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Frankly, I'd rather he leave it to Bill Gates.

Going to Mars may be sexy, but stomping out Polio makes millions of lives better.

Its hard to realize that, I suppose, when your life is in the bubble of a limo. That's honestly what makes Bill Gates second act so amazing.

The stated reason for going to Mars is to create a backup population for humanity. If a major asteroid impacts earth (or any other Extinction Level Event) then potentially every human will be as dead as those killed by Polio.

Okay, putting on my astronomer hat:

The asteroid was the root cause of the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event. The direct cause was ecological collapse.

To oversimplify things a bit, the impact event kicked up enough pollution to undercut the food chain by starving out anything that relied on photosynthesis, which starved out the herbivores, which starved out the carnivores and omnivores.

Typical asteroids are not large enough to wipe out all human life in one go. A large impact could kill billions between direct fatalities and follow-on deaths via starvation and plagues, but your survivor population would still easily exceed anything we can sustainably place on Mars (or any other extraterrestrial location) within the next few hundred years.

Even if it completely refactored modern civilization, you'd probably see some population capable of organizing and recovering a sustainable society. And that is with mass starvation, with plagues due to loss of sanitation infrastructure, with conventional farming being disrupted for years, and with the assumption that some idiot decides it's time for a preemptive nuclear war.

Furthermore, any sustainable Martian colony you could produce could equally well be isolated in a hardened bunker on Earth, if surviving a large asteroid impact were the only concern.

To wipe out all humanity with one impact, you would need to hit the Earth with something in a slightly larger class - say, the Moon.

"To wipe out all humanity with one impact, you would need to hit the Earth with something in a slightly larger class - say, the Moon"

No, if an object as large as the moon hit the earth - the earth might even be destroyed (but probably not). To wipe out humanity a body of the size between 10-100 miles in diameter would probably suffice. Fortunately near-earth orbits with a body of that size is rare.

What I would like to know is what kind of event do you imagine happening (beside practically completely obliterating Earth) that would make Mars more hospitable than post-apocalypse Earth?

I'd imagine polluted water and air with still some flora and fauna would still be better than none of those things.

I'm not sure what the point of your argument is, but this strikes me as short-sighted reasoning. Going to Mars is just the first step. It's about making (human) life multiplanetary. It's a long term game and extends beyond the solar system, and this is how it starts. (Let's just hope we don't kill ourselves before this happen).

Going to mars is pretty much pointless before we figure a way to terraform the deserts we already have on Earth. There is no more natural ressources on mars than in the middle of the Saharah or Gobi, and the climate is way worst (not even talking about the atmosphere). So why go to mars if we already have unused lands on Earth?

Start by building a self-sustaining base in the middle of the desert. If you manage to do that you'll be improving the life on Earth for a lot of human being. When all deserts, including Antartica are terraformed, colonized, and we run out of space on Earth, then maybe we can feel the need to colonize mars.

Before than, it's just dreaming about living in a sci-fi movie.

I'm just paraphrasing Musk's vision. It's not a dream; he's actively working on getting to Mars within the next decade or so. People seem to forget their history. It wasn't that long ago America was (re-)discovered. I'm puzzled why people - especially HNers - don't understand the significance of working on this.

No one has said there aren't other things worth working on. And maybe they are more important short-term (even Musk has admitted this much). So: by all means, go forth and work on them!

I think what rubs me the wrong way about this is giving it to a for-profit enterprise.

If Elon is willing to step down and run a non-profit to get to Mars, I'm all for it. But I suspect he isn't willing to do that. This is about profit - which isn't bad - but its not charity and therefore is very unlikely in the end to help the bottom 10%.

Nobody on earth is rich enough to get the bottom 10% out of poverty.

700,000,000 (bottom 10%) divide Bill Gate's net worth (70 billion) and they will all get $100 each.

The only way to improve the lives of the poor is through capitalism. We've seen this in China: "Between 1981 and 2008 ... 600 million people were taken out of poverty." [1] The profit motive is an incredible force.

Btw, I say this as a huge fan of Gate's charity.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poverty_in_China

False dichotomy. Those aren't the only two choices.

Nobody's suggesting we get rid of capitalism. But effective participation in capitalism requires quite a lot that capitalism itself isn't good at providing. Government, for example. Freelance government, like warlords and mob bosses, isn't great for economic development. Good parenting and a stable home life are not things that capitalism is producing a lot of. Education and public health have very long payback times and difficult-to-capture benefits, making the ROI pretty low. That's made worse by people using capitalism's mechanisms to profit from destroying value, and a very short-term focus driven by public markets' focus on the next quarter's earnings.

As an example of what a more subtle approach gives you, look at Brazil's Bolsa Familia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bolsa_Fam%C3%ADlia

They are basically giving money to the poor: $13 per month per kid who stays vaccinated and in school. Studies suggest it's having a substantial impact on poverty and inequality. So yes, giving modest amounts of money (0.5% of Brazil's GDP) can reduce poverty because helps recipients to prepare themselves to participate effectively in a free-market economy.

One clarification: What I wrote could be read as suggesting that education and public health have a low ROI. That's true for VCs. But it's false for society as a whole: having an educated, healthy populace is excellent for wealth production. It makes sense for governments to invest heavily in that because government can easily capture some of that created value just by taxing everybody. Which they are already doing.

If you know of an approach that succeeds 100% of the time, I look forward to hearing about it. But choosing North Korea as your counterexample in opposition to modest government investment in long-term poverty reduction/capital creation efforts like education and health care is a ridiculous straw man. No statistics are available, but they surely must be one of the worst.

