A school for changing the world

It’s a hot and sticky summer afternoon in Silicon Valley, and a group of students are chatting over drinks and food, having just completed the final presentations for their course.

On the surface, the scenes of jollity and relief are familiar from institutions around the world.

Here, though, things are different because these are no ordinary graduates: they are the first class to pass through the Singularity University.

The brainchild of the futurist Ray Kurzweil and his friend Peter Diamand is, the pioneer of personal space flight and founder of the X Prize Foundation, the Singularity University is meant to be a summer camp for people to learn about emerging technologies from the experts.

Earlier this year, 40 students with diverse backgrounds—among them medicine, physics, computing and law—were brought together and given an intensive training course in the most important futuristic ideas.
The ultimate objective? As its slogan says: “Preparing humanity for accelerating technological change.”

It is a lofty and ambitious goal. When it was formally announced at the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference this year, the idea raised some eyebrows.

Kurzweil, after all, has a reputation as something of a maverick—he believes that computers will become independently intelligent in the near future, for example—and some were concerned that the idea of a crash course in the future was a gimmick. However, the project gained a number of backers and more than $2m in funding. It was reality.

Housed on Moffett Federal Airfield, a former naval base about 30 miles south of San Francisco that is now used as a research centre by Nasa, the Singularity programme ran in a building that is used regularly by the agency’s International Space University (which provided the model for SU).

Over the past nine weeks, the students have attended classes from more than 100 faculty advisers and speakers, who have given their time for free as part of the experiment.

The subjects included biotechnology, space research, artificial intelligence and nanotech; visitors included luminaries such as Vint Cerf and Bob Metcalfe, often called the “fathers of the internet”, as well as the Nobel laureate physicist George Smoot and 21st-century success stories such as the game design legend Will Wright and billionaire investor Peter Thiel.

The students (or their sponsors) have paid $25,000 each to attend this hi-tech summer camp.

The cost was not a deterrent, however: staff had to sift through more than 1,200 applications, says Salim Ismail, the executive director of the project.

There is a largely balanced gender ratio, an international tendency and the average age is 31. But most difficult, says Ismail, was picking out a broad mix of skills.

“Clearly, if we had 40 nanotechnologists, it wouldn’t be a good mix. So we thought carefully about how many of each discipline we wanted in that founding class—and I think we’ve succeeded: they’re a frightening bunch.”

The real point, he says, is to arm the students with the tools they need to go out and make a difference in the world, using the smartest and fastest-growing technologies to overcome some of the planet’s major problems. And it’s not only the students who will benefit from the programme.

Tara Lemmey of Lens Ventures is an investor, entrepreneur and former head of the Electronic Frontier Foundation who has been running one of the project’s academic tracks.

She believes the experience was almost as illuminating for those who taught classes and gave talks as it was for the students.

“We learned from each other,” she says. “We learned how to think about engaging people, the hard questions that come up. The students are covering so much subject matter, and we don’t as the faculty - we cover ours and sit in as many as we can. So it’s a real mashup of some of the most interesting, provocative ideas.”

The first stage of the course involved a wide range of lectures, talks and discussions that touched briefly on a variety of topics. After that, students could take a deeper look at more particular subject areas. After this came the final project phase, which lasted a couple of weeks.

This part of the scheme was intended to let the students demonstrate what they had learned, rather than produce blunt commercial pitches—but by the time the presentations came along, some of the students were clearly eyeing investment from the gaggle of venture capitalists gathered in the audience.

Gettaround, a peer-to-peer car-sharing system that helps people make money from their vehicles—a polished concept complete with technology demo - certainly had business chops, but it remained unclear quite how it would revolutionise the lives of billions.

Another team, One Global Voice, put forward plans for a software platform that would help entrepreneurs in emerging economies build SMS applications. Xidar, a team including two Britons—the entrepreneur Simon Daniel and the banker-turned-neuroscientist Laurence Hayes—proposed a suite of emergency systems that would help save lives during a major disaster.

One of the most intriguing projects, though, was Acasa, a scheme to build houses using 3D printing technology. The concept boiled down to a portable, programmable gantry that piped concrete into customised patterns, building up layer upon layer of material until the shell of a building was complete. The system, its creators said, could build an entire house in less than two days: they plan to form a company and try to raise money to help build houses on a large scale in the developing world.

One of the Acasa team, Marianne Ryan, who is finishing a degree at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, said that approaching huge problems became far easier through the unique combination of experts with different backgrounds.

“It was interesting, because I do have some colleagues here who are already doctors or are doing PhDs in bioinformatics—I thought it would be really challenging to develop a curriculum that would speak to them as well as to me. Somehow they managed to find the sweet spot.”

Their presentations done, the class could let off a little steam. Sofya Yampolsky, a graduate student from New York with a background in arts and future studies, explains how her sense of perspective and scale had drastically altered since she began the course. 

“There was so much to learn that it was difficult to believe that you could actually retain everything you’d heard - but a salient point was calling a friend of mine back in Boston,” she says. “All of a sudden all these facts kept surfacing about nanotech and networks and computing that I didn’t anticipate that I’d retained.”

She adds: “I don’t think there’s such a thing as a normal life after SU. It just changes the way you see the world.

Now when someone says anything less than a billion people, it doesn’t seem like a big deal. The numbers, the scale, has drastically changed. The vision is so much bigger.”

With results like that, Ismail says the inaugural class has gone as well as anybody could have predicted.

“The students have been phenomenal, we’ve attracted some of the top thinkers in the world, every week or two we’ve had some extraordinary figure come by and chat with the students,” he says.

Still, he adds, this year is a work in progress. In the winter, the organisation will run a course and next year it plans to expand the summer course to accommodate 120 students a threefold increase. Will that change what happens? Will Singularity University have to tweak the scheme?

“We’re tweaking almost non-stop,” he smiles. “This is essentially a real-time institution.”—

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