Serial entrepreneur, historian and dreamer Jay Walker joined Glenn on radio Wednesday for an epic conversation about the future of America.
“If you are a dreamer and a doer, this is going to be a fantastic hour. I have wanted to sit down with this guy for quite some time,” Glenn said Wednesday on radio.
Walker — labeled the Edison of his age by Forbes in 1999 — is a modern-day Renaissance man. While his day job involves creating cutting-edge companies like Priceline.com and Upside.com that provide a patented, buyer-driven experience, his obsession is finding the connectedness . . . in everything. The breakthroughs he sees coming in the fields of health and medicine are of particular interest.
“For 3 billion years, life on the planet has followed a very simple system,” Walker said. “We all share the same DNA — a tree, a dog, a human. We have so much in common. For the first time in human history, in the history of the world, humans have control of the operating code. We are now manipulating the DNA, which means, for the first time, it’s as if we had the software of life.”
Walker explained how scientists are at the cusp of operating down to the instructional layer, which creates the proteins that create the tissues, systems and organs of the body.
“It’s almost as if we’re inventing printing, reading, writing and thinking all at the same time in forms of medicine,” Walker said.
In effect, we’re living in an extraordinary time in the history of the world.
“We’re at the end of the medical Dark Ages,” Glenn offered.
So passionate is Walker about the field of medicine he helped launch TEDMED, an independent health and medicine edition of the world-famous TED conference.
“How far do you think we are away from curing the majority of cancer?” Glenn asked.
According to Walker, it’s not so much curing cancer that’s around the corner, but being able to manage it as a livable disease like AIDS.
“How far do you think we are away from that?” Glenn asked.
“If you’re saying leukemias and blood cancers, we’re probably five years, maybe 10,” Walker said.
“Holy cow,” Glenn responded.
Walker’s belief in the systematic, connectedness of everything even applies to his remarkable library which holds 25,000 books.
“People come to my library and they say, ‘How are the books organized, Jay? How do you organize the books? You have 25,000 books. Is there a card catalog?’ I say, ‘Absolutely not. They’re organized randomly by height,'” Walker laughed.
The library, Walker says, is one of imagination.
“They were all written by humans. They’re all connected. You figure out why this is connected to that. The act of imagining is the essential act of creation. Nothing happens if you don’t imagine it, whether it’s who you’re going to marry, the children you want to have, the kind of country you want to live in, the kind of job you want to have. It’s all about your imagination. Everything happens here first. It happens in your head.”
Enjoy the complimentary clip or listen to this segment for details.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors.
GLENN: I first talked to Jay Walker — I’ve known about him for a long, long time. But I first met Jay Walker on the phone — this is the first time we’ve actually sat in the same room together.
And immediately, I felt connected to him and the way he thinks. He’s an optimist. He sees a massive change on the horizon. But he knows it doesn’t have to be bad. It probably is going to be a little rough getting there. But it doesn’t have to be bad. And he sees the future unlike most people do. And he sees it through the eyes of history, which is so wickedly important. Just full disclosure, he is the guy who started upside.com which is an advertiser on this program. But I do want to ask him one question on something he told me about Upside when we first spoke. But this is not an advertisement. We’re not even going to talk about that. You need to meet this man.
He’s just started something called Ted MD, which is TED talks — no, I’m sorry. Med Ted. Sorry. Med Ted. Yeah, TEDMED.
Jeez, how many times am I going to get this wrong?
STU: You only asked him three times before you came on the air.
GLENN: I know. I know. What am I thinking?
So he started this, and I want to start here. I hate to bring it to a cheesy TV show, but I’ve been watching a show — and now I can’t even remember the name of it. It is —
JEFFY: Pure Genius, which was just cancelled.
GLENN: Pure Genius. Was it cancelled?
GLENN: Oh, crap. That was such an optimistic show.
JEFFY: I know. I know.
GLENN: Have you seen that?
JAY: I have not.
GLENN: Okay. So the premise is a guy who is a billionaire, you know, a guy like you . . . just a serial entrepreneur, tech guy. He’s in Silicon Valley. He’s like, I’m going to start a hospital. And it shows —
JAY: Oh, boy. You’d be better starting a government.
GLENN: But it shows all the — it takes all the red tape out and shows all the tech that is coming and how optimistic life really looks when you look at what’s on the horizon and the breakthroughs we’re about to go through.