> Nobody's suggesting we get rid of capitalism.

With all due respect, speak for yourself.

>> "Nobody on earth is rich enough to get the bottom 10% out of poverty."

Nobody is proposing just giving out money to help poor people. You do what Gates is doing. Target specific problems. If you read his annual letter this year (if you haven't it's worth it) he makes the point that by preventing death through things like Malaria, Polio etc. there are several knock on effects. Less children will die and if you can educate them you have more people to push the economy forward. Families will also reduce in size (people will have less children as the ones they have are less likely to die) and the problem of over population will be improved. I think these are some things that neither money alone nor capitalism can solve but if we can solve the underlying problems as Gates is doing capitalism can take over.

So, I was never good at (or interested in) economy.

What I don't understand is where this 'wealth' is coming from. You say no one can provide it now. But it's seemingly coming out of thin air (your chinese example: What happened? The people are the same. Resources are probably comparable. Building an iPhone in CN generates money .. how?).

The whole big picture, macroscopic view never made sense for me. The 'click' is missing. It seems that this wealth is more or less as arbitrary as shares (look to me).

In an agrarian society most people are working on small plots of land growing food and/tending animals. Their labor combined with the natural resources is enough to create food for their families and a little bit left over. They take that little bit left over and trade it to a guy that makes clothing, and a guy that makes tools. All the goods and services in the whole country don't amount to all that much -- enough food to feed everyone plus some clothes and tools.

Now move to the industrial agricultural age. The same food (better really) that it used to take 90% of the labor of the country to grow now can be done by 5% of the people. Instead of having only enough surplus to support a few guys making clothing or building tools, most of society can go off and find things to do with their time to trade to the farmers for food and to each other for whatever everyone else is doing. Now all the good and services of the country not only include a wide variety of food, clothing, and tools, but it also includes concerts, amusement parks, computers, dishwashers -- all of which can be traded for the very same bushels of corn or herds of cattle that the agrarian society was producing.

All of this is very simplified but it should give you the basic idea. Bill Gates can give the global poor money and they can use that to import goods and services made elsewhere, but that's just a temporary change. If you really want the societies to be richer, you need the people in that society to be doing things with their time that are of great value to others. That's what increases the total amount of wealth in the world.

Think of life and humans as a chemical reaction, like fire.

We consume and process things to make other things.

A tree by itself has limited value to a human, but if you process it into a house, it has a lot more value to a human.

Lets say you need 100 trees to make a house. 100 trees is worth $10,000.

A person with the job of chopping trees (a lumberjack) can cut down 300 a year, so they make $30,000 a year in income. Lets say the lumberjack wants to buy a house.

A house is worth $20,000 to him. He pays a firm to build him a house for $20,000. The firm buys 100 trees from someone for $10,000 and then turns them into a house for the lumberjack. That extra $10,000 they received is called "value add". They added value because humans (the employees of the firm) had to turn the wood into a house.

This is what the economy basically is, and you can be in two roles:

1: The resource extractor

2: The resource processor

Or in other words, you can be the wood or the flame.

How to do you make a big fire?

Get more and better resources (like wood and air)

Start fires in more places than one (parallel processing of the wood)

Start hotter fires (blowtorch vs a match)

Pretty much all of the above is controlled by laws and policy of the government. The citizenry are like the flame - they have innate, unfaltering properties. It is the role of the government (the person trying to build a big fire) to know these properties of the citizenry, and setup the right conditions so they burn their brightest.

You can think of wealth as "total stuff+useful services produced" which is approximately the same as "total stuff+useful services consumed".

First, you can go from idleness to producing - if I sit on my ass I produce no wealth; if I assemble an iPhone then I create wealth since an iPhone is more useful&valuable than the unassembled components. Second, you can have great differences of production efficiency. You can make the exact same people with the same effort generate order(s) of magnitude more wealth per year by making different products, making the same products more efficiently, or combining people with capital(=machinery, automation, economies of scale). Third, trade generally creates wealth as such. There are classic examples, but the sense is that re-distributing tasks to the places where they're done relatively more efficiently allows both parties to have much more goods&services than if they'd be isolated and didn't trade.

The point is that there can be huge differences of how much wealth a person is generating, and those differences form the differences in national wealth. Simply "giving people fishes" to go on the same way doesn't generate wealth. "Teaching the people to fish" does generate wealth.

And there are two exceptions, where charity is key - first, if people are starving, then feeding them allows them to keep their means of future wealth generation, instead of eating their seeds and milkable animals, and selling their tools. And second, if you "give a fish" to kids&young adults, then that enables them to "learn fishing" and generate more wealth in the future instead of being stuck in ineffective menial jobs (that don't generate much wealth for them nor their employers) from early childhood till death.

Say you live on an island without much technology. Everybody on the island farms manually, but everyone is still hungry because they can't grow enough. Then one day somebody invents a tractor. Now all of a sudden there is enough food for everyone to eat as much as they want. The island just got wealthier because technology increased their efficiency. This process is basically how the world gets wealthier, through increases in worker efficiency.

What I don't understand is where this 'wealth' is coming from.

Wealth is the result of

- Raw materials (natural resources)

- Capital (building the factories)

- Labor (running the factories)

- Technology (figuring out better ways of doing things

Obviously, technology is improving all the time. We're figuring out better ways of production, so that more can be created even with fewer of the other inputs.

Indeed, while we're stuck with pretty much the original set of raw materials, technology lets us figure out things to do with stuff that we never even realized was a raw material.

Capital is always building on itself. That is, given adequate maintenance, you have all the factories that you had last year. Plus you build new ones this year. So capacity is always increasing.

