Singularity University

Salim Ismael, founding executive director of Singularity University, joined a few dozen of us for lunch in Berkeley yesterday to discuss “Seeing the Next Disruptive Technology.”

Singularity University is neither a university nor about singularity. It’s not a university so much as what the founders hope universities will evolve into. Currently the main program involves 80 grad students who come from around the globe to attend a ten-week summer program. The first half is intensive exposure to a host of mind-blowing speakers on exponential technologies; the second is an incubator for dent-in-the-universe projects. Not only is SU not accredited; one of their sponsors, the Kauffman Foundation, said they’d withdraw funding if SU were to be accredited.

Singularity is the point where the collective intelligence of machines surpasses that of humans. When this happens, maybe as soon as 2045, a form of snowballing super-intelligence erupts with thoughts we humans won’t be able to fathom. My personal interpretation is that we hit the singularity when the pace of time has accelerated beyond our ability to comprehend. It’s the light show that crops up in the journey to the future in the movie 2001. It’s chaos.

Since SU’s goal is understanding rather than being swamped, I suggested to Salim that maybe it’s the Un-singularlity University. The folks at Kauffman Foundation call it an un-university. So maybe we’re dealing with the Un-singularity Un-university. Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

The goal of Singularity University is to rewire students’ brains so they can escape the incremental thinking that bogs most of us down. Students learn not only about exponentially accelerating technologies such as DNA sequencing, communication, nanotech and AI, but about the interplay among them that will lead to “manifold intertwined technological revolutions.”

Here’s Ray Kurzweil, the popularizer of the concept of singularity and the “Law of Accelerating Returns:”

    This is the nature of exponential growth. Although technology grows in the exponential domain, we humans live in a linear world. So technological trends are not noticed as small levels of technological power are doubled. Then seemingly out of nowhere, a technology explodes into view. For example, when the Internet went from 20,000 to 80,000 nodes over a two year period during the 1980s, this progress remained hidden from the general public. A decade later, when it went from 20 million to 80 million nodes in the same amount of time, the impact was rather conspicuous.
    As exponential growth continues to accelerate into the first half of the twenty-first century, it will appear to explode into infinity, at least from the limited and linear perspective of contemporary humans. The progress will ultimately become so fast that it will rupture our ability to follow it. It will literally get out of our control. The illusion that we have our hand “on the plug,” will be dispelled.

Is your head spinning yet? Most of us don’t think in these terms. The University’s mandate is to find and create a new generation of leaders who can.

The main campus is at the old NASA Ames Research Center on Moffett Field in Mountain View. (Ironically, we set up one of the first groups to participate in what evolved into the University of Phoenix at NASA Ames more than thirty years ago.)

This summer 80 participants selected from 2,200 applicants will trek to Mountain View. Tuition for the ten-week program is $25,000. The goal is to assemble a student body that’s ⅓ female and from developing countries. Most students have multiple masters degrees or PhDs and are wildly tech-savvy. Google, Autodesk, Cisco, and others provide money for scholarships.

Salim has become SU’s Global Ambassador and is setting up SUs around the world; early results are looking good.

“Large companies can’t innovate,” Salim told us. Silos are comfortable. When innovation rears its head, the corporation’s immune system goes to work to eradicate it.