As you’re doing this, what are you seeing for —
JAY: Well, Glenn, the way to think about it for health and medicine, is that for 3 billion years, life on the planet has followed a very simple system. It’s very simple. There’s one — you know, there’s DNA. We have a common ancestor. And it’s been evolving for 3 billion years, give or take depending on your beliefs. And I’m not picking on anybody’s beliefs.
But the fact is, we all share the same DNA — a tree, a dog, a human. We have so much in common. For the first time in human history, in the history of the world, humans have control of the operating code. We are now manipulating the DNA. Which means, for the first time, it’s as if we had the software of life. That’s never happened in history before.
It means for the first time, we’re going to be able to operate down at the instruction layer, which creates the proteins, which then creates the tissues and the systems and the organs of the body. So we’re right at the cusp.
It’s almost as if we’re inventing printing, reading, writing, and thinking all at the same time in forms of medicine. And so we are living at the beginning of an extraordinary time in the history of the world.
GLENN: We’re at the end of the medical Dark Ages.
JAY: Exactly. It’s as if we had just gotten the microscope for the first time, and we saw there was a tiny world that nobody knew existed. In 1665, Hook looks through his microscope, and he sees that the fly is composed of thousands of little eyes. And he says, “What is this micro world? What are these little things swimming around?”
And he can’t even see bacteria. He can’t even see the smallest things. And yet, an entirely new world opens up. Galileo looks into the heavens and sees that there are planets, but also sees that there are moons around Saturn and Jupiter. And suddenly, the notion that the earth is in the center of the universe drops away. The telescope and the microscope were the great changes of the 17th century. And now we’re in the 21st century, and we’re now seeing for the first time the actual code that brings things to life.
GLENN: We’re seeing things — Ray Kurzweil, I’ve talked to several times. I am —
JAY: The singularity, right? Ray talks about, we’re about to hit this point at which everything breaks free and goes on an extraordinary compounding effect, and whether or not you agree or disagree with Ray, there is no question if you back up and you look at where we are in history, in medicine and health, we are about to exit the Dark Ages.
GLENN: So he said it’s as if — he said, the human body should last a lot longer than it does. It shouldn’t wear out. He said, it’s as if there’s a switch somewhere that’s just been turned off. And he said, we just have to find that switch. Are you — when you look at the DNA —
JAY: Yeah, I wouldn’t agree with Ray on that, but I understand where he’s coming from.
The human body isn’t a thing. The human body is a system. Think of the Amazon rain forest. It’s composed of enormous different things. It’s got trees and insects. It’s got birds. It’s got animals. It’s got leaves. It’s got photosynthesis. It’s got fungi.
It’s got all these things, and we call it the Amazon. It’s constantly changing. You are an Amazon rain forest. You have trillions of —
GLENN: I think that’s a fat joke —
JEFFY: It certainly was a fat joke to me.
JAY: So we don’t switch on or off the Amazon rain forest. No, the Amazon rain forest isn’t going away, despite, you know, our efforts to cut it down for lumber or to grow grass. But that being said, it’s about a system.
What we’re learning is how all the different systems of the body, including many that are not even human, we’re learning about the microbiome. These are bacteria that we need to survive in our guts and all throughout us, for which without them, we can’t make it.
GLENN: How far do you think we are away from curing the majority of cancer?
JAY: I think we’re far from curing the majority. But we’re not far from turning a significant number of cancers into a manageable, livable disease, like we did with AIDS.
We figured out not how to cure AIDs, but how to slow it down so you could live with the rest of your life with it, much like all men have prostate cancer. We just don’t die of it.
But literally, 100 percent of men, if you do an autopsy at age 75, are going to have prostate cancer. They simply are not going to die from it.
Cancer is essentially a natural byproduct of having multicellular organisms. Because in the process of duplicating at the cellular level, you’re going to have some mistakes randomly, and some of those mistakes are going to be so damned good at not being killed, that they’re going to reproduce in a way that’s bad for the organism as a whole, but good for the cell. So we don’t eliminate cancer. We eventually figure out how to manage with it.
GLENN: How far do you think we are away from that?
JAY: If you say 50 percent of — if you’re saying leukemias and blood cancers, we’re probably five years, maybe ten.
GLENN: Holy cow.