Labor is always increasing in two ways. First, the population of the world grows, so we've got more people to do the work. But more importantly, the more people we've got to divide the work amongst, the more each person can specialize. And the more each can specialize, the more efficiently he can work at it.

So all these factors work to bring greater wealth to the world.

The easiest way to see it is like this: Lets say you make chairs. Someone pays you 100$ for a chair. You make the chair with a small amount of materials, and sell it to the buyer for 100$.

At the start of this process, there was 100$ and maybe 5$ of materials. After the transaction, the 100$ is still there, but there is also a chair worth 100$ in circulation. So 105$ of assets turned into 200$.

Did those 600 million people work at all to be out of poverty or the invisible hand fed them? If they had to work to get out of poverty, I would imagine $100 would buy them enough meals, sleep, medicines to start looking for a job.

Non-profit status doesn't mean anything about an organization except that dividends are not paid to shareholders. E.g. it doesn't mean that executives don't pull down giant salaries or that sweetheart deals never transfer resources to outside parties. There are wonderful and terrible non-profit and for-profit organizations. It's better to judge an organization by its accomplishments than by its non-profit status.

Elon Musk risked $160M of his $160M fortune on SpaceX and Tesla (and Solar City). Most people with $160M do absolutely nothing with it of any consequence to humanity. If part of Musk's ambition is to turn his $160M into $160B I'm personally all for it. In the process of fulfilling his own ambitions he's pushing the entire race forward. The long term benefits of switching to renewable energy are be measured in trillions. Human investment in space travel will ultimately be more valuable than Earth itself.

The profit motive and capitalism have given the Western world the best life for the "bottom 10%" in the history of mankind.

Look at the Internet when it was "non profit". It sat there for years in universities and labs, availing the lower 10% not at all. When the profit-motive was allowed to explore the possibilities, the Internet exploded. Now the Internet is available fairly universally.

If it was about money Musk would have retired already. Tesla and SpaceX are both hugely risky endeavours. It is not unlikely that them being for profit makes them more likely to succeed in the long term.

No one invests in a non-profit. Investors want ROI and going to mars is pretty capital intensive.

EDIT: correct me if I am wrong, but YC doesn't expect to make a RIO with Watsi. They just want to make the world a better place. It is a donation not an investment. Most VCs are not that nice.

EDIT: EDIT: Found it: "Since some people were confused when we funded Watsi, I'd better clarify that the money we're putting into the nonprofits will be a charitable donation, rather than an investment in the narrow sense. We won't have any financial interest in them." Link here: http://ycombinator.com/np.html

Let me introduce you to people who want more than ROI: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impact_investing

There are a variety of ways you could structure things. A non-profit could take loans or sell bonds. I've heard talk of a pay-for-success model for public-good bonds. [1] The non-profit could create a for-profit subsidiary, like Mozilla does. A non-profit could enter into a joint venture (e.g., with an aerospace company).

I think the main barrier to approaches like this is attitudes like yours: for-profit people often have a hard time of steering by the public good. And, of course, the mirror attitude, where non-profit people are suspicious of anything that looks like capitalism. But there's no necessary conflict; the whole theory of capitalism is that companies are making the world better. And if you want to make the world better, the best way to do that is sustainably, and for-profit companies have done a lot of great thinking on how to stay in the black.

[1] http://nonprofitfinancefund.org/pay-for-success

Watsi is the first non-profit Y Combinator is backing.


Disclaimer: HUGE Watsi fan.

I disagree. We have had a bunch of significant investments in Akvo and we are non-profit. The investments aren't structured for maximum financial ROI, but maximum societal ROI. Nevertheless they are investments.


> No one invests in a non-profit.

I thought that was called a donation.

Y Combinator invests in non-profits.

And it's not like Page isn't interested in health: https://plus.google.com/+LarryPage/posts/Lh8SKC6sED1

In the context of this quote: "You’re working because you want to change the world and make it better; if the company you work for is worthy of your time, why not your money as well? We just don’t think about that. I’d like for us to help out more than we are."

His philosophy could make sense.

It's his money and he has every right to do as he wishes but I don't agree with this school of thought.

>"if the company you work for is worthy of your time, why not your money as well?"

Because you're being compensated for your time? Giving money to public companies is giving money to shareholders, not to a cause or an ideology. What's to stop a corporate raider from stirring up a revolt for disbursement of the cash/share buybacks?

He can be philanthropic AND support Musk, false equivalence on his part. Set up a foundation for a specific cause that invests in Tesla stock and has a defined budget for every year based on stock performance, dividends etc. I'd like to read his full comments but on face value it seems like a very silly thing to say.

Almost everything about the plan to go to Mars, especially about creating a "backup population" is uncertain. Compare that to the current, immediate suffering and lost potential that is caused by poverty and disease.

Polio is an occurrence with a probability of one, and a non-zero impact.

An catastrophic asteroid impact is a low daily probability, with an impact of up to one (one being complete wipeout of the human race).

I think it's a tossup which yields better happiness or productivity for humanity to address in the short run. In the extreme long run, of course, if you don't solve the second, there's little point solving the first issue.

The problem is a lack of resources - that resource being some collective focus of humankind, as there's no real physical resource limit preventing us from pursuing both at the moment.

Why Mars? The moon is nearer and no less hospitable (frankly they both suck).

Mars is a vanity project however he chooses to dress it up. An interesting vanity project sure but a vanity project all the same.

