Tuesday, September 9, 2014

This Seems Like A Stupidly Low Prize

The Palo Alto Longevity Prize is one of your X-Prize-style competitions, and I'm always a big fan of these. Take a big scientific question, stick a cash prize next to the solution and tell anyone who's interested and thinks they're good enough to go chase it. And the questions don't get all that much bigger than this: ending the aging process. It just launched today, calling for registration to enter the competition.

There are actually two prizes on offer, each offering half the prize money. According to the official website, the first prize will go to "the first team to demonstrate that it can restore homeostatic capacity (using heart rate variability as the surrogate measure) of an aging reference mammal to that of a young adult." AKA, restoring the youth of a mammal. The second prize will go to "the first team that can extend the lifespan of its reference mammal by 50% of acceptable published norms. Demonstration must use an approach that restores homeostatic capacity to increase lifespan." The global average for humans in 2010 was 70 years in 2012, according to the WHO, so if you're picking humans as your 'reference mammal', to win the money you'd have to run that average up by 35 more years, creating a 105-year global life expectancy. That's for everybody from Japan to Afghanistan.

The goal is fine, if you opt to ignore the overpopulation concerns. The prize money on offer, though: $1 million. Total.

For reference, 39 days on an island voting off a peer group also wins you $1 million, as does sitting in a chair and correctly answering 15 trivia questions, or any number of other game show and reality show feats past, present and future. In fact, as far as X-Prize-style competitions go, $1 million is barely enough to ante up to the bar. To stay with the game show analogy, this is kind of like offering $10,000 as the top prize. Enough to not feel completely chintzy, but there are all sorts of shows able to do better than that.

To illustrate what I'm talking about here, look at the bona fide X-Prize competitions and the money they're putting up. $10 million cash pools that litter the site. $10 million for private space travel. $10 million to build a tricorder. $10 million for 100 mpg cars. A $10 million prize for cracking 100 human genomes for under $10,000 per genome was cancelled when the organizers found that companies were routinely cracking them in a few days for under half that amount and the prize wasn't actually serving as much of an incentive. Lower down the scale, it's $2.25 million for digital healthcare. $2 million for work on ocean acidification. $1.4 million for cleaning up oil spills. The top prize on the site is $20 million, which is being put up for a robot that can go to the moon, move 500 meters once there, and send back HDTV broadcasts.

$1 million no longer looks like that big a prize, and it's being put towards the biggest question of the lot. But money never really was fair like that.

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