes, because they don't know where they all are.

There's no reason to own a car other than for vanity, when instead you can call on an autonomous vehicle on demand. If you need a Ferrari for a date, you can call on your autonomous Ferrari. If you need a minivan for a baseball game, you can call an autonomous minivan. You can get what you need when you need it.
--Peter Diamandis

The implication is that humans are the worst control systems to drive cars. We have hundred-millisecond delays. We're distracted. We can't know everything going on around us. But autonomous cars will be much better systems. They'll avoid collisions. They will take the most efficient route. They'll be able to weigh 1,000 pounds, not because they're made of stronger materials, but because they're never in an accident. And the autonomous car X Prize is about changing the paradigm of how we transport ourselves. There's no reason to own a car other than for vanity, when instead you can call on an autonomous vehicle on demand. If you need a Ferrari for a date, you can call on your autonomous Ferrari. If you need a minivan for a baseball game, you can call an autonomous minivan. You can get what you need when you need it.

Q: That's assuming you can afford it.
Diamandis: Assuming you can afford it. But because you're buying it by the byte, most things become affordable, because you can time-share it. Today, the average person only uses their car 4 percent of the time. The rest of the time, it's sitting uselessly on the pavement.

Q: I recall that in the summer Singularity Program, one of the student teams formed a start-up around efficient car sharing based on that principle.
Diamandis: Exactly. And it's a major success. And so, the autonomous cars X Prize will dovetail with Gettaround, which is their car-sharing protocol.

Q: What other potential X Prizes are you thinking about?
Diamandis: One in life sciences is organogenesis. [The winner is] the first team to be able to create a lung, liver, or heart from the stem cell of a patient who is terminal, have that new organ transplanted into the patient and have them live for a year.

Also in exploration, we are looking at X Prizes to map the ocean floor. We know more about surface of Mars than the ocean floor. So the notion would be for the design of a new generation of robots and sensors that are fully autonomous, that can, in large numbers, gather data at all levels of the ocean, including imaging of the ocean floor and the sea mounts, which are some of the more interesting areas, and then return that data to help us build a three-dimensional model of what is happening to the oceans, because we have very little right now.

Q: Is that like what Hawkes Ocean Technologies is doing?
Diamandis: Yes, so another X Prize we're looking at is deep ocean/human submersibles, so the design and development of one-, two- or three-person vehicles to take scientists down to the ocean floor. So it would be the equivalent of the Ansari X Prize [which awarded $10 million to the first private team to launch, twice in two weeks, a manned spacecraft into space], but for oceans.

Q: But isn't that what Hawkes is already working on?
Diamandis: Well, working on. But they haven't achieved it yet, and that's the potential. The question is, would an incentive prize bring new capital to the market, would it help them bring in new players, and allow new risk taking?

Also in energy, this summer, we're going to see the finale of the Progressive Automotive X Prize. We started last year with 136 vehicles from 20 countries that entered. It's now been narrowed down to 50 vehicles, and between April and August, we will see multistage competition narrowing it down to the top three winners.

Q: Are all of these definitely happening?
Diamandis: We have three that are currently launched. The Archon X Prize--sequence 100 genomes in 10 days. That is funded and operating, and we expect it to be won in the 2011 time frame. The $30 million Google Lunar X Prize. We have 21 teams from 12 countries competing and my guess is that will be won in the 2013 time frame. And then we have the $10 million Progressive Automotive X Prize, which will be won this summer. It's a date-certain competition.

Q: And the others?
Diamandis: The other ones are concepts that are being developed but are looking for a benefactor or sponsor. But we have on the order of 40 or 50 ideas that are being designed right now with our advisory groups and our board.

Q: When somebody wins, does the X Prize gain any intellectual property rights to the winning designs? < br /> Diamandis: No, right now in the competitions, the intellectual property is owned by the winning team. The only thing the X Prize retains is the media rights to tell the story. So the live TV rights and such.