And personally I have no issue with that, I just wish he'd be honest. We didn't go to the moon the first time for any good reason, we did it because it was there. Governments can't afford to pay for the "because they're there" projects any more but if Musk, Page and co can then great but don't pretend it's for the good of humanity - "because it's there" is all the justification you need for something that amazing.

The cynic in me says we went to the moon because putting a man on the moon made real the capability of getting an ICBM to anywhere on the earth - both to ourselves and the rest of the world. The optimist in me hopes we can setup shop somewhere, anywhere off-planet without similar motivations prodding us.

As the probability of the asteroid problem is low short term we should tackle the poverty problem first. Then we will have more people to tackle the asteroid problem in the long run.

If number of people are not the limiting factor to working on both problems, why would one a) impose a condition to work on the problems in a sequential order, and b) prefer an order based on gaining more people first?

And there are other catastrophic events.

That's a bit of a negative way to look at it. I think in the end the goals don't have to be mutually exclusive. Elon Musk does what he does best, and Gates does his thing.

They're both great goals and I'm glad we live in a time when going to mars is something we can propose as a serious point of discussion, instead of being an unrealistic dream.

Some people may have said this before Polio vaccine was discovered:

"Almost everything about the plan to help Polio victims, especially about creating a "polio vaccine" is uncertain. Compare that to the current, immediate suffering and lost potential that is caused by poverty and disease."

See how this works?

Polio is a disease that that's causing immediate suffering and lost potential. And it was even more so before discovery of the vaccine, so I'm not sure what you're trying to say here.

The only specific alleviation that colonizing Mars yields is that people who don't want to live on Earth don't have to live on Earth.

There are some very good reasons to pursue the colonization of Mars, mostly in the form of advancing science. A backup population is not one of these good reasons.

One plan is long term, the other is short term. Both are needed.

Curing polio is a force multiplier that will probably help us get to Mars, in the form of more demand for satellites and space related industries, as well more inventors and scientists.

Colonizing Mars will be a force mulitpler as well, mostly through indirect technology benefit and ancillary space industries(asteroid mining). It probably won't impact the effort to cure polio but will probably increase our ability to cure other diseases.

The bizarre thing is, most extinction-level events (e.g. a large asteroid impact) would probably leave Earth still more hospitable than Mars to life as we know it. If we have the capability to survive in a climate so cold that there are CO2 avalanches, where there is practically no nitrogen or oxygen or readily available fuel and where the air is flooded with radiation equivalent to two chest X-rays every hour, what are we afraid of?

Forget Mars. Elon's best move would be to go "Dr. Strangelove": build a bunker and hire a harem.

There is something very ... problematic about the suggestion that ensuring the survival of the race is of greater importance than, or even of comparable importance to, prolonging and improving the lives of individual human beings, is there not?


If we ever reach a point where we are capable of establishing a permanent, self-sufficient colony on another planet, it's difficult to imagine that such a civilization would be unable to deal with any potential calamities on Earth itself.

What event could possibly make Earth less hospitable than Mars? Even assuming nuclear Armageddon or an extinction-level asteroid impact, you're still left with an environment much closer to habitability than what you would find on Mars.

It's really not just about "one backup colony" but rather the beginning of unlocking the abundance of the Solar System to improve (and move!) life, foremost because you think that when it comes to civilization you believe that the best days are still ahead of us.

> What event could possibly make Earth less hospitable than Mars?

If we reach such a point, lack of room on Earth might be a serious issue

Take the 7B people on Earth, and assume they're all families of 4. Put them each on 1/4 acre of land. Say that additional infrastructure like roads, schools, and retail will take an extra 50%.

That gives us roughly 1 million sq miles to hold the entire population of the planet on a comfortably-sized lot. That's 1/10 the size of the USA, about the size of the land area of Alaska plus Texas.

The people aren't going to be the problem with land usage.

If. Polio is a real problem now. Asteroids are a theoretical problem.

What do you mean a theoretical problem? It can happen - just because you can't imagine it happening or that it might happen years, decades or centuries from now, does not make it any less real.

I tend to agree. From my point of view, polio doesn't exist in this part of the world. It's as phantasmal as an asteroid.

Deadly asteroid is not a theoretical problem. Just a matter of when.

Surely developing the technology to deflect a killer asteroid is orders of magnitude cheaper than the technology to colonize Mars.

No matter what there will still be more than 7 billion people left on earth.

Can we not work on all the problems in parallel?

Not actually. An impact is inevitable, given enough time.

given the time scale of the duration in which a major impact event is likely humanity's technology will have advanced radically beyond which we could possibly imagine

Yes, and the way that will happen is that money will be invested into space technology companies like SpaceX.

or it will just happen anyway over the course of thousands of years

No, actually, if everyone chooses "invest in other things" over "invest in technology", then it won't happen. If it will happen, it will be because of technology investment, not as magic that occurs independently of them.

It's impossible to imagine how humanity would stop investing in technology or would only invest in technology that would not be related to space travel

If we go to Mars then for that population wouldn't lots of viruses be a theoretical problem?

If 300,000 people are living on Mars and an asteroid hits Earth, that's still 7 billion people dead.

Likely a lot more than 7 billion if you were to look at the population projections between now and the time we could have 300,000 people settled on Mars.

The point though, is that 300,000 people with knowledge acquired from the entirety of history is better than an empty solar system.

The point is that the human race survives.

Yeah, but I don't quite see why I should care about that aside from my default state of caring about the actual people.

Yes, it is, but the human species won't die..

The idea that our species is geopolitically stable enough to ever maintain two populations is laughable.

Which begs the question, who's picking the 'Nauts off the ISS these days? Not sure the US has a taxi anymore with the Crimea situation unfolding.