JAY: If you’re saying soft tissue cancers, more like ten to 20. But a lot of it depends on whether or not we get better at finding them sooner. Today, we cannot detect cancer until it’s about seven years old. So when somebody comes from a doctor and they say, “I’ve been diagnosed with cancer,” you’ve had it for seven years. We can’t see less than 100 million cells, which is less than the tiny point of a pin, 100 million cancer cells.
So cancer is a system disease of which we have many in our bodies, most of which will never come to the point where they hurt us. Cancer isn’t like an infection where it’s binary, you have it or you don’t. Cancer is a symptom of the system. And the system learns to cope with it for most of your life.
GLENN: What’s the most amazing thing you seen on the horizon in medical tech?
JAY: The most amazing thing is probably the mapping of the human protyle. So we call all the — the proteins are the workhouses of the body —
PAT: That’s what I was going to say.
JAY: They’re the things that do all the work in your body. Your DNA codes for proteins. Proteins are the worker bees of the body at the simplest level. We really have never mapped them all. And it turns out most of the diseases, if not nearly all of them are dysfunctions of protein operations. Proteins are very complicated organisms. They’re very, very small, but they’re very complicated. We are now at the cusp of mapping them all.
And forget about mapping the human genome, which is great. It’s the protium where all the action is at, and we’re right about to map it.
GLENN: What will that change?
JAY: Well, it will allow us, for the first time, to understand what’s really going on with disease. Up to now, we’ve actually not understood what’s really going on.
GLENN: What does that mean?
JAY: Well, it means that the proteins are malfunctioning. When you have a disease —
GLENN: Hang on just a second. I just want to — you know you’re in the room with someone who is smart when you’re — I’m now in three levels deep of asking what the hell does that mean, and really —
JAY: I’m trying — I’m trying to keep it broad for the audience. I’m not an MD or a PhD. I’m really not a doctor. I just talk to them all day.
GLENN: No, it’s amazing. Right.
JAY: And, by the way, that’s my spare time job because my main job is building a great company in Upside. So ironically, we’re off on the side here.
But the — basically, what it means is when we learn how proteins behave badly, we will recognize that your arthritis may be very similar to the fact that you have a sleep apnea, that they are the same proteins, just misbehaving.
There is a map of all the proteins.
JAY: And once we start to look at where the proteins are behaving badly, we now have the tools to finally figure out what the hell is going on with these diseases. We don’t know anything about Alzheimer’s. So much of that is a protein —
GLENN: So that’s why sometimes you’ll go in and things are absolutely not connected. Doctors will tell you, that’s not connected. Well, but they’re all happening at the same time.
GLENN: And, yeah, I know they’re not connected. But I’ve never had these before, and now they’re all happening.
JAY: Everything is connected. Okay? So anybody who tells you something isn’t connected — you don’t go into the Amazon rain forest and say, well, the fact that the toads are dying is unconnected to the blight on the trees. No, everything is connected. The question is, at what level?
JAY: Does it have a common cause? Or is it the result of common external factors? We’re learning all that.
GLENN: You know what I’m amazed, talking to people like you, A, I feel really average. That’s being very kind.
JAY: This isn’t your area of expertise, in all fairness.
GLENN: I know. But, still, this is — this is not your job.
JAY: It’s not my day job.
GLENN: And the people I meet like you, have they always been around? Because I look through history — and you’ll see the people like Tesla and Edison. You’ll see these people who are really quite bright in a million different things. We used to call them renaissance men.
GLENN: But there is something about this new group of entrepreneurs that they are — Jon Huntsman Sr. is a friend of mine and started the Huntsman Cancer Center.
GLENN: And he said to me — I asked him, teach me how to be charitable. I’ve been poor my whole life. I don’t know how to be charitable.
JAY: It’s an art. You have to learn how to do it.
GLENN: Yes. And he said, first lesson, you have to care about everything. Not just — you have to care about everything.
And that kind of goes to —
JAY: It’s very American. So this is a nation of insatiable curiosity. It’s always been that way. It’s because we’ve had the West. We were founded by a group of people who were fleeing somewhere else, with the handful of exceptions of the people who were here, right?
We’ve all come from somewhere else. We’ve all left a world behind, in order to come and build a new world in America. Nobody even knew it existed until 1500.
