Singularity University: Inventing the Future

Salim Ismail, former Executive Director, Singularity University, Mountain View, California. Photo: ©2012

According to inventor Ray Kurzweil, computers intelligence will surpass that of humans in 2029. In the meantime, he brings together some of the world’s smartest humans to brainstorm and work together in solutions that will have a positive effect on a billion or more people. This is the Singularity University, founded by Kurzwell, Peter Diamandis and Google’s Larry Page, with the participation of NASA and Microsoft.

Sci-fi writer Vernon Vinge came up with the term Singularity, and Kurzwell adopted it for the title of his book, The Singularity Is Near. “It’s coming, and we must be ready,” said Kurzwell to my colleague Carlos Fresneda, when we worked on an article for El Mundo. When we visited the campus in Mountain View, there were dozens of resumes of applicants pasted on the walls. Only 40 would be selected to participate in the 10-week graduate course, July 2009. We met Salim Ismail and his team, who were abuzz getting ready for the inaugural course.

This year the doubled the classroom size to 80 students, each paying the $25,000 tuition. But the number of applicants has grown exponentially to 2,400 people. The Guardian features a great story on the Singularity University on its cover today. Carol Cadwalladr’s article gives me hope in journalism. And the things that he writes about give me hope in our world. Did you know, for example, that  Craig Venter plans to create microalgae biofuels and that Exxon has already invested $300 million in this project? I didn’t, although it sounds much like the play I wrote earlier this year, The Magical Seaweed, in which [spoiler alert], the villan oil magnate joins forces with the seaweed to make clean energy.

Cadwalladr was fortunate to join the Singularity University Executive Program for three days in March. She describes the learning experience as a combination of lectures by world experts, and getting together around tables with people interested in the confronting the same challenges: Hunger, Water, Poverty, Education… and it makes me think how much our educational system needs to grow, exponentially. My son’s public school, Open Alternative School,is very much focused on learning by doing and working together, but I’m not so sure that other schools are like that.

Luckily, change’s coming, not too soon. For example, my kids are using Khan Academy to learn at their own pace. Sebastian Thrun has launched his own free online academy,  Udacity, after the success of his first Stanford online course open to all. I was one of the 160,000 students that registered. I was very proud to have gotten an A in my first homework. But the following classes got more difficult and, unfortunately, I wasn’t on of the 23,000 who graduated.

What will we create next?

As Diamandis says, “The best way to predict the future is to create it yourself.”