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Last Updated: Friday, 15 October, 2004, 08:00 GMT 09:00 UK
X-Prize for world's 'holy grails'
By Jo Twist
BBC News Online science and technology staff

First solid-state white light-emitting device using quantum dots (Image: Sandia National Laboratories)
Bright sparks called to submit "big ideas" for global problems
A series of X-Prizes for the scientific or technological breakthroughs that tackle the most important challenges facing humans are being planned.

The World Technology Network (WTN) and X-Prize Foundation are asking the public to help them decide on bids.

The multi-million dollar prizes intend to emulate the space X-Prize, which kick-started private space tourism.

Although currently at the planning stage, it is hoped the prizes would be won in the next five to 10 years.

"The basic idea is that the X-Prize for spaceflight taught or reaffirmed some previous lessons about how to jump-start fields and focus people around certain technological challenges," James Clark, WTN chairman, told BBC News Online.

Holy grails

Mr Clark said the time was ripe for the prizes and some big ideas to solve the major problems facing humanity.

"There are so many breakthroughs in the fundamental tools that could dramatically expand our ambitions as a civilisation of what we could be reaching for."

With help from the six-month public consultation, the categories and competition process for the WTN X-Prizes will be finalised.

Starving Ethiopian child
Medical: cure for cancer or other major diseases
Technological: artificial intelligence, teleportation, molecular assemblers (true nanotechnology), cold fusion, believable virtual reality system
Global: UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) announced at the UN in 2000 at the Millennium Summit
Source: WTN X-Prizes
The submissions are likely to centre around some major "holy grails" in health, information and communications technologies, alternative energies and the environment, and material sciences, including nanotechnology.

"We are doing this not only because other people will have better ideas than we will, but what better way to choose something that could change the world than for asking for public submissions.

"The outcome would be owned by the world and the public," said Mr Clark.

In the three days after the prizes were announced last week, there were already hundreds of submissions, said Mr Clark.

So far, they have ranged from new forms of transportation to cures for paralysis and neurological diseases, and solving world starvation.

Doing it anyway

Well aware that thousands already spend years and billions researching such big challenges, Mr Clark stressed that the idea of the ambitious prizes was to focus global efforts.

The prize amount has not been decided on yet, but it would be in the "tens of millions" he said. It is expected that private organisations will step up to boost the funds available.

The idea was hatched between Mr Clark and Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X-Prize Foundation.

"The idea we could pair the model for spaceflight with our understanding in other areas to meet larger social and environmental or technological challenges seemed like a match made in heaven," said Mr Clark

SpaceShipOne's view form space
The prizes take their lead from the space X-Prize
The $10m Ansari X-Prize was won on 4 October by Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne, which flew above 100km to space and back twice inside two weeks.

The monetary value of the prize was not the goal, as the SpaceShipOne project was backed by Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Paul Allen.

He is believed to have put more than $20m into the project. What it did was focus efforts on developing the technology that would take a private, piloted spacecraft into space and back.

Virgin tycoon Sir Richard Branson has now ordered five, five-passenger spaceliners based on SpaceShipOne's design and technology.

"If a goal becomes a goal that people can agree is compelling, that act of focus is itself an accelerator in achieving the goal," said Mr Clark.

He explained: "Burt Rutan would have done what he did without the money prize - sometimes it is the focus of the challenge."

'Sufficiently ambitious'

The website where ideas can be submitted lays out the details of the kinds of submissions it is looking for, from academic, corporate researchers or individuals.

It admits the task of finding science and technology's holy grails are not that simple, stressing that proposals must have a good chance of succeeding within a reasonable timescale.

A buckminsterfullerene, a spherical cage of carbon atoms (Image: SPL)
Nanotechnology is offering a wealth of opportunities
The idea for the WTN X-Prizes was announced at the WTN's global summit in San Francisco last week.

The WTN is a meeting point and virtual think-tank made up of hundreds of global individual and corporate researchers, organisations and businesses, working on every aspect of science and technology innovation.

Each year, new members are peer-selected and are awarded prizes for their achievements. This year, winners included Skype, the voice-over-IP service.

Other winning highlights included the prototype of an artificial silicon retina which contains a microchip powered only by light.

It is two millimetres in diameter, it is thinner than a human hair, and contains 5,000 solar cells or "microphotodiodes".

It is intended to help people with retinitis pigmentosa which affects 1.5 million people worldwide, many of them children and young adults.

Burt Rutan won the individual space achievement prize, and the UK's Surrey Satellite Technology won the corporate space prize.

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20 Aug 04  |  Science/Nature
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02 Jul 04  |  Science/Nature

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