So the beauty of the American spirit is it’s a spirit of insatiable curiosity. That’s why we’re a nation of tinkerers, a nation of inventors, a nation that’s always trying to change. We don’t look back as a nation. It’s a weakness and a strength both at the same time.
But the fact is, this is — the country — America looks forward. People like that are insatiably curious about everything. And you find whether it’s John Muir or Thomas Edison, these people recognized that at the deepest level, it’s all connected.
So I have a great library in the history of human imagination. About 25,000 books.
GLENN: Love this.
JAY: Right? Now, it’s a library about imagination. People come to my library. And they say, “How are the books organized, Jay? How do you organize the books? You have 25,000 books. Is there a card catalog?”
I say absolutely not. They’re organized randomly by height. And he goes, “You have a library of 25,000 books organized randomly?” I said, “Yes. It’s about imagination. You connect them. They were all written by humans. They’re all connected. You figure out why this is connected to that.”
The act of imagining is the essential act of creation. Nothing happens if you don’t imagine it, whether it’s who you’re going to marry, the children you want to have, the kind of country you want to live in, the kind of job you want to have. It’s all about your imagination — everything happens here first. It happens in your head.
GLENN: We’re having a great debate now between the legal and business side and the creative side of this company, of what — who is the creative? And I keep saying, everyone is.
JAY: We all work for the customer. We all work for the customer.
GLENN: It’s not even that, I am, fill in the blank. I am happy or I am sad. What are you going to create at the basic level? And everyone has the same power in a different way. Just, what are you creating?
JAY: Yeah. And we’ve taught, unfortunately, in so many ways, we live in a society of specialists. We’ve taught, specialize. Focus on one field. Do the best. Your economic result will be highest if you specialize.
And that’s true. But it’s generalists who integrate completely, unexpectedly. When you look at Steve Jobs and his life, you see a generalist. Not a specialist. You see a guy who was happy to go to India, happy to learn about type fonts, happy to understand the aesthetics of design. And yet, he was a technologist. Why? Because, really, great leaps forward are made by people who integrate from multiple fields. And that’s why we call them polymaths, when they happen to be geniuses. Leonardo was a polymath. He was a genius in five fields. That allowed him to be a bigger genius in any one of them. And we see this throughout history.
GLENN: We’re going to run out of time so fast. Jay Walker, a serial entrepreneur. A founder — cofounder of Priceline. And many other things — 900 patents. We’ll continue our conversation with him in just a second.
GLENN: Let’s talk a little bit about the — the future and what you’re seeing in things like Priceline and Upside.
JAY: So one of the great futures is we’re living in this digital world, right? And everybody is saying, look at all this data. Okay. What does that mean to me? What does that mean to a person sitting out in the audience, and just listening and saying, okay. That’s nice. The world is filled with data.
Here’s one of the things it means. It means your flexibility, which right now you don’t get paid for, you’re going to start getting paid for.
Look, when you’re walking down the supermarket aisle and you see an item on sale, next to one that isn’t on sale, you can be flexible and say, I’m going to buy the brand that’s on sale today because I normally buy that brand.
But that’s just a small case. What happens every time you’re shopping online and somebody says, “Hey, are you willing to be a little flexible? I’ll give you $50, if you do this instead of that.” I’ll give you $90 if you do this instead of that.”
Imagine a smart piece of software that offers you options that gives you personally more money for being flexible. And, by the way, gives your boss something too.
So the key idea behind one of the things I’m working on is, how do you turn flexibility into an asset? How do you turn it into something where I have my phone — hey, look, I want to go to New York on a trip. But if I leave 15 minutes earlier, you’ll give me $50. If I leave — if I go into a different airport, you’ll give me $100. If I stay at a hotel across the street, that’s worth $200 to me.
I can’t find all those choices. There’s too many choices. But software can.
The beauty of the world we’re living in, with this new big data software, is it can evaluate tens of thousands of choices for you. Show you just a few that makes sense.
GLENN: So when we come back — can you talk a little bit about that? Because you’ve demonstrated that in Upside. And that’s — I got to that with you because I said, okay. What’s the catch? And you explained it to me. And I’m like, holy cow, that’s brilliant.
And you said to me, now, imagine that with everything.
So let’s talk about that. And also, I want to talk about the — the world that is going out and examining all these things, but then putting us into little teeny boxes, where we don’t see the big picture anymore.