THOMAS KALIL: So rather than saying, what is technology going to do to us, how will the world be different, we should be asking the question, where do we want to be, and how do we marshal the best of the public and private sectors to in order to achieve those goals? So we have more organizations that are both capable of pursuing really ambitious goals and interested in doing so.
ALEX ROSENBERG: Tom, thank you for joining us today.
THOMAS KALIL: Happy to be here.
ALEX ROSENBERG: So you are interested in moonshots. Maybe tell us what you mean by that and how you developed this interest.
THOMAS KALIL: Sure, yeah, so by moonshot, I mean a really ambitious but achievable goal that will require science and technology to achieve. So the canonical example of this is President Kennedy in the early 1960s saying, by the end of the decade, we want to put men on the moon and have them safely returned by the end of the decade. So that's a sort of a canonical example of a moonshot.
Other more recent examples are the Human Genome Project, where the goal was not only to be able to sequence the entire genome but to drive down the cost of doing that from $100 million dollars to $1,000. And we also have the private sector pursuing some of these moonshots as well. So it's not just the government. So Elon Musk, for example, has said I want to die on Mars but not on impact. So his goal is making humanity a multi-planetary species.
ALEX ROSENBERG: And how did you come to interest? Tell us a little bit about your career.
THOMAS KALIL: Sure, yeah, so I played an important role in science and technology policy for both President Clinton and President Obama. And the government is important for making long-term investments in research and development. So for example, the government started investing in something called the ARPANET in 1969 which later became the internet. And so I played a role in different organizations in the White House, the National Economic Council and the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
And so one of the questions I was interested in is, in the same way that Kennedy said, let's put astronauts on the moon, what are the similarly ambitious goals that we should be setting in the 21st century. So one example of that is that a group of researchers came up with an idea for dramatically increasing our understanding of how the brain encodes and processes information.
ALEX ROSENBERG: And you're currently chief innovation officer at an organization called Schmidt Futures. What's that all about?
THOMAS KALIL: Sure. It's a philanthropic organization created by Erik and Wendy Schmidt. Erik, as you know, is the former CEO of Google. And this is one of the projects that I'm working on that is identifying 21st century moonshots that philanthropists can support.
ALEX ROSENBERG: So let's talk about some of those. What are some of the more interesting initiatives that you've seen?
THOMAS KALIL: Yeah so why don't I talk about some that I was involved in in the public sector and then some that I'm seeing today?
ALEX ROSENBERG: Great.
THOMAS KALIL: So when the Ebola outbreak occurred in 2014, I was able to get some additional funding for a project supported by DARPA, which is the agency that created the internet, that is aimed at dramatically reducing the time necessary to go from bug to drug. So currently, it take it can take up to 10 years to develop a vaccine. So if you have an emerging infectious disease, that's way too long. And DARPA was trying to figure out, could we dramatically reduce the time required to do that. So with the additional funding that I was able to get for them, they've been able to develop a therapy for Ebola that can reduce mortality from that disease by up to 90%.
I was also involved in something called the Brain Initiative, which is trying to do for neuroscience what the Genome Project did for genetics, to dramatically increase our understanding of how the brain encodes and processes information.
ALEX ROSENBERG: And from your perspective, how do you decide what kind of projects are worth pursuing? Like when it comes to the Brain Project and when it comes to vaccines, it's dealing with two very different types of issues.
THOMAS KALIL: Yeah, so part of it is, is there a compelling why now story? Has something changed about the world that leads us to believe that what might have been impossible 10 years ago is now possible?
So for example, if I said, wouldn't it be cool if we could teleported, it certainly would be. But we have no earthly idea about how to do that. And so launching a project on teleportation is certainly premature right now.
But in the case of this vaccine effort, there was a new scientific idea about how we could dramatically reduce the time necessary to go from bug to drug. And that's what made it exciting and worth supporting.
ALEX ROSENBERG: So what is it about the present that leads to the creation of these moonshots? Is there something that's happened recently? Is the proliferation the internet has allowed a lot of technology, or is it just it's always been there?
THOMAS KALIL: So obviously, we've done this in the past, with the Apollo Project being a great example of that. But number one, we have more philanthropists who I think are capable of playing a role in identifying and pursuing moonshots. We have companies doing this.
