At Singularity U., big brains meet the future

During nine weeks at NASA Ames, an elite class of 40 is given access to thought leaders as it envisions tech to address real world needs, such as car sharing.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read
Vint Cerf, the 'father of the Internet,' is one of the many thought leaders that students at Singularity University get a chance to learn from. Singularity University

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--Sitting in a classroom, listening to students explain their approach to an assignment to develop an initiative to impact the lives of a billion people over ten years, one could be forgiven for taking it all with a grain of salt.

After all, student projects like this are usually peppered with holes, naive assumptions, and unrealistic goals.

But here at Singularity University, things are a little different. This group project, which aims to flip the car sharing movement on its head and bring affordable transportation to the masses, started less than two weeks ago but has already won a prize and attracted venture capital interest.

That's because Singularity University is no run-of-the-mill academic institution, and its students are not the usual breed of dreamers with good intentions. Founded by leading futurist and "The Singularity is Near" author Ray Kurzweil, X Prize chairman and CEO Peter Diamandis, and former Yahoo Brickhouse head Salim Ismail, the nine-week course examines exponentially growing technologies like biotechnology and bioinformatics; nanotechnology; AI, robotics, and cognitive computing. As well, the 40 students in the program are focusing on future studies and forecasting, and finance and entrepreneurship.

Those chosen for the program are truly the cream of the crop. After all, they have regular access to superstar teachers like George Smoot, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics; Dan Kammen, co-director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change team that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore; Vint Cerf, Google's chief Internet evangelist; and Stephanie Langhoff, NASA Ames' chief scientist. And speakers include PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, Ethernet co-inventor Bob Metcalfe.

According to program director Ismail, this summer's inaugural Singularity University class of 40 students was chosen from among more than 1,200 applicants from around the world. Ismail said there were three main criteria for selection: students who already had top-level academic rigor and who are already at the top of their respective fields; those who have demonstrated leadership and entrepreneurial skills; and those who have demonstrated interest in global issues.

The result? A class of doctors, advisers to prime ministers, CEOs and successful start-up founders, just to name a few.

Singularity University students get regular access to technology superstars like PayPal co-founder and hedge fund manager, Peter Thiel. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

So when I showed up Wednesday to observe the program in action and first sat in on the car-sharing group project demonstration, I realized this was something I should take seriously.

The 40 students are split into four teams, which get three weeks to come up with a project that, as stated above, could impact a billion people over the next 10 years. The presentation I saw was by a group that was calling itself Gettaround, and which has set as its goal the creation of a new car-sharing program that would incentivize car owners to rent out their vehicles to members, while also making it easier for people to find cars to use for short drives in many more places than are served today by companies like ZipCar or CityCarShare. Ultimately, the idea is to spread the program to developing countries around the world, ideally helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the process.

At the heart of Gettaround's proposal was an iPhone application designed to make it possible for members to locate available cars and, then, when physically approaching them, to start the engines via a low-priced kit installed in the vehicles.

The app was awarded the "best money-making iPhone app" prize at a recent iPhoneDevCamp event in Sunnyvale, Calif., and on the strength of that, the team members said that they've already identified interested venture capitalists and are most likely going to pursue the project as a real business upon completion of Singularity University.

Students speak
After the presentation, I got a chance to speak with some of the program's students about their experiences at Singularity University over the last eight weeks.

This is an amazingly diverse group. Among the 40 students, half are from other countries, and 35 percent are women. The average age is 31.

I first talked to Sarah Sclarsic, 25, of Boston. She's a former medical school student who had previously designed her own emerging technologies major at Harvard University and who has a deep interest in health care and public health.

Sclarsic said the Singularity University course has been hectic, "but for me, that's good."

Among the most valuable aspects of the program, she said, is that students are shown, from the beginning, how the various fields being taught here relate to each other or, at least, can cross over in real-world practice.

She pointed out how she had never before thought about how someone working in quantum computing might have their research converge with health care, or how fields like computational biology, quantum computing, and protein folding intersect.

The results of such convergence down the line? That doctors may be able to design new therapies meant for specific patients, a "huge ability we've never had before."

But this isn't the distant future, she pointed out. The main focus of Singularity University is to teach the students how the various disciplines being taught will converge in the near future, and to help them see how to turn these developing technologies into real-world businesses.

For V.J. Anma, an entrepreneur from Seattle (via India), deciding to come to Singularity University, where tuition is $25,000 (though many students get at least some scholarship help), was based on his conclusion that his career building high-tech start-ups would be enhanced through introductions to his fellow high-powered students and the industry leaders and venture capitalists they'd meet. He was also drawn to the idea of discovering how the various technologies being taught all relate to each other.

"It has definitely lived up to my expectation of being able to learn new ideas and connect with people," Anma said.

One phrase he used to describe the intensity of the program, especially the early weeks, was that it was "like drinking from a fire hose."

Oddly, that was the exact same phrase used by another student, Paul Lem, a doctor and biosciences company CEO from Ottawa, Canada. Lem said Singularity University offers its students so many world-class mentors and "so many amazing opportunities" that, yes, "it's like drinking from a fire hose."

Lem, too, lauded the program's focus on teaching the students to "think about where all these exponential technologies (are) going, and to see where they're all going to intersect."

A huge fan of hockey star Wayne Gretsky, Lem said that one invaluable piece of the program is that it helps students visualize the near future and to "skate to where the puck is going to be." In other words, they will--hopefully--be able to determine where the various fields of technology being taught are heading and be among the first to get there to capitalize on the convergence.

"I'm not sure how it's all going to shake out," Lem said, "but mix enough of this stuff together, and really cool stuff is going to happen. Seeds are being planted in the ground, and they're going to germinate and sprout this cool rain forest of incredible things."

To Ismail, this inaugural Singularity University program has been a revelation about what's possible when you bring together so many talented students with the kinds of world class instructors that are possible in Silicon Valley.

He said he thinks the program has been going "phenomenally well" and said that he's been blown away by some of the ingenuity on display.

For example, he recalled that during a discussion on entrepreneurship, one student registered a domain name, threw up some Google AdWords against it, and started generating real revenues. All during a single lecture.

Ismail didn't use the drinking from a fire hose image, but he did say that he's been amazed at seeing the breadth of what's "coming down the pike" in the various fields being taught in the program and that, "I've been surprised by how mentally drained I am at the end of each day."

He also said that, so far, there are five companies likely to be started by groups of students in the program, including the Gettaround team, and that some of the program's founders are already interested in putting money into some of the projects.

The number of such companies emerging from the program should only increase in future years, as Singularity University will expand from 40 students to 120 next year. But despite a larger class, there's still no way that everyone who wants to take part will be able to attend. And with that in mind, Ismail said, the program is considering how it can share its content with the world at large. One possibility is the Ted conference model, in which lectures and discussions may well be posted online for all to see, free of charge.

For now, though, it's all private, and to the students who managed to get in, an extremely valuable experience. They seem acutely aware that they have been granted access to what could be one of the most exclusive technology clubs in the world, and one that will almost certainly bear important fruit in their careers.

"Creativity is about mixing and matching different building blocks together to build something new and powerful," Lem said. "I've never before been in a place where there are so many building blocks that you can move around."

Correction: This post was updated at 5:40 p.m. PDT with the correct spelling of Salim Ismail's name.