The next big ideas from 'Idea Man' Paul Allen: A.I. and cell biology

Image: Idea Man
Billionaire Paul Allen's memoir is titled "Idea Man."

Software billionaire Paul Allen is already using his riches to further brain science, spaceflight, rock 'n' roll history — and oh, the Seattle Seahawks, too — but he's not done yet: Artificial intelligence and cell biology are the next big ideas on the agenda for the guy who calls himself "Idea Man."

Allen, the 60-year-old co-founder of Microsoft, laid out his plans during an interview on the sidelines of the Allen Institute for Brain Science's annual symposium at Seattle's Experience Music Project Museum (another one of his creations).

Thirty years after Allen left Microsoft to deal with his case of Hodgkin's lymphoma, he has taken on a bevy of business interests — including movie production companies, cable TV, ticket sales and dot-com ventures. He owns the Seahawks football team as well as the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers. Allen has also spent millions on spacey ideas ranging from SpaceShipOne and Stratolaunch to the alien-hunting Allen Telescope Array.

"I've always been interested in many different things," Allen admitted.

But if you had to pick one philanthropic enterprise to be Allen's jewel in the crown, that would be the brain science institute he founded 10 years ago: $400 million of his estimated $15.8 billion fortune has gone toward the Allen Institute's open-source efforts to map the brain and the genes that influence its function. Those efforts helped inspire the Obama administration's BRAIN Initiative.

"We like to say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," Allan Jones, the institute's chief executive officer, told NBC News.

A.I. squared
The brain institute also serves as the model for Allen's ventures to expand the frontiers of artificial intelligence and cell biology. Just this month, he laid out his plan for the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2, or "A.I. squared") with University of Washington computer scientist Oren Etzioni at the helm.

Allen said some of the inspiration came from his years-long project to create next-generation interactive textbooks. Some came from the Watson computer's triumph on the "Jeopardy" quiz show in 2011. And some came from the issues that have been raised at the brain institute.

How will research into artificial intelligence mesh with Allen's interest in human intelligence? "It's a strange kind of race ... Can you create an artificial object or entity or something that can perform language before you understand how it's done in the brain?" he said during Thursday's symposium. "It's a kind of crazy race, and I don't know which horse to bet on. I'm betting on both. Both are fascinating."

How cells work
Allen is also fascinated by the cellular mechanisms that make the difference between illness and wellness — perhaps in part because of his own brush with a life-threatening form of cancer, or because his own mother died of Alzheimer's disease.

"i think it's the right time to start a big initiative in cell biology: understanding how cells work, understanding the detailed things that happen inside cells, which is behind cancer and Alzheimer's and all those things," Allen told NBC News.

How long will it take for all these big ideas to yield payoffs? Eventually, Allen hopes that the research he's funding will lead to new therapies for Parkinson's disease, cancer and other diseases. But that's not uppermost in his mind right now.

"I personally feel a call to want to do this kind of pure research in different domains, to try to act on these mysterious, wonderful, incredibly hard problems ... knowing that it's going to be decades down the road before you may see the true impact," Allen said. "That's the kind of patience you have to have."

More sound bites from the 'Idea Man':

  • Allen said he's intrigued by crowdsourcing initiatives in research, such as the Rheumatoid Arthritis Responder Challenge, the iSleeping smartphone-based project to monitor sleep patterns, and Sage Bionetwork's Bridge data-sharing platform. "You have to carefully craft the different crowdsourcing approaches to get people interested, and dedicate the time necessary," he said. "When you're starting to make things like patient histories available, you have to make sure that all the privacy issues are solved in a good way."
  • Allen said his Stratolaunch space venture is on track to create the world's biggest airplane to send rockets into space. "With rocketry, everything tends to slip a tiny bit," he said. "That's a huge project and it's moving along, but we won't be flying for three or four years."
  • Next year brings the 10th anniversary of SpaceShipOne's historic spaceflights, which Allen bankrolled, and the billionaire said he'll have to think about commemorating the achievement at California's Mojave Air and Space Port. Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane may start taking on passengers next year for suborbital space rides, but Allen hasn't bought his ticket yet. "I'm not going to be the first one to go up ... but at some point down the road, I'd certainly consider it, after some large number of flights," he said.
  • Stay tuned for more news ahead about the brain: Allen hinted that there's a big research paper in the works about the connectome — that is, the map of the brain's internal connections. And there are more projects on his mind: "I've been encouraging the scientists to come up with a dictionary of the key functional cell types in the brain," Allen said.
  • Allen said he's happy to share the "secret sauce" that goes into the timeline-driven, industrial-scale, team-based research efforts that he funds. The key to success, he said, is to "set the table for what should be done," and then assemble teams of smart people to tackle the challenges. That's not to say Allen doesn't kibitz now and then. "I'm kind of a retired software engineer," he told NBC News. "I don't write code anymore ... [but] if you're a software engineer, you spend a lot of time on the details."

More about Allen's big ideas:

Alan Boyle is's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ circles. To keep up with's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.