Fortunately, as proven during Cold War and before, scientific cooperation can work fine regardless of political situation.

It would be much cheaper and easier to build a city underground or underwater than on Mars. Wouldn't protect against species 8472 or the Death Star, but still.

Hint: It's not the asteroids we should be worried about.

Consider being the last enclave on Earth with clean water, reliable power, and happy people.

How long until the unwashed masses claw your bunker open with their bare hands for a chance at bettering their lot?

That's the reason we need to have colonies off-planet; in case the situation on Earth gets beyond saving.

Why don't we just build a Stanford torus and use robots and guns to keep the Earth people out? I've seen this movie...

I don't know, a bunker under a mountain doesn't get clawed open with bare hands.

That said, sure a vacation home on Mars would be great. Just that it's not very viable ... the preparation would have to be immense. It would, however, prolong the species a while later than living on Earth, as the Sun turns into a red giant. Perhaps in a few centuries.

If our universe is just one branch in a multiverse, then we already have plenty of backups.

If you truly believe in this line of reasoning, then make a deal with someone to pay you a million dollars per every round of russian roulette you survive. This way you'll make a version of you in one of Everett branch incredibly rich. And maybe even able to give money to that branch's version of Bill Gates.

Yeah, but I can't do that to my family in the other branches.

How will those people with polio feel when we are vaccinating the back up population on Mars but not those on Earth?

And what if an asteroid hits Mars first?

Better make a back up of that back up. To the moon!

> If a major asteroid impacts earth

A good reason to support the B612 Foundation (http://b612foundation.org)

No, no it is not.

Any asteroid that will be an Earth killer will have such a high velocity (due to its highly elliptical orbit) that it won't matter. Consider 2012 XE54 [0]. These objects are nigh undetectable as evidenced by the detection of 2012 XE54 two days before it passed half the distance between the Moon and the Earth. A close call by any account.

Moving people off a single point of failure (Earth) is a much better use of resources.


The reason 2012 XE54 was only detected two days before it passed the earth is because we currently are not flying the right instrumentation to detect such objects any earlier. Fixing that problem is the whole point of the B612 foundation's project. Also, an infrared telescope can be launched a hell of a lot sooner and cheaper than Mars can be colonized.

Why's it called B612? I couldn't find any mention on the site.

It's the asteroid the Little Prince lives on.


It would be cheaper and faster to build the technology to find and destroy/deflect these asteroids than to create even a small permanent colony on mars.

That's what I initially thought, but asteroid deflection technology is dual-use. It can push asteroids into collision paths, potentially increasing existential risk. Colonies outside Earth guard against many other extinction risks such as plagues and nuclear war; even unlikely events like rogue comets and runaway nanotech.

Practically speaking, both require similar improvements to today's technology: cheaper access to space, larger payloads, better shielding, etc.

Backup for humanity? Look, it'll be nuclear war that ends us. And if we can launch people to Mars cheaply we can certainly deliver bombs there as well.

> potentially every human will be as dead as those killed by Polio

Everyone would be dead so there wouldn't be anyone left to care.

Wouldn't it be a lot easier to invent something that will deflect an asteroid?

I cannot remember where I read it, but Musk's view is that curing polio, cancer, etc are all nobel and important, but there is only one way to guarantee human's long-term survival: Exploring space.

Not that I [dis]agree, but I think this point needs consideration.

(Not that I feel good about donating to a for-profit)

Isn't curing polio, etc a requirement for ensuring the survival of the species? What I mean is: doesn't it matter that we try to save each person rather than just a person?

Even when polio was at its worst it never threatened the survival of the species. Curing polio would save many people's lives, but it would have minimal impact on the survival of the species.

Think of it as this way: curing polio means more Einsteins for the future.

Actually, no. If right now 50% of kids started to die early, we'd have pretty much the same number of kids growing up to be Einsteins; we'd just compensate it by more births just as we have always done.

In the same way, if a large portion of the population was suddenly killed today, in the long run it wouldn't affect the number of people. The total population limit/equilibrium is determined by food production, tech and social habits; but actual mass deaths (say, as ww1/ww2) are just a short term disturbance in the number of people and quickly get corrected.

It doesn't mean that curing polio is useless - it makes many people much happier; but simply there is no direct relation between happiness of one generation and wellbeing of non-immediate future generations. Culture gets passed on; built infrastructure gets passed on; reseach gets passed on; but there's almost no difference caused by generation suffering horrible conditions/war/torture [assuming no large permanent loss of knowledge/infrastructure; just the suffering&deaths] and that generation living happily. In the short term there's an effect, sure, but in the long term?

Is Germany suffering now in any way because the 30-year-war in 17th century killed 30-40% of the population? Would it be any better place if that war&suffering hadn't happened ? Definitely no. The lost people recover in a generation or two, and that's it.

Kitchen table physics is done. We already have universities brimming with underemployed PhDs producing many more exotic theories than we have the equipment to test in their lifetimes (assuming we can ever do so near Earth). More brains are no longer very useful when each requires a huge commitment of resources that we aren't providing.

Why then don't geniuses come from third world countries. Improved standard of living will help that, not pure numbers.

It's important to note that people struck by polio tend to be from the lower socioeconomic strata of developing countries. Not only is preventing polio important for saving individuals but it's also important from exacerbating the already terrible level of inequality across the world. It's an investment in both the present and the future.

Seconded. This shows an amazing lack of empathy on the part of Page. I love science and technology, they move society forward. But we shouldn't obsess exclusively on progress while ignoring the people who are born without access to health care and schools let alone access to the cool new technology we build.

