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Paul Allen Discusses Dreams of Space

Microsoft's co-founder throws his fortune at the frontiers of science.

By Evan Ratliff
Apr 23, 2007 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:28 AM
(Courtesy of Brian Smale)


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Make a list of common boyhood dreams and Paul Allen will very likely have lived most of them. Start your own company and make a gazillion dollars? Check. Own two professional sports teams? Check. Play lead guitar in rock band? Check. Build a rocket to fly people into space? Check. Make giant telescope to search for aliens? Check. Crack the mystery of the human brain? Well, he’s working on it.

The seminal moment in the life of one of the world’s wealthiest men is often pegged as the time, in 1975, when he persuaded his high schoolfriend Bill Gates to drop out of Harvard University and co-found a company called Microsoft. But since leaving the software giant in 1983after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma—and then facing down the disease—Allen has lived a dizzying array of second lives. Drawing on his Microsoft-stock fortune, today estimated at $22 billion, he has funded dozens of companies in the software, cable, and Web industries,bought the Portland Trail Blazers and Seattle Seahawks, and built Seattle’s Experience Music Project, the rock-and-roll history museum.Along the way, Allen has also become a leading patron of the sciences,whose influence can rival that of huge government agencies.

Back when he was a high school guitar player obsessed with software,Allen was mesmerized by movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Jacques Cousteau’s The Silent World. Thirty years later, he started steering his fortune toward projects that could easily belong in those movies. In 2001 his $11.5 million investment helped jump-start the SETI program, a methodical search for radio signals from intelligent life.(The new Allen Telescope Array will start sweeping the sky for aliens this year.) His love of rockets spurred a $30 million gamble on SpaceShipOne, which won the X Prize as the first manned craft in suborbital space. In 2003 Allen doled out $100 million to found the Allen Institute for Brain Science, with the ambitious goal of mapping all gene expression in the mammalian brain. Last September the institute released a complete genomic map of the mouse brain—a free,searchable, three-dimensional analysis of 21,000 genes (including 85million images) that will help neuroscientists understand how different regions of the brain operate and interact. Now Allen plans to move onto the big prize: mapping the human neocortex.

In his Seattle office—with a glass-encased replica of his 416-footyacht, the Octopus, in front of him and the Seahawks’ stadium visible from the window—Allen spoke with DISCOVER about funding priorities, Microsoft memories, and which childhood dream he plans to check off next.

Do you ever wonder what the world would be like today if Microsoft had never existed? Whoa. If Microsoft had never existed. . . . The industry would probably be very fragmented. But there are so many new models that have sprung up—things like the iPod, Google, YouTube, eBay, and Amazon. Soit’s like asking, “What if there wasn’t an Amazon?” Well, there would probably be other people online selling books, but would it have the impact of an Amazon? Probably not. Or what if there were five companies doing online auctions and not just eBay? For users, there may be a bigger variety of things to choose from, but whenever you have scale, obviously you have more of a chance to make it a better product. The bigger you get, the more inertia you have, which is good. On the other hand, you don’t want to get so big that you struggle to get releases out. So there is always that tension.

Has your experience with Microsoft shaped the kinds of scientific projects you are supporting today? In a way. In the computer industry, you’ve got an interdisciplinary team of people who can come together, attack the problem, and work in a collaborative style. You knock down one problem after another, cobble things together, and then hopefully turn the crank at some point. This is what we did with the mouse brain project.

“The human brain works in a completely different fashion from a computer and does some things so much better. . . . How can that be?"

Your interest in the workings of the brain seems like a logical step for someone who started out writing software.

Yeah, if you are involved in computers, at some point you end up being fascinated by the idea of the human brain. The human brain works in a completely different fashion from a computer and does some things so much better than a computer, and this may remain true for the next 100, 200 years. How can that be? So I brought a bunch of neuroscientists together and asked, “What can I do that would be interesting and different that would potentially help the field of neuroscience move forward?” The answer was a genetic database of the mouse brain.

The Allen Brain Atlas is, at heart, a massive data-archiving project. Is this type of research a trend in science? It’s kind of industrial-scale science, where the output, the product, is a database. I think we are already seeing some efforts to do genetic databases of cancer; I believe there is a Harvard effort under way. Craig Venter has his project where he collects seawater [in an effort to catalog ocean life]. But we are probably only talking about dozens of these kinds of databases at this point. That may end up being naive a few decades from now.

What’s next at the Allen Institute for Brain Science?

There are still parts of the mouse brain that we need to explore: the developmental mouse brain, the female brain differences. Then we are starting to scale up to the human brain. It’s so much bigger than the mouse brain, which is kind of an almond-size thing. You need bigger slides, more digital capacity. And of course there is no uniform strain—thank goodness—of human beings, like there is of mice. But I think trying to parse out the detailed genetics and structure of the brain will go a long way to understanding how it works.

What do you think are the chances of SETI’s succeeding—in other words, of finding intelligent life beyond our world?

The scientists are optimistic because they think that if they have better instruments that look deeper or on more frequencies, there should be civilizations out there broadcasting. I think everybody would admit it’s a long shot, but if that long shot comes in... wow.

If they do get the signal, will you be the first person they call?

Actually, first they call the White House. At one point they told me I was third or fourth on the list. So I guess that’s one of the benefits of funding the project. But the phone hasn’t rung yet.

What would that kind of discovery mean to you?

That would be such a life-changing thing, for us all to know that there are other beings out there who we could potentially communicate with, or maybe we are listening to a signal that they transmitted hundreds of millennia ago. And then we’d say, “Well, what was in the message? Can we decode the message, and can we communicate back? What are they really like? Are they oxygen-breathing bipeds, or are they a gas cloud on some gas-giant planet?”

