A mind-reading helmet please, Mr Billionaire

Amazon.com Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos.

There is rich, and then there is Jeff Bezos rich. The founder and chief executive of Amazon.com just bought a newspaper business - The Washington Post - the way the rest of us pick up a newspaper at the shops. The Post cost him US$250 million (S$318 million), just a fraction of his US$25 billion personal net worth.

The co-founder of PayPal, Elon Musk (net worth: US$7 billion), also dipped a gold-encrusted toe into the Far Out Idea pond recently by proposing a futuristic high-speed rail system, Hyperloop. This is how it works: Make a big airtight tunnel between cities, suck the air out, and the metal tubes (with passengers inside) will be pushed along by magnets at whatever speed you like.

It's an idea that sends a childish thrill down my immature spine because it fits the mould of the classic billionaire scheme: It's big, bold, and just a wee bit nutty. And if things go wrong, they will go wrong in a spectacular, viral-video kind of way, with lots of screaming and people running in all directions.

The nice thing with being a billionaire is that even if you spout off about subjects you know nothing about, the world pays attention. Now, if I were to call for a press conference announcing my plan for lasting peace in the Middle East, I don't think anyone would show up, even if I promised a nice cake. But insert the word "billionaire" into my resume and presto! A full house.

So even if the title of my speech were, say, Snails: Nature's Wart Cure, I'd know CNN would be interested, or at least send an intern. And that is key to the Bezos and Musk story. Neither has a background in the newspaper business or mass rapid transit systems, yet neither feels the least bit discouraged in pursuing the idea. Nor has it stopped the world from listening and speculating.

Maverick mogul masterplans fascinate me but lately, I've suffered greatly from a dry spell. Some years ago, Musk unveiled the Tesla electric car and the SpaceX reusable spacecraft. Richard Branson founded the Virgin Galactic space tourism company in 2004.

Go further back, to 2001, and there is the Segway personal transporter from inventor Dean Kamen.

But what have the others in the Megabucks Club done lately to keep my hopes for a cool sci-fi future alive?

Steve Jobs gave us a few nice things but added zilch to the world-changing ideas list. Bill Gates has splashed his shekels around some very worthy causes, but nothing the former Microsoft boss has worked on even faintly resembles a plan to harness the awesome energy of volcanoes or find out if we all possess alien DNA.

James Cameron, who picked up some loose change from directing Avatar (2009) and Titanic (1997), used it to fund a few deep sea dives, during which he found a new type of sea cucumber, squid worm and a giant single-celled amoeba.

Look, I have nothing against sea cucumbers and a new squid worm or two is a nice addition to our big directory of squid worms. But Mr Cameron, you need to think bigger.

I've drawn up a list of projects for you when you are done messing about in tiny submarines: 1. Mind-reading helmet 2. Pill that makes me want to exercise every day 3. Or better yet, a pill that makes my body think that I just spent 30 minutes on the treadmill. I love the idea of one person with godlike powers because we live in a complicated world where things improve slowly, if at all.

Billionaires are like gamers with the cheat codes for life. They get to achieve five impossible tasks before breakfast every day.

And I like to think you need to be a bit crazy to make it to the very top. After all, thanks to Howard Hughes, the words attached to "billionaire" tend to be "eccentric" and "reclusive". He did fall off a cliff mentally in the end, but in his defence, he did build the world's largest flying boat out of wood, which in my books, qualifies him as a member of the mad mogul club.

I'd go so far as to say that it is the duty of the supremely rich to bring magic into our mundane lives.

Think Tony Stark and Iron Man. Bruce Wayne and Batman. Rich boys, cool toys. No team-building exercise or sending proposals up the corporate chain of command built that Batplane.

The best part of being a billionaire who wants to make history? Minions. Or else, what's the point?

johnlui@sph.com.sg


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