I disagree. Going to Mars "because it's cool" would be somewhat callous. Going to Mars to backup humanity has the real, bona-fide potential to save more lives than any amount of Earth charity; if it succeeds and it really does end up "backing up" humanity (including, might I add, more than just the raw fact of humanity on Mars, but the tech, the other incidental settlements, etc., all the rest of the tech stack and colonization that would occur), it could be the difference between humanity existing and not.

For that matter, space tech of this level of magnitude is extremely likely to have massive positive impacts on Earth-bound humanity too.

We're still not really in a good position to judge the likelihood of a species-wide existential crisis right now, but we do know that the cumulative odds of one occurring only go up over time....

At the very least, it is not a clear-cut case in favor of either position. In the real world, you, perhaps unfortunately, can't afford to try to serialize your problems and attack them one-by-one... you must attack them in parallel.

>Going to Mars to backup humanity has the real, bona-fide potential to save more lives than any amount of Earth charity;

I really find this morality baffling. As I see it extinction level event would be a tragedy on account of the deaths of billions. But the human species, as a whole, is not an individual; it does not think or feel or suffer. Its cessation has no moral value beyond the death of the individuals which make it up.

I'm open to hearing an argument to the contrary; usually discussions of space colonization, it's assumed obvious that perpetuating humanity is important. But I don't see it, and so I tend to view anything that helps actual individuals as a better use of resources.

It's hard to logically argue about morality. I personally think that we have a moral responsibility for future generations. some people would say that we have a moral responsibility for preservation of plant species. In this sense of couse preservation of the human species is also a matter of morality. If you only count morality as something towards organisms that do live and can feel pain, then it makes no sense to eat meat. But actually most people eat meat. So you see there are many different moral standards.

I value life more than dead matter. Earth has the potential to be a seed, spreading life abundant amongst the stars, until the entire biosphere mass we know today is but a fraction of a percent of the total in the Universe. Or we could get wiped out in the cradle.

It is possible that humanity could be wiped out and Earth could re-roll another species that could do it instead... but once you dispose of the fashionable self-loathing and look at it rationally, it's not a good bet. (But that's a longer post.)

That said, there's also a pure research vs. direct action aspect, again going back to the fact that the tech for a true off-planet space presence will inevitably produce extremely useful technology for those of us still on Earth. It may be easier to see by putting it in the past... no amount of cooking bread and giving it to hungry people would ever have produced refrigeration technology, or the wide dissemination of it. Had people 100 years ago followed the advice of only taking direct actions to prevent poverty, we would, paradoxically, have a lot more of it today. Again... we can not serialize our approach to problems, we have to attack them in parallel.

> As I see it extinction level event would be a tragedy on account of the deaths of billions. But the human species, as a whole, is not an individual; it does not think or feel or suffer. Its cessation has no moral value beyond the death of the individuals which make it up.

Right. So technology that provides humanity, or some part of it, the means to get people out of the way of what would otherwise be an extinction level event saves the actual, individual lives of all those people that would otherwise have been in the way.

What benefit does going to mars have over say a series of deep bunkers? Building a metropolis on Antarctica is easier than going to mars and sustaining life, just by the virtue of Antartica being closer than mars and still having an atmosphere that earth life can live on. Same with deep bunkers. Even life on an impact winter earth sounds more viable than life on a clean mars.


Well that's very speculative. Mostly I disagree with the heavy-handedness of his stance. I think it would be great for humanity to donate part of a fortune to research & technological advancement and the rest to helping people in need alive today.

I'm not sure what's heavy-handed about it. The statement was with regard to Larry's wealth, not a general guideline for post-mortem wealth distribution.

If Larry thinks a Mars-shot would be a better investment for his particular (large) slice of the pie than other investments, that's his business. It doesn't imply that the rest of the world needs to either agree or follow him as an example.

Well it's unfortunate that we didn't get more of his comments. It would be interesting to hear why he thinks the Mars shot is a better investment if he does in fact think that. It could be Slate's framing but it's easy to read the article as Page saying "Musk is doing more for humanity than the people building schools or curing malaria." Which to me sounds lacking in empathy. Both of these things are subjective. Page has a right to not think it's important to build schools and cure malaria and I have a right to consider that stance lacking in empathy.

I think we all agree that we have individual rights. When you make your opinions public you open them up to discussion.

You absolutely do. I think it's hard to draw any solid conclusions from this snippet though; an alternative explanation is that Page thinks there are already plenty of people and resources directed at building schools and curing malaria, and that his own money is better spent widening the solution spread than reinforcing the more classical work.

I don't see how that follows. Look, any one person, no matter how rich, can only do so much to address the world's problems. Gates chooses to direct his charity one way, Buffet does his thing, and Page has his angle. There's nothing wrong with different people choosing different aspects of the overall situation, and focusing on the aspects that they care about.

I often daydream about what I'd do if I was billg rich. And I keep coming to the conclusion that there are certain, very specific charitable activities that I'd choose to fund, and they wouldn't necessarily be the same ones that gates chooses. For example, my prime angle would be to focus on poverty by contributing funds to help with education for disadvantaged people, and by focusing on programs that teach and promote entrepreneurship. Now, does that mean that I don't care about people with polo, or malaria, or people in developing countries who need clean water? No, it just means that I'd choose to address the things that resonate with me for whatever reason, while acknowledging that one person can't do it all.

It sounds to me like Page just has his vision of how he would want to help make the world better, and I don't see how it makes sense to criticize him just because his hot buttons aren't the same as yours (or mine, or whoever).