You’ve also supported the more practical aspects of space exploration, funding SpaceShipOne. What was it like to watch SpaceShipOne take off?

I just remember being so nervous when that thing flew, hoping everything was going to be OK. I had never done anything to put anyone’s life at risk. When you are debugging a program, if it blows up, OK, you get an error message on the screen. If something goes wrong with a rocket, it’s usually... bad. Very bad.

What do you think of Richard Branson and Burt Rutan’s effort to turn SpaceShipOne into a commercial venture?

Burt Rutan is a genius of aeronautic design; I remember him scribbling some designs for the first version of SpaceShipOne that weren’t that far from how it ended up. If you are going to do something like that, he’s one of the few people in the world who could pull it off. Branson’s proposed SpaceShipTwo is still using the fundamental technology from the SpaceShipOne project, just of much bigger breadth.I think it’s going to be great if people can buy a ticket to fly up and see black sky and the stars. I’d like to do it myself—but probably after it has flown a serious number of times first!

Do you support NASA’s plans to send humans back to the moon and on to Mars?

You have to make an argument—which I think people do make with some persuasiveness—that this is about having an aspirational vision. Don’t we get the same data back if we have a little track vehicle running around Mars with a TV camera? I think there is actually a difference,having a human being out there. But I’m always fascinated by technical challenges. Human beings are fragile things, and for the period of time it takes to get them to Mars and back you have dangerous radiation from the sun and the galaxy. We have to think about issues like that. As a species, we’ve always been discoverers and adventurers, and space and the deep ocean are some of the last frontiers. I’m less certain that someone is going to be selling beachfront property on the Martian sea.

"The chance that we aregoing to pick up the phone and an alien is going to be on the other endis small, but it is certainly worth it."

The projects you have funded so far cover a wide range of fields. What are the criteria you look for?

I ask myself: What are the great questions in science, the knowledge that we are just scratching the surface of? The chance that we are going to pick up the phone and an alien is going to be on the other end is small, but it is certainly worth—on a modest scale, for me—seeing if we can enable some of that research. There are these greenfield areas like the human brain, systems biology, ­understanding how cells work internally, and how the proteins interact inside the cell. That’s an area I’m thinking about. Then there are the global issues we have today: global warming, the environment, and disease. I don’t know that I could make a difference in theoretical physics; that’s basically a bunch of mathematical and theoretical geniuses at different places. I’m not sure how anyone could make them work any faster than they are.

When you fund the Brain Atlas or SpaceShipOne, do you think of them as investments or philanthropy?

I think of them as philanthropy, but then the next thought is, Is there a way to make this thing self-funding? In the case of biological research, it means that you are either going to have to carve out some patents or try to create funding from other foundations or the government. I think we are going to have success with the Brain Atlas because the capabilities that we have demonstrated are pretty unique.But with that project we haven’t taken the route of getting proprietary intellectual property—not that I’m excluding it. Most of the things I’ve ever done, I try to capture some value and keep it going. And my gosh, look at Microsoft. In 1975 it was three guys, and now it’s 70,000.

When you and Gates started out, how ambitious were you? We knew that microcomputers with software on them could have some impact, and certainly they were cheap. A big part of the success of Microsoft was that every year, the chips our software ran on got faster and cheaper. They doubled in capability every 18 months under Moore’s law. Even to this day, every year they get better and the price doesn’t change. It’s amazing, and that was a huge driver of our success. When we were starting Microsoft, we were thinking if we were really successful we would have something like 35 employees. On the other hand, in the back of our minds we were thinking, “Wow, if a lot of people bought a cheap computer . . . ” We had glimmerings of it.

How did the collaboration between the two of you work in those early days?

We split the programming tasks. I was familiar with the software that ran on mainframes and minicomputers that will let you emulate chips. And Bill bit off some of the really complicated stuff and did agreat job architecting the overall design of the Basic program. Bill was always very focused on the external relationships and the business management part of it, whereas I was more attracted toward seeing where the leading edge of the technology was going. So we were a good complement to each other.

Do you guys reminisce about the old times?

Yes, we always have a laugh because it’s hard to explain the incredible level of fun we had. We talk about how Bill would sleep on the carpet at the office. The secretary would come in and see Bill’s feet sticking out of the door. We were very hard-core. Our only recreational activity was going to the movies. And then we would program until two, three, four in the morning and then get up fairly late, go back, and do it again. We just loved it. We had a great time.

In a weird way you and Gates still seem to follow parallel paths. Do you ever talk about entering a philanthropic collaboration?

We are always looking to find some areas of overlap in our philanthropic stuff. We’ve had so much success doing things before; it feels good. Recently we’ve been talking about doing something together on the frontiers of energy.

What are the biggest questions on your mind right now?

The health of the planet, whether it’s ocean health or energy.Should nuclear energy make a comeback? We have an investment in a fusion energy company that is quite interesting.

What kind of fusion research are you investing in?

The company is called Tri Alpha Energy [which finances aneutronicfusion, a process that emits protons rather than neutrons, potentially making it much more efficient than current concepts]. Fusion has been predicted to be just over the horizon for decades now, so whenever you see an interesting alternative approach, you think about it. There has been a lot of discussion recently on fission reactors, and I have been involved in doing some survey meetings recently. I think Bill is intrigued by that too. But it’s really speculative.

So you’ve got computers, sports, boats, space, science, rock and roll. Is there any childhood love you have left to get into?

When I was 7 or 8 I became fascinated with hot rods. I don’t own one. But I’m not as fascinated by them as I am by many other things. So no Model T with the super V-8 and the flames painted on the side. In life, you need to pick your spots.

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