Inside the velvet-walled inner chamber of his EMP Museum in Seattle, Paul Allen is in a good mood.
Top researchers are gathered downstairs for a symposium, marking the 10th anniversary of the renowned Allen Institute for Brain Science.
His Seattle Seahawks look like a Super Bowl team.
And Jimi Hendrix is playing on the 60-foot video display just outside the “blue room” where artists hang out before performing in Allen’s psychedelic palace of music.
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In a rare and far-ranging interview, the Microsoft co-founder talked about new frontiers in medicine that he’s helping to explore, the fate of Microsoft and the chances of Seattle getting another NBA team.
Allen declined to predict the outcome of the next Super Bowl but had plenty to say about the Seahawks’ being energized by coach Pete Carroll.
We didn’t even touch the fresh plate of scones, fruit and madeleines.
Here’s an edited excerpt of the conversation.
Q: Have you achieved your goals with the brain institute, and what are its next goals?
A: I was excited to do the human-brain genetics, which we did, but now we’re really starting to take on some big questions. Not just putting up an open database for scientists around the world to use but trying to get in and form new theories about how the brain works, which is extremely challenging and difficult.
Q: That’s the next goal?
A: Instead of doing a great job of just producing data for scientists around the world to use, it’s trying to understand deep questions of function and tease those out.
We’re bringing in hundreds of new scientists … so I guess I would say the scale of the ambition of what we’re trying to do has increased dramatically. We’ll know within three to five years whether that paid off or it might be we just produced a bunch of new data sets by instrumenting the mouse brain a lot better than has been done before, and that was useful to scientists around the world.
Q: Where will this take us 30, 40 years down the road? Will we be rid of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and other terrible things?
A: It’s so hard to predict because of the complexity of these systems. Here we are today. There are a few kinds of cancers, probably a dozen, that there are wholly new treatments for. But most of the treatments, including the one I had for my lymphoma, are variations of things that have been around for 20 years.
There will be breakthrough new treatments once we understand the pathways that are involved in intricate detail — and cancer is a disease that evolves over time and keeps mutating — so all of those things have to be super well-understood.
Everyone’s dream is to take a pill — take a pill every day so you won’t have Alzheimer’s. If you have liver cancer, take a pill. That’s the dream.
Q: So when you were a kid, were you the one who chose the 5,000-piece puzzle to complete?
A: No, not so much. I was kind of the kid [who] would try to get a bunch of kids together and say, “Let’s build a rocket.” So it’s kind of funny, I’m still doing some of those things.
Some people are great at the pure mathematical things — like Bill Gates, he’s great at math things. He loves to do puzzles. Me, I like to look at an overall landscape and try to figure out how do you solve a problem … ? How do you put the right team together? It’s all about the people you bring in.
A lot of it depends on people. In sports, it could be Pete Carroll and [Seahawks general manager] John Schneider. It all really begins with exceptional people.
Q: I’ve got to ask: Are the Seahawks going to win the Super Bowl?
A: No, no sports predictions. I’m a very cautious guy when it comes to those things. There are so many things that could happen.
But we’re certainly off to a good start. It’s great to be able to go into the locker room and celebrate with the guys after a win. And Pete is … by far the most positive coach. Players feed off his positive energy.
Q: You sound like a typical Seattle sports fan. They’re off to a good start, but you’re not going to count your chickens before they hatch.
A: Well that’s me generally. Back to Microsoft days, I’m always looking for “OK, that’s great, but what can go wrong.”
I was always saying, “Bill, look at this, worry about that. I’m worried about WordPerfect or some other [competitive] product.”
So there’s a certain amount of, I don’t know, I guess “learned vigilance.”
Q: What do you think about the transitions at Microsoft. Some think it may be time to break up the company?
A: I’m not that close to it anymore. It’s an amazing company but it has more competitors. I would always tell Steve [Ballmer], “You have one of the toughest jobs of any executive in the world because Microsoft is competing in so many areas.”
Q: Microsoft is now the second or third largest phone-maker in the world, with the purchase of Nokia. Early on, did you ever think the company would produce software and hardware devices, the whole thing all the way up?
A: Microsoft was at the forefront of smartphones for a while. Unfortunately the competition really leapt ahead.
Now, as I wrote in my book, they’re trying to claw back their position there. I wish those guys all the best. I try to give them whatever encouragement. I write them memos and say, “Here’s what you should do.”
But once you leave a company it’s so different. So I think they acknowledge some of my things and others they scratch their heads about, too.
I’m rooting for a big comeback for the company. We’ll see what happens.
Q: It sounds like sports are going to be a big part of Ballmer’s life, after Microsoft.
When Steve was part of that Sacramento bid [for an NBA team], I gave him advice and tried to tell him about some of the ropes and the challenges he needed to meet the NBA’s criteria as a prospective owner, for his bid and everything. Unfortunately that didn’t work out.
You know, he was involved with the Harvard football team way, way back. He’s got sports in his blood; he goes to see his sons play sports all the time.
I love sports, but Steve is just right there in terms of his love for professional sports. So it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he’s involved in a sports franchise after he retires.
Q: Do you think it will happen — NBA in Seattle?
A: I think it will happen. I can’t predict when because there are different arguments in terms of expansion or relocation, and now we’ve seen that relocation can be not as direct as people may have expected it to be.
Basically a municipality has to say, “We don’t care if you leave, good riddance,” or, “We’re not going to support you.”
The sense I get, the league is somewhat predisposed against relocation if there are enough local backers of the team staying in a municipality.
An expansion — that means the pie would have to be split one more way, on the league revenue, so there’d be arguments against doing that.
I think it will happen, but I can’t predict when.
Q: So in the brain research, it had to cross your mind that someday there could be a neuroprosthesis for sports players. Perhaps you could engineer a taller Russell Wilson, for instance. Do you think of these things?
A: Yeah, prosthesis — that, as an older person, you could put on an exoskeleton and you could do whatever you want to do. Those things will happen eventually. But it’s so far [in the future].
What people don’t realize is the human body and the brain are so well designed to do — by millions of years of evolution — what we do. Even throwing things — there are papers about how we’re really good at throwing things vs. some other animals.
Now replicating that in some prosthesis? We’re a long way from having that kind of connectivity.
Q: Maybe it’s presumptuous, or a spiritual question, to think we can design the system better.
A: We’re so far away from understanding how the existing brain and body work together — I’m just happy to be involved in trying to decipher some of that.
Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org