Unfortunately the parent link is to a second hand source rather than a direct quote. The way Slate frames Page's answer makes it seem lacking in empathy to people alive today who suffer. Maybe it is just Slate's framing, but reading the article makes it sound like Page's intention in saying he would leave his money to Elon Musk is to say that Elon Musk is doing more for the world than people curing polio or building schools.

Which he has every right to believe, just as I believe saying something like that is lacking in empathy.

Well, I won't argue against you have the right to say that. Heck, I might even agree with you, pending further discussion.

My only point is that Page's position is not implicitly "bad" or undesirable, in that he clearly is concerned about helping the world - he just has his own strategy for how to do it.

It's also not just about "a backup" for mankind. IF we are able to start colonizing Mars, we basically have found a way to unlock the resources of the Solar System. The economic and civilizational growth will be beyond our imagination and benefit everybody.

Well, until you start looking seriously at existential risk. Then you may realize how many orders of magnitude more humans will be helped with similar probability by spreading to new habitats.

Page lacks not "Empathy" itself, but rather the "Locality of Empathy"; his temporal discounting of empathic investment appears much lower than Gates'.

Exactly. Page seems like someone who knows how to "shut up and multiply".


It's all about prioritization, e.g. the big rock-small rock MBA parable, so any argument about which one (e.g. saving polio or to create a backup population on Mars) is better is pointless. The real argument is how to allocate resources among these things that must all be done.

Humanity needs to be saved but only if we don't lose our humanity, everybody needs to be given a fair chance, even if it's one in a million. Some of the kids I sometimes deal with operate with slightly above this chance, some I read about get much, much lower.

I suggest you do this: While browsing, whenever you encounter a story like this (http://www.reddit.com/r/todayilearned/comments/1wsybd/til_in...) or this (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/07/world/middleeast/07photo.h...) or see a photo like this famous one (http://www.mukto-mona.com/Articles/kevin_carter/sudan_child....), save it to an out of the way folder on your laptop. Whenever you get too cocky, take 15 mins to look at that folder and think how far we have to go. Great way to degauss your perspective.

"Everybody needs to be given a fair chance, even if it's one in a million."

Ain't been true for thousands of years.

The question is whether we prioritize the species, at large, or an individual. If the answer is species at large, off-site backups make a great deal more sense.

I think Bill Gates is going to have enough billionaires already giving their money to his foundation.

I like the idea of at least a few going in a different direction. Letting Elon Musk throw billions at an audaciously big goal because he has a record of achieving and society might benefit as well.

It's an interesting collision of values. One is "every life has equal value", which implies optimizing for existing, present-day lives. Which is honorable in its own way. The other is optimizing for best chance of future life. Those two values will have a lot of implications in common, but they can also conflict. I don't think there's a wrong answer here, it's just a matter of what value each person chooses to optimize for.

Don't get me wrong, Bill is awesome, but still:

(1) Exploration of space today will some day save everybody's lives.

(2) Driving Teslas with energy from Solar city will postpone that day.

Which do you think will have a bigger impact on humanity, and deserve more chapters in history books?

a). Prolonged a few more lives by eradicating some viruses. b). Set up a colony on MARS

The people loving Bill Gates "second act" seem to forget how he made all those billions in the first place - by being evil, crushing better competitors, monopolistic practices, etc etc etc. And by basically creating terrible software, holding back the computer industry for years.

History is written by the winners (or survivors), so if a colony on "MARS" would survive humanity, certainly option b) will deserve most of the chapters.

It's pretty sad to see though that many users are only seeing two options:

1) give away money to charities to solve symptomatic problems 2) invest money in technologies who try to solve, again, symptomatic problems

A more effective approach would be to work out the causes; first of all, education would be the key.

But this is the hard way of approaching problems.

It's possible to leave money to both. I'd prefer that over being lopsided.

Yeah, I'm glad this isn't an either/or situation. There are enough billionaires in the world willing to donate that they don't all collectively need to pick one over the other.

>Going to Mars may be sexy, but stomping out Polio makes millions of lives better.

Right, both are trying to better man kind in their own special ways.

Its a do we solve 1st world problems or do we remember about the rest of the developing world. As I grow older I struggle with which camp I am in.

Mars and an electric car do sound good...but conquering deadly pathogens and diseases sound awesome in a different way.

>> "Its a do we solve 1st world problems or do we remember about the rest of the developing world."

I agree. Mars is very cool to me and something I'd love to see. BUT my life is already pretty good. There are millions whose lives are short and horrible. Bringing their lives up to my current life standard seems like a more logical first problem to solve than making my already nice life better while theirs doesn't really progress.

Pretty much. Donate to improve science, perform basic research, etc.

Why on earth would you donate to a for-profit? It makes no sense.

Because when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

For how may be exceptional in their fields, some people may still have a narrow vision outside that (or no vision at all).

Specifically, Page is a technically-minded person who's showing not to be able to see outside of the strictly technical realm, so choosing between a charitable organization and a technological one, is not really a choice, because in his perspective, there's no such thing as the first option.

I was actually surprised (but not too much) that a person like him may have such narrow vision.

> Specifically, Page is a technically-minded person who's showing not to be able to see outside of the strictly technical realm, so choosing between a charitable organization and a technological one, is not really a choice, because in his perspective, there's no such thing as the first option.

Or maybe he's actually smart, as you would expect from a technically minded person, did the math and realized, that there ain't many good charitable organizations to give, nor that the for-profits are worse than charities in pursuing goals beneficial to mankind.

