Living in Silicon Valley, one gets used to meeting people who are optimistic and who talk about changing the world. But as I lamented in this piece about the Valley’s obsession with Facebook and Twitter apps, most of its entrepreneurs either think too small or are focused on the wrong things. So, even though I am enthusiastic about its ability to take risks and innovate, I’ve been skeptical about whether Silicon Valley can really think big enough to solve global problems.
That was until I visited Singularity University, located on NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, this week.
To say that I was blown away with what I learned and saw in just a few hours would be an understatement. I left Singularity’s campus with the same excitement that I used to feel as a child about how engineering and science will, one day, save the world. The experience recalled childhood fantasies of technologies that connect the human brain to a central computer to share knowledge; bionic organs that give people superhuman strength; and nano-organisms that monitor and repair the body and cure disease. And I was reminded of my childhood fears of cyborgs becoming smarter than humans and taking over the world. All the great stuff from sci-fi movies.
Singularity University was founded by futurist Ray Kurzweil and X Prize founder Peter Diamandis, in 2009. It has a who’s who of the scientific community on its board and notable backers like Google.
The name of the university comes from a Ray Kurzweil book, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. In 2005, Kurzweil postulated that technology is hurtling humanity toward the next great evolutionary leap. By 2029, according to Kurzweil, computers will achieve human intelligence, and by 2045 we’ll be able to upload our consciousness into what, today, is called the cloud. So even if our bodies don’t live forever, our minds will.
No, the school doesn’t teach science fiction. It aims to solve the grand challenges that humanity faces—such as poverty, famine, disease, global warming, and dwindling energy supplies—by teaching select groups of business executives, technologists, and government leaders the advances that are occurring in “exponential technologies”. It challenges its students to think about radical new innovations that will affect the lives of a billion people within 10 years. “Exponential technologies” are those technologies that don’t grow gradually, but at light speeds—in fields like robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), computational neuroscience, and nanotech.
The university runs a 10-week graduate studies program and shorter executive programs. Classes are taught by the foremost experts in each field—like Dan Barry, three-time NASA astronaut; Vint Cerf, internet pioneer and Google executive; Daniel M. Kammen, UC Berkerley energy resources professor and Nobel Peace Prize winner; and Daniel Kraft, Stanford professor of stem-cell biology. Students learn about disruptive innovations and their implications and brainstorm on the sequences in which the next technology revolutions will happen.
During my visit to Singularity University, I attended Dan Barry’s class on robotics and AI, Daniel Kraft’s lecture on advances in stem-cell biology and genome testing, and a demonstration of a new device being developed by Berkeley Bionics.
I don’t know why, but I had long believed that AI was a legacy of the 70s and was a failed technology. I was surprised to learn that AI techniques are actually becoming commonplace today: in cyber-warfare, in Google’s new car, and even in new generations of toys. And a genome test—which would have cost over a billion dollars two decades ago—will soon cost less than $100. Advances in genome testing, it is postulated, may make it possible to create personalized drug formulations. In other words, rather than standard medicines that are formulated for everyone, it may be possible to create personal prescriptions based on a person’s DNA. Medicines that can’t be brought to market because they cause an adverse reaction in a tiny proportion of the population can be prescribed to those who benefit. I was also delighted to learn how Berkeley Bionics will soon make it possible for people who are paralyzed and confined to wheelchairs to start walking again. I saw one person who already is.
The university is hardly two years old, and I didn’t expect it to have enjoyed any successes. But its executive director, Salim Ismail, says that the school has already inspired many. It had four team projects start companies last summer, and 15 this summer. These startups include Acasa, which constructs houses through 3D printing; www.getaround.com, which provides peer-to-peer car sharing; and one that is looking to use beamed power to launch spacecraft. Ray Kurzweil even persuaded Israel to change its energy policy to focus more on solar rather than nuclear sources (and as a result, solar-energy use is going exponential).
So there is lots of hope for Silicon Valley and the world. But we need to get our top technologists, academics, and political leaders to spend a few days at Singularity University so that they start thinking big again. We also need to get American children excited again about studying engineering and science. And we need to reignite the passion in graduates of engineering programs at schools like Duke, Berkeley, and Stanford. Too often, they choose to become management consultants and investment bankers.