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Posted: July 21, 2011

Eight grand challenges for humanity: Part 1

Focus on today's problems, and we're trapped in the past

Thomas Frey

On July 10, I gave the closing keynote at the World Future Society's "WorldFuture 2011″ event in Vancouver, BC. It was an energized crowd of inspired thinkers from around the globe, and I felt quite honored to be part of this event.

As I took the stage, my goal was to introduce the crowd to a series of Eight Grand Challenges, incentivized competitions designed to push humanity to another level. But as with many crowds, there was a formidable issue in the minds of attendees, a hurdle of acceptance before these challenges would be deemed cause-worthy.

At issue was our obsession with solving all of today's problems before we dare think about advancing humanity. How can we possibly justify advancing humanity when the money would be far better spent solving today's massive problems? Answering this objection first, was critically important, so here is the way I presented it.

If we only focus on solving today's problems, we become trapped in the past. Every solution leads to another set of problems. Much like the whack-a-mole game at video arcades, as one problem gets pounded down, another pokes its ugly head out. The only real way out is to advance civilization. By advancing civilization we change the nature of the problems we're dealing with, and that is exactly what the Eight Grand Challenges have been designed to do.

Three Questions

I began by setting the stage with a series of questions. For this crowd the questions were framed around the vast areas of white space, what we don't know, compared to the tiny areas of certainty, what we do know.

The three questions were as follows:

1. "If you could live on any planet in the universe, where would you live?" Asking where we want to live on earth is a perfectly reasonable question. But as we all know, we know virtually nothing about the other planets in the universe. To some, this is merely a question too absurd to fathom. But to others, it demonstrated the very real limits we place on our thinking.

2. "If you had a choice of living at any time in the past or in the future, what would you choose?"Hmmm. Turns out that we don't know anything about the future, and when we look backwards, we only have a very crude understanding of the past. For all our claims to brilliance and ingenuity, we remain a very unenlightened species.

3. "In a non-religious context, who is the world's most famous person?"

The answers I got from the audience to this question ranged from Leonardo DaVinci, to Isaac Newton, to Michael Jackson, to Thomas Edison, to Gandhi, to Oprah Winfrey. These are all good answers. But my assumption is that the world's most famous person has not been born yet. Using that assumption, the logical next question is, "What is the accomplishment that will make that person so incredibly famous?"

Put another way, what are the big things that still need to be accomplished?

Answering this question is exactly what led the DaVinci Institute to develop the Eight Grand Challenges in the first place, as well as our work on the Museum of Future Inventions project a few years ago. While still a work in progress, the Museum serves as the long-term guiding vision of what we hope to accomplish in the years ahead.

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History of Prizes

In the middle 1800s one of the most popular sports in the United States was billiards. Restaurants and saloons were quick to pick up on the game's popularity, using it to attract new customers, and soon after the concept of a billiard parlor took hold, with many communities feeling left out if they didn't have one.

One of the driving forces behind the sport was Michael Phelan, an Irish immigrant, who wrote one of the first American books on the game, and was influential in setting rules and standards of behavior for the game. He founded the Phelan and Collender company, which developed new table and cushion designs and heavily promoted the sport. Later, in 1884 his company merged with the Brunswick.

However, billiards was a sport that created a huge demand for ivory, the only known substance at the time for manufacturing billiard balls. By 1860 the demand for ivory had grown so intense that industry experts estimated over 100,000 elephants a year were being slaughtered to fill all the orders. To make matter worse, because of the imperfections in the ivory, they were only able to extract around eight billiard balls per elephant. A truly sad commentary on American consumerism.

Michael Phelan recognized the problem and in 1863 offered up the $10,000 Phelan and Collender prize for the best ivory substitute for making billiard balls. Six years later in 1869, John Wesley Hyatt came forward with his invention of Celluloid, the world's first practical synthetic plastic. Although he was never paid the prize money, he went on to found the Albany Billiard Ball Company and the prize inspired a major milestone in the early days of the plastics industry.

Throughout history there are many examples of incentive prizes that produced amazing results.

• In 1714 the British Parliament offered a cash prize for reducing shipwrecks by creating a precise method for determining a ship's longitude. The prize of ₤14,315 was won by John Harrison for a specialized precision clock: a chronometer.

• In 1919, Raymond Orteig, a New York hotelier, announced a $25,000 prize for the first person to fly nonstop between New York and Paris. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh won that prize, opening the door to transoceanic air travel.

• In 1980, a $100,000 prize was created by computer science professor Edward Fredkin, for the first computer to beat a reigning world chess champion. The prize was awarded to IBM's inventors of the Deep Blue machine in 1997. Deep Blue beat world champion Gary Kasparov in the final game of a tied, 6-game match in May, 1997. The Deep Blue inventors were Fang Hsu, Murray Campbell, and Joseph Hone.
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• Launched in 1996, the Ansari X Prize was a space competition in which the X-Prize Foundation offered a $10 million prize for the first non-government organization to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks. The prize was won on Oct. 4, 2004, the 47th anniversary of the Sputnik 1 launch, by the Tier One project designed by Burt Rutan and financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, using the experimental space plane called SpaceShipOne.
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Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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