The fact that charitable organization may be generally ineffective (or inefficient at beast) is a very common argument, the problem is that there are alternatives which are in the middle ground, see social enterpreneurship, and they are definitely effective

Such alternatives consider human problems as both a human problem and a technical one, and work with both.

This is exactly the point; I expect a technical mind to be at a high risk of seeing only one part of the problem.

Reality is of course much more complex. Enterpreneurs are limited by the fact that having a "human" opinion carries a high risk of damaging the stock value.

Note that I wouldn't certainly consider Elon Musk's social enterpreneurship. Kiva would be (it's just an example).

I suppose I just have different blinders than it doesn't occur to me that people view the world that way. :/

One is oriented more short-term (polio), whereas the other is more long-term (not putting all our eggs in one basket).

Both are good.

Well, "good" depends for who. The beneficiaries would be first-world population in one, and third world in the other.

Besides, putting all eggs in a basket could be a fitting metaphor, except if the person holding the basket has a perverse passion for stomping on it.

Moving to Mars wouldn't be a way to save the population, it would be an excuse to find another planet to destroy.

There really is nothing to destroy on mars. You can't destroy an ecosystem where there is none.

Stomping out polio is not short-term.

What with the anti-vaccination idiots, stomping out lots of things that should be simple is proving difficult.

We are really friggin close to eradicating polio!

The Americas (North and South) have been polio free since 1994. The last 1% is what has proven to be difficult.


You know what else will wipe out polio? An extinction-level asteroid strike that wipes out all of mankind if we don't manage to colonize another planet before then.

Would you rather give your money to fix a symptom of the problems we face currently as humans, or to help build a self-sustaining machine with the economic incentive to improve lives for as long as we vote with our dollars that the machine's contribution to mankind is worthwhile?

One is a practical choice, and the other is driven by a long-term ideal and belief that capitalism drives innovation better than handouts. Both have merit.

let's thinking about this from humanity's point of view in a thousand years. if someone stopped polio now, his name would be in history. if someone colonized mars, his name would be in history, and probably of bigger importance. because it is a more audacious goal and having higher impact to the future generation.

if you ask me to donate to stopping polio vs spacex, i would probably donating to stopping polio. however, that is because i'm a little bit short-sighted on goals. (incidentally, i guess this is why i'm creating an internet business rather than a space exploration program.) however, that does not mean i should not let other people try the more audacious venture.

I get the feeling Larry Page will outlive Bill Gates by a couple decades.

Considering Gates is almost two decades older than Page that's a pretty logical conclusion. But Gates foundation will likely outlast him. With the kinds of things he's doing it seems pretty simple to layout a plan for after he's gone (e.g. next we solve HIV, then clean water, then etc. etc.).

The Gates Foundation is to exhaust all of its funds within 20 years after Bill and Melinda's deaths [1].

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_%26_Melinda_Gates_Foundati...

And as soon as he's dead, whoever is running it may totally screw up the mission.

Elon Musk is also trying to save humanity from climate change with a solar company, battery factory and electric cars. Climate change is a much greater threat to humanity than polio.

Imagine for a moment you could colonize space. What problem would that solve, really? The thinking and systems that are causing us to destroy / consume our planet will simply be exported. It will only delay the inevitable.

The line must be drawn here, on Earth. We must overcome our primate programming here in our own nest, or else become a menace to all the universe. Fix it here, my friend. Now. For time is not on our side. That is the battle.

We would be able to transfer heavy industry and resource extraction to space, using robotic factories! That would solve all the problems, starting with scarcity!

Pollution is bad in a biosphere, but why shouldn't we strip-mine the asteroid belt with von-neumann machines?

"Imagine for a moment you could colonize space. What problem would that solve, really? "

Very interesting. Do you realize that people said exactly those same words about the microscope?

They said : What problem would seeing the same things that we already see bigger are going to solve?

It was called a "toy" with no real use. If you have a microscope you know how hard is to see something.

The fact is that we don't know what we don't know.

Just traveling to the moon changed everything. We discovered isotopes on moon surface that are not created on earth because of earth atmosphere. The same materials where not eroded by fluids behave very different.

Restating a problem (in a larger context) is not solving it.

A kindred spirit. I wonder, how many on HN share this sentiment? Man's greatest problem is man itself, particularly our primate instincts to which most are obliviously enthralled.

Understanding ourselves from a scientific perspective is the first step in a long journey to overcome our destructive natures. But as it stands, I do not see any successful attempts at such. Investment in and respect for science in the western world is declining, and most people are without any guiding principles other than the profit motive.

Ironically, this is the best situation we've ever found ourselves in, historically speaking.

Frankly, I'd rather he splits, half to Gates and another to Musk. The world needs more than just one brilliant guy to know where money can be best spent.

I had to re-read that a couple times. Commas are helpful!

> Its hard to realize that, I suppose, when your life is in the bubble of a Google limo.

you don't need billions to eradicate polio. How much money has Bill Gates actually spent on polio?

There are at most a few thousand workers in Pakistan, india and nigeria going around with polio vaccine oral drops that cost cents per dose. They don't cost billions, not even hundreds of millions.

I don't think it's necessarily important for everyone to attempt to maximize the direct life benefit of their incomes and activities.

I say this because you say, "makes millions of lives better" as if that'd be the end of the discussion. I don't think it is.

Sorry, but it is pretty pointless to stomp out Polio if 90% of life is stomped out by an asteroid. It's great to have a Bill Gates, but it's even better to have an Elon Musk, IMHO.

it's also pointless to wipe out polio if the asteroid is going to stomp us the next day.

Well said.

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