Billionaires who care about escape velocity, radical life extension, or the Turing Test don’t come along very often, but when they do, their actions have the potential to dramatically change the world. Space travel, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence are three areas where some super-smart, superwealthy people are directing their money – and it’s starting to pay off.
For instance, Richard Branson of Virgin Group has already signed up 200 people to take his commercial space flights starting in 2009. And, as if that wasn’t enough, he also announced that he’ll be performing the first-ever space marriage on board one of his ships. When the new couple considers a location for their honeymoon, hotel chain billionaire Bob Bigelow can help. His company, Bigelow Aerospace, is planning on launching experimental inflatable hotel modules sometime in 2010. But it doesn’t end there.
Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin take things a step further with the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize for any team of scientists who land a robot on the surface of the moon, travel 500 meters over the lunar surface, and send images and data back to the earth.
When it comes to biotechnology, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Institute for Brain Science has already mapped an entire mouse brain, detailing more than 21,000 genes at the cellular level. Now his researchers are focused on the human brain, and perhaps soon they can start thinking about reverse engineering it.
Then there’s Peter Thiel, the PayPal cofounder turned hedge fund manager who is looking to speed up research in all three areas (space, life extension, and AI). On the non-profit side, Thiel has given to the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence as well as the Methuselah Foundation that seeks to cure aging. On the for-profit side, he’s working to create a unique kind of investment strategy with his associates at the Founder’s Fund.
“I’m trying to construct a science fiction fund,” Thiel says, “but I’m nervous to describe it as that because it might attract crazy people and not real entrepreneurs.”
Paul Allen’s Institute for Brain Science has… mapped an entire mouse brain, detailing more than 21,000 genes at the cellular level…
It’s true that wherever there are new ideas, there are a few crazies, which may explain why Larry Ellison seems to go out of his way to downplay the “anti-aging” tone of his $42 million per year bioscience donations. Yet Ellison’s foundation was responsible for funding David Sinclair of Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, which is developing a drug based on resveratrol, a chemical found in the skin of red grapes that fights the effects of aging. Sinclair’s company was recently sold to GlaxoSmithKline for $720 million, proving that Ellison’s anti-aging bet is not only edgy, but also valued by the marketplace.
Of course, some billionaires funding cool technology prefer to avoid the limelight and questions of money. For instance, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos refuses to say how much he is spending on his space project Blue Origin. It was also difficult to find details concerning the investments of Apollo Group’s John Sperling and investor Jeffrey Epstein. Nevertheless, all these billionaires are funding edgy and important work, and one hopes their ranks will grow.
Sonia Arrison is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute and is currently working on a new book examining the social and political impacts of extreme longevity.