Ten weeks to save the world: Nature does the Singularity University

by Andrew Maynard on September 15, 2010

You’ve heard the rumors and read the hype – but what really goes on at the Singularity University, based at the NASA Ames campus in Silicon Valley?  Nature’s Nicola Jones recently went along to take a look, and her report has just been posted – it’s well worth reading.

The Singularity University was co-founded in 2008 by Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis – two people not known for being shy and retiring when it comes to new ideas.  The mission is to

“assemble, educate and inspire leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies in order to address humanity’s grand challenges”

Each year the University runs an intense ten-week summer school for graduates, leading to something that Nicola – from a brief visit this August – describes as a “think tank mashed with a geek adventure camp and a business-networking cocktail party”.

When Nicola was writing her piece, she contacted a number of people – including me – for opinions and insight into the Singularity University. This is what I wrote:

Hi Nicola,

This is a bit of a tough assignment for me as I can only assess the SU from what I read on the web, and what I know of various people involved.  I’m actually quite envious of you spending some time there – would love to hear how it comes across on the ground.

From what I know and have read about the SU, I am a little conflicted in my thoughts.  On the one hand, I don’t buy into the vision that some of the people involved preach – I think that Kurzweil’s concept of the singularity is naive for instance, and that a number of the people involved in the SU – while extremely bright – have a somewhat narrow perspective on how science, technology and society work.  But…

…that said, there are two aspects of the SU that excite and intrigue me:  First is the idea of bringing innovative and imaginative thinkers together in a high intensity environment.  Academia is notoriously conservative, and this often has a limiting influence on research and its application that can hold back innovation.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it means that progress is often slow and steady, but is more likely to be grounded on tested truths.  Yet there are occasions where less constrained thinking could lead to significant innovation – this is becoming increasingly the case I suspect as different technologies begin to converge and open up possibilities of synergistic and non-linear advances.  It’s even possible to argue that disruptive or non-linear innovation – new advances that make a break from previous ones, rather than being evolutionary – are only really possible within a system that encourages intellectual risk-taking.  Over the past 50 to 100 years, science fiction writing has been the stimulus for many scientists to follow unconventional lines of thought.  I’m not sure how acceptable it is these days though for scientists to claim they were inspired by fiction – it certainly doesn’t fit the mould of how kids are taught science works!  So maybe there is a need for opportunities that allow scientists and engineers to let their imaginations run a little wild.  And just as science fiction can stimulate sound science and technology, maybe we shouldn’t get too hung up about how realistic or grounded some of the ideas floating around in the SU are.

The second aspect that excites and intrigues me is the idea of encouraging new and innovative thinking on technology-based solutions to pressing problems.  I’m a firm believer in the importance of science and technology in delivering solutions to global problems in today’s increasingly interconnected and resource-constrained world.  Looking to a future where nine billion people plus are struggling to survive and thrive on a planet where energy, water and other natural resources are increasingly at a premium, it is hard to imagine solutions that don’t rely on new applications of science and technology.  Yet the conventional ways that we use science and technology almost definitely are not up to the job of ensuring a sustainable future.  We have a naive trust in science and technology to deliver innovative solutions to problems, but we still struggle to invest with foresight in technology innovation.  We haven’t yet cracked how to ensure technology innovation solves the problems we need it to solve, rather than the problems it can solve (we are good at creating devices we never knew we needed, while people still die of disease, starve and go without water).  And we struggle to ensure the responsible development and application of innovation, in ways that benefit people without causing undue harm.  Part of the problem is that we are trapped on outmoded ways of doing things – we need a shakeup in how science and technology are developed and used to benefit society.  And this is where the SU seems to remove some of the constraints on thinking about what is possible that have limited our effective use of science and technology.

I still have my reservations about a program that runs the risk of running close to pseudoscience at times.  But without the benefit of experience, I would be prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt as a generator of innovative thinking that might possibly help ensure the effective use of science and technology in improving society around the world – as long as there are checks and balances to ensure imaginations are grounded at some point in the possible, rather than fantasy.

Inevitably, it’s my reservations about the Singularity University that come out in Nicola’s piece more than my excitement.  But that’s how these things go.

Having read the Nature piece, I still have my concerns over some aspects of the Singularity University.  But I must confess, if the call came asking me to head out there to help out – even if it was just making the tea – you wouldn’t  see my feet for dust! This is a place that calls out to my inner-geek – big time!

Without a doubt, the world needs spaces where people can inspire each other to think big ideas and to think about what it would take to make them work – without the constraints of pedants, skeptics and naysayers.  The Singularity University is one of those spaces.

Yet at some point, we also need spaces where people can inspire each other to think big and innovative ideas about how technology and society can come together to build a sustainable future – not just an exciting one.

I’m not sure that space exists yet.

1 Kiyomi Deards September 15, 2010 at 4:36 pm

“Yet at some point, we also need spaces where people can inspire each other to think big and innovative ideas about how technology and society can come together to build a sustainable future – not just an exciting one.

I’m not sure that space exists yet.”

I think this gets at what, to me, is one of the core issues in science engagement. In addition to the public and k-12 we also need to engage with other scientists and academics. I see a lot of potential for innovative ideas coming out of interactions between scientists and anthropologists / social workers / historians, etc. I can’t speak for other people, but I generally find my best ideas often come from speaking with people with completely different backgrounds because they identify different problems to be solved. I’d be really interested in any ideas out there on how to create and maintain these larger networks of community and collaboration.

2 Mike Treder September 16, 2010 at 8:41 pm

I agree with you, Andrew, that the kind of space you’re describing — “where people can inspire each other to think big and innovative ideas about how technology and society can come together to build a sustainable future” — does not fully exist YET, but I want to point out that there are people working very hard to accomplish what you envision. I’m referring to the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (http://www.ieet.org), where we are bringing together scientists, ethicists, policy experts, and others to build a world-class think tank driven by what we call a “technoprogressive” philosophy.

3 Andrew Maynard September 17, 2010 at 3:40 pm

Thanks for the reminder about IEET Mike. You’re right, these spaces are being built, and IEET is at the forefront of these efforts. But I think they still need to be bigger, more inclusive and higher impact.

Plenty of work still to do :-)

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