Sci-Fi-lanthropy: When Giving Boldly Goes Where No One Has Gone Before

Searching for aliens. Resisting robot overlords. Turning back the hands of time. Some philanthropic endeavors are so starry-eyed (or apocalyptic) that they seem lifted from the pages of science fiction. Behold the moonshots of philanthropy.  

There’s a lot of debate these days about how to do the most good possible through philanthropic giving, with many pushing for a focus on tangible causes with measurable results. 

But there’s another kind of philanthropy that sets its sights about as high as you could imagine, taking on the loftiest issues on the planet (sometimes in the universe). These projects are huge, audacious ideas. They also represent one of the great things about philanthropy, science philanthropy in particular—that one person or a group of people can take on an issue that, at least with government dollars, is just too out there. Here are some of the biggest:

1. Elon Musk’s Robopocalypse Resistance

I have a feeling that if you asked Elon Musk about any of his endeavors, philanthropic or business, he would say all of it is completely reasonable. But to an outsider, his interests can be mystifying. Musk’s concerns about AI, for example, can come off as borderline paranoid, but he insists they are deeply rooted in reality. 

In a recently published biography, he expresses his fear that close friend Larry Page may be “building a fleet of artificial-intelligence-enhanced robots capable of destroying mankind,” and that Page is a well-intentioned person who “could produce something evil by accident.”

And he is deadly serious. So much so, that this year, Musk gave $10 million to the Future of Life Institute for a research program dedicated to keeping AI safe and beneficial to humanity. The institute just made a round of grants with the funding, $7 million to projects like “How to Build Ethics into Robust Artificial Intelligence,” and “Lethal Autonomous Weapons, Artificial Intelligence and Meaningful Human Control.”

Nothing has been written about this without a Terminator reference, but the institute is actually trying to move away from the comparisons, concerned that it trivializes the issue. Maybe they would prefer Westworld.

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2. Yuri Milner’s Hunt for Alien Life 

The Russian billionaire’s $100 million dollar starting commitment to fund the search for extraterrestrial life is a prime example of how sci-fi-sounding ideas can be perfect opportunities for philanthropists. 

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence, SETI, has been going on for decades and has struggled for funding for almost as long. Facilities, salaries, and observing time with the most powerful telescopes available are all dreadfully expensive. And what better target for budget hawks than something they can dismiss with a dumb E.T. joke?

But for Milner, and scientists like Stephen Hawking who have his back, listening for signs of life beyond Earth is something we must never stop doing. “There is no bigger question,” as Hawking put it. So Milner swooped in like S.R. Hadden in Carl Sagan’s Contact.

The tech investor has committed at least $100 million for 10 years, plus a $1 million contest to craft messages for alien life. This is part of an ever-expanding science portfolio for Milner, an offshoot of his Breakthrough Prize Foundation, which funds the world’s richest science awards.

The funding will cover 10 times more of the sky than previous searches, looking at the 1 billion stars closest to Earth and 100 galaxies beyond our own. What happens after 10 years? Milner told Time: “I’ll fund it for another 10 years. This thing can go on forever. It’s our responsibility as human beings to keep looking for a signal.”

Related: Some Takeaways From This Year's Richest Science Awards

3. Tech Philanthropists Determined to Beat Death

We all know taxes are negotiable, so that just leaves death. Cheating or at least slowing death is something of an obsession among tech entrepreneurs. The Washington Post ran a feature earlier this year profiling some of the Silicon Valley titans sinking tons of funds into conquering the Grim Reaper (although to be fair, some mentioned are funding what you might consider standard biomedical research).

Among the leading contenders, there’s Larry Ellison, who has said that he wants to live forever, and that death never really made sense to him. Ellison’s giving has been in a strange limbo lately, with his foundation apparently killing certain streams of funding. But in the past, he’s given more than $430 million to anti-aging research.  

Peter Thiel is another tycoon uninterested in shuffling off this mortal coil. In Sonia Arrison’s book 100 Plus, he’s quoted as saying, “The great unfinished task of the modern world is to turn death from a fact of life into a problem to be solved — a problem towards whose solution I hope to contribute in whatever way I can.”

Thiel funds a great deal of research, and he’s been a supporter of biologist Cynthia Kenyon and computer scientist Aubrey de Grey, two leading minds in the work to slow the process of aging. 

Spending a fortune to live longer is a real megalomaniacal-rich-guy cliche. As Bill Gates once said in a Reddit AMA, “It seems pretty egocentric while we still have malaria and TB for rich people to fund things so they can live longer.”

Gates highlights this tension between what different people may perceive as a pragmatic, or at least admirable cause. After all, humans are already living longer, and the United States in particular has an aging population of boomers. It may be driven by ego, but a lot of this research boils down to relieving suffering. 

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4. Peter Thiel’s Far-Out Research Fund

Thiel made this list twice, because aside from his death-defying philanthropy, he’s one of the most outspoken donors seeking more revolutionary tech advances. (He coined that now-famous tagline, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”) 

Thiel is a big sci-fi fan. He’s been called an Ayn Rand libertarian, an Asimovian, a futurist, a contrarian. He has a relentless belief that accelerating scientific progress can solve society’s biggest problems, even things like stagnant incomes and wealth inequality. We’re talking about the shiny Tomorrowland kind of sci-fi in Thiel’s philanthropy.

This is best seen in Breakout Labs, a unique philanthropic program that supports startup companies pursuing radical ideas in science. 

Breakout currently funds 16 companies working on some pretty wild stuff. Much of it is in biomedicine, including synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and cryopreservation. One startup is trying to produce carbon-free energy using the process that forms tornadoes (including a 200-foot-tall prototype vortex). Another is developing a tissue engineering process to grow synthetic meat and leather with no animal slaughter required. And it supports a variety of disease treatments, including one company using a patient’s stem cells to “grow your own bone.”

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5. The XPrize Foundation

Pretty much everyone is familiar with the XPrize these days, although it’s grown into a whole suite of prizes, beyond its most famous private spacecraft development competition. 

The foundation behind the competitions has an all-star list of board members and donors, including James Cameron, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Elon Musk, Wendy Schmidt, Ray Kurzweil (the Singularity guy), and many others. They’ve also picked up a number of corporate partners, such as Google and Motorola, many of which sponsor their own prizes. 

Most of the competitions are entirely ripped from science fiction, including Google’s Lunar Prize, the Tricorder Prize to create the handheld health scanner from Star Trek, and Wendy Schmidt’s challenges to combat ocean acidification and oil spills.  

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These are some of the most forward-looking philanthropic causes in the works, but there are actually quite a few more out there. There’s Richard Branson’s geoengineering contest, which he’s been running since 2007. We’ve written a lot about the Templeton Foundation’s Big Questions approach to giving, which focuses on weighty concepts facing humanity. And many privately funded research programs generally opt to fund the risker stuff, knowing that the NSF won’t. 

One fascinating aspect about this kind of philanthropy is how a lot of it flies in the face of the current trend toward tangible results, most prominently in the effective altruism movement. Yuri Milner, for example, is willing to potentially spend tens of millions over decades, even if researchers don’t hear a single peep from the cosmos. You can imagine how that funding could be spent on preventable disease, for example.

But there’s an intangible value here in something that philanthropists are uniquely positioned to do—speculate. Not only does it often result in tangible "spinoff" innovations, but there's intrinsic importance to investigating big, weird ideas. Especially when federal funding programs are increasingly unwilling to gamble, philanthropists can.