So Google, one of their divisions is called X. And they work on private sector moonshots. They want to dramatically reduce the mortality associated with traffic accidents with self-driving cars.
We also see universities doing this. So UCLA has decided to pursue two moonshots, one to make the LA region 100% sustainable by 2050 as measured by biodiversity, water use, and energy use. And they also have another one about reducing the burden of disease associated with depression by at least 50%. So we have more organizations that are both capable of pursuing really ambitious goals and interested in doing so.
ALEX ROSENBERG: So based on your vantage point, what are some of the ways that the world will be different in 20 years than it is now, maybe in ways that people haven't anticipated yet based on some of these big projects that all these different organizations are working on?
THOMAS KALIL: Sure. So I think one way to reframe that question is not what will it be like, because that assumes kind of a passive role for people. Instead, I think the question is, what would we'd like it to look like. And then what would we need to do to achieve those goals?
So for example, we would like not to leave a planet that has been totally trashed for our children and our grandchildren. So I believe, for example, that is going to not only require that we develop low-carbon or carbon-neutral technologies but that we actually develop carbon negative technologies, that is imagine building materials where the way in which you make them allows us to store additional carbon dioxide, like cement, that type of thing.
Another thing we'd like to do is have more people realize that the American dream, which is every generation does better than the previous generation. So one of the goals that we've been pursuing is the idea of a unicorn for the middle class. I live in Silicon Valley. And the status symbol there is a startup with a market cap of a billion dollars. What if we could increase the income of $100,000 non-college educated workers by at least $10,000 by reducing the time necessary to give them a skill that is a ticket to the middle class using advanced training technology?
So rather than saying, what is technology going to do to us, how will the world be different, we should be asking the question, where do we want to be. And how do we marshal the best of the public and private sectors in order to achieve those goals.
ALEX ROSENBERG: And let's talk about the public versus private thing, because that's interesting. You mentioned that it's not the government-- you could argue that the government is hardly working on any moonshots, right now at least. Just from a policy perspective, is it a good thing for companies to be going out and trying to shape the world in their own image and in ways that are helpful for them?
You take the Facebook initiative to create Wi-Fi for people. They're creating it so that they can get people on Facebook, which arguably doesn't do a lot of social good. I don't want to opine on Facebook's good.
THOMAS KALIL: Sure.
ALEX ROSENBERG: But it seems like the shift toward private and even, frankly, toward universities working on moonshots rather than people that are democratically elected, it seems like it reshapes the world in a way that's not necessarily positive.
THOMAS KALIL: I think there's actually a role for both. And let me give you one example about how you can have both the public and private sector working together. So left to their own devices, drug companies will not work on vaccines for diseases of the poor, because poor people have no money.
So if you're the CFO of a drug company, you're not going to say, hey, let's invest in vaccines for poor people. So what governments did was they went to the pharmaceutical industry and said, hey, look, if you develop a vaccine for this particular disease which is safe and effective, then we promise that we will purchase X million doses at $7 a dose. And that accelerated the development of a vaccine that is going to save the lives of millions of low-income children in developing countries.
So you have the government essentially creating the market, saying if you develop a vaccine, which is safe and effective, then we'll purchase it, leveraging the capability of the private sector to develop and manufacture new vaccines. So I don't think you have to choose. But I do think you have to be aware when the private sector doesn't have an incentive to solve a problem.
So for example , the economic cost of living in a post-penicillin world could be $100 trillion between now and 2050. And yet companies don't want to work on new antibiotics, because, from their point of view, it's not all that profitable. We'd like to have them develop new antibiotics and then not use them so that we have them available. So if their revenue model is based on number of pills sold times price per pill, that's not going to work for them.
So we have to be aware of the fact, when we need something, it may have a high social payoff and a low private payoff. And that's what economists call a market failure. The market doesn't work. And in those instances, the government has to intervene to create the incentives for universities and companies and nonprofits to solve those problems.
