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The next X Prizes

Team Italia via XPF
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concepts for the Google
Lunar X Prize contest.


Even as the X Prize Foundation kicks off its $10 million competition for super-efficient automobiles, it's working on plenty more prizes to come. X Prize co-founder Peter Diamandis says he's aiming for two new prizes every year, focusing on five fields.

Much has happened in the three and a half years since the foundation passed along its first $10 million check, to reward the winners of the Ansari X Prize for private-sector spaceflight.

Two years ago, the foundation has established yet another $10 million prize, the Archon X Prize for Genomics, which is backed by Canadian millionaire geologist Stewart Blusson and would reward the first team to decode 100 different human genomes in 10 days, at a cost of less than $10,000 each. (To date, just a handful of complete genomes have been sequenced, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars per person, if not more. Among the X Prize competitors are Harvard geneticist George Church and the British company Base4 Innovation.)

Last year, the foundation rolled out the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize to encourage privately funded exploration of the moon's surface. (To date, no one has landed a spacecraft intact on the moon for more than 30 years, although NASA's Lunar Prospector and Europe's SMART-1 made smash landings.)

The X Prize Foundation has also been involved with other projects, ranging from a feasibility study for an orbital space prize to the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, which carries a $2 million purse put up by NASA.

It's taken well more than a year to put together the backing for the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize, and there are still a lot of details to be worked out over the next couple of months before teams can officially register for the contest. But Diamandis is already deep into the strategic planning for the next X Prizes. Here's what he had to say about the challenges to come:

"We've refined our strategy, and we are planning X Prizes in five vertical fields that we've defined. The first is exploration, which includes space and underwater. And we are looking at some deep-ocean X Prizes that would help get at 97 percent of the ocean floor, for example.

"We are looking at life science-related X Prize, where the Archon X Prize for Genomics is the first. We're looking at areas such as cancer and human longevity.

"Our third vertical is energy and the environment, where Automotive [X Prize] is the first of that. But we're looking at the production, storage and transmission of energy. Education is the fourth vertical. And the fifth vertical is global development, trying to address issues of poverty and the needs of the developing world. ... We expect to roll out two a year."

Diamandis – who won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Innovation for bringing the $10 million Ansari X Prize to fruition four years ago – also paid tribute to the science-fiction author he called his "friend and mentor."

"He told me something once that I thought was incredibly valuable. He said, 'Peter, there are three phases of a good idea. The first phase is, people tell you it's a crazy idea, it'll never work. The next phase is, they say, it might work but it's not worth doing. And the third phase is when people tell you, "I told you that was a great idea all along."'

"The X Prize has definitely gone through those three phases, and I think of Arthur every time I talk about that. I'm thankful for his support ... and also for his absolute passion regarding the need of the human race to evolve beyond the earth."

Clarke must have loved thinking in threes: In addition to the three phases of a good idea, he came up with Clarke's Three Laws of Prediction, and passed along three wishes for his 90th birthday last December. He also expressed these three wishes for the next 50 years in an interview with Saswato Das for IEEE Spectrum:

1. A method to generate limitless quantities of clean energy.

2. Affordable and reliable means of space transport.

3. Eliminating the design faults in the human body

It sounds as if the X Prize agenda is on the right track to help those three wishes come true.

By the way, IEEE Spectrum has brought forth Clarke's "last interview," conducted by Das in January at the author's hospital bedside. Check out the article as well as the companion podcast for Clarke's final thoughts on building the space elevator, terraforming Mars and looking for E.T.