03 February 2009

Singularity University: Vaulting Into the Beyond

Looking over the array of geopolitical disasters and catastrophic lack of visionary leadership in the world, it would seem that you cannot get to the singularity from here. You will need to either "tunnel" below, or vault above the dysfunctional world of nation-states, religious fiefdoms, and tribal clash. The best work of the best scientists and technologists will only be bent to the will of the worst megalomaniacs and power hungry con-men. What to do?

Peter Diamandis (X-Prize) and Ray Kurzweil (The Singularity is Near) decided to jump-start the singularity by opening the Singularity University on the NASA Ames campus, near Stanford University, in the generative Silicon Valley.
The school hopes to attract students from a cross section of emerging disciplines - including nanotechnology, biotechnology and information technology - to tackle huge issues facing humanity. Pandemics and global health care concerns would be typical in scope and import.

"We are reaching out across the globe to gather the smartest and most passionate future leaders and arm them with the tools and network they need to wrestle with the grand challenges of our day," said Diamandis, who is perhaps best known for his current work as chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation, a group that gives $10 million awards to teams working on breakthroughs in fields such as space travel and genomics. "There is no existing program that will offer the breadth and intensity that SU will offer."

...Kurzweil and Diamandis began talking about creating the school last year, which led to a semi-secret meeting on the grounds of NASA Ames on Sept. 20.

Nobel Prize-winning scientists joined up with NASA engineers and executives from companies like Google Inc. to brainstorm ideas for the new university.

In the end, Google provided some money and NASA provided the physical space to house the school.

Google co-founder Larry Page played a key role in focusing the school's mission, encouraging its founders to "address the grand challenges of humanity," according to Kurzweil.

Unlike a traditional university, Singularity will consist of a single, nine-week course of study every summer, during which 120 students from a cross-section of disciplines will mix together to tackle weighty issues. Tuition will be $25,000. Candidates will be chosen mostly from graduate and post-graduate programs around the world. _SFGate_via_BrianWang
Will the Singularity University provide the right mix of rigour, non-conventional insight and inspiration, and directional foresight to produce graduates who are more like the school's founders (Kurzweil and Diamandis) and less like the Ivy League Whizzards of Wall Street and Washington DC -- whose blindly greedy and grasping hands would seemingly steal the future from us in their quest for ever more power and loot? Or will graduates of S.U. become yet more cogs in the machine that empowers the kleptocracies firmly ensconced in the world's capitals?

Believe me when I say that no one in power wants anything even close to "a singularity" to occur, much less "The Singularity." Discontinuities from wildly disruptive technologies will be the end of current power structures. Such disruption would bypass many current problems and create new sets of problems that today's conformists and tenured, bureaucratic minds could never understand -- much less solve.

The Singularity University sounds a good deal more serious about solving problems than most of the "gee-whiz! futurism" that has floated around the various futurist and trans-humanist organisations of the western world for decades. It is likely that some good things will come of it.

But -- "The Singularity?" Probably not. But SU may well spawn some of the seeds that lead to accelerating disruption.

More at Brian Wang's NextBigFuture and at Business Week.

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