ALEX ROSENBERG: Sure. I guess to me, there's a difference between the government contract-- having a moonshot like let's solve these problems, let let's stop people from dying from diarrhea or something like that and contracting with private companies who have the capability to do it. It's really not too different from the government hiring its own employees to do it in that respect
I guess what I'm asking about is moonshots that come from the corporate sector. For instance, this is a really dark example. But the growth of opioids is, in a way, you could see it as a moonshot, that some pharmaceutical companies were like, I wonder if we can get millions and millions of Americans addicted to opioids. And they were successful in that.
And I think when you look at some of what certain tech companies are doing, I just wonder if it's really a good thing to have private companies pursuing these massive initiatives to change the world.
THOMAS KALIL: Yeah, so I think that the opioid example-- or let's just take the fossil fuel industry.
ALEX ROSENBERG: Sure.
THOMAS KALIL: Right? So at one level, the development of low-cost affordable fossil fuels was great for economic growth and job creation in the 19th and 20th century. But we now know that it's a disaster for the planet. And we have to accelerate the development of carbon-neutral and even carbon-negative energy technologies.
So clearly, there are instances where the private sector develops something that has all of these what economists call negative externalities. And we have to figure out, either through policy or through regulation, how to accelerate the transition to an economy that will not only create jobs but will lead to sustainability and leaving the planet in good shape for our children and our grandchildren.
ALEX ROSENBERG: Yeah, it's interesting, because there has been-- and it's not just me. I think there's been sort of a shift maybe in the past two or three years from being really excited about moonshots to people really turning the other way on moonshots. I think self-driving cars, the ideas about self-driving cars have become massively different in the mainstream. And even, I think, some of the recent scandals around Facebook and Google, I think it's--
I guess I'm curious what you see in terms of, are people who were once very excited about all the new ways the world was being changed, it seems like we've seen a massive movement the other way, to say hold on, the world is changing too fast. And we the people are losing control over the changes that are being affected.
THOMAS KALIL: Yeah, so I think that it is clearly the case that there needs to be a role for the public sector, both to prevent things that the private sector is doing that are harmful. And I think the opiate crisis is a great example of that. It was certainly good for corporate profits in the short run to over-utilize opioids. And so I think that the actions that law enforcement at the state level is taking is totally appropriate.
And I think that there are examples of problems that are really important that, left to their own devices, the private sector will not solve for us. So you need a public sector that is capable of addressing these types of market failures, both when the private sector does things that involve negative externalities, like burning fossil fuels, and when there are innovations that we need that have high social returns but low private returns, like new antibiotics, because if we don't--
Let's take antibiotics. If we don't do anything, then the number of fatalities from antibiotic-resistant bacteria is going to rise from half a million a year today, which is where it is as of this year to, 10 million in the future. And we know that, given the current incentives, the private sector will not solve this problem on their own. So that's why we do need a strong public sector to be able to articulate what is in the public interest.
ALEX ROSENBERG: And what are you seeing in terms of generational differences, especially with problems that really come to roost 20 years or 50 years or 70, 80 years out? What are you noticing in terms of the way different generations think of those problems and the way, in your opinion, they ought to think of those problems differently perhaps?
THOMAS KALIL: Yeah, so I think that there is a real thirst for working on these types of problems that involve tackling major challenges that we face both at home and abroad. So when I was at UC Berkeley, I started this program called Big Ideas at Berkeley. And the premise of that program was students have ideas of their own. And they're really interested in working on hard problems.
So I gave a group of students the whopping sum of $3,000. They used that to pass a student fee referendum to green the campus that generated $1.7 million. And then the principal undergraduate organizer was able to get a fellowship and help another 10 campuses launch something similar.
So the idea would be to allow students to major in a discipline but minor in a problem. So they might get an engineering undergraduate degree but really study the problem of safe drinking water and understand not only the technology but the sort of economics and marketing that would be required to develop a successful solution.
One of the programs that we have at Schmidt Futures is recruiting young computer scientists who have recently gotten either an undergraduate or master's degree in computer science. And they're working on some really hard important societal problem. So an example of this is, how can technology play a role in reducing the word gap. By the time kids are four years old, low-income kids have been exposed to 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers. So we'd like to develop technology that helps reduce that gap.
ALEX ROSENBERG: Interesting. Well, Tom, thank you for joining us today on Real Vision.
THOMAS KALIL: Thank you.