Singularity University seasons executives for the future

During the institution's inaugural executive program, 20 students are getting an intense education in the exponential technologies that could shape their companies and industries for decades to come.

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
6 min read
Ray Kurzweil, famous futurist and author of Singularity University

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--While I'm sure that many of the people in the room were familiar with prediction markets, I wonder how many of them had ever seen an active one up close and personal before.

Providing that sense of deep immersion, of course, was exactly the point of an exercise run Monday during a session of Singularity University's executive program by Melanie Swan, a Silicon Valley hedge fund manager. Swan, the principal of MS Futures Group, had tasked small groups of students with coming up with world-changing product ideas and then simultaneously had the students vote in an online prediction market looking at which product and team would be rewarded with the most faux-venture capital.

Despite the fact that some technical problems got in the way, the point was made: prediction markets, given enough active participation, are increasingly seen as an excellent way to arrive at the answers to any number of questions, whether it's sales figures, who will win presidential elections, or who will get the most VC funding. Indeed, the winning technology concept--a pill that could cure cancer--and team were accurately prognosticated by the market.

For the group of superstar achievers like the students in the executive program, this was but one piece of a meticulously constructed nine-day education that many hope will supplement and enhance already successful careers in a wide range of disciplines.

Other sessions included looks at the state-of-the-art in medical research from Daniel Kraft, an instructor in Stanford's cancer/stem cell biology institute, and Chris deCharms, the founder of Omneuron, a company working on new MRI technologies; future forecasting from Peter Bishop, the coordinator of the futures studies program at the University of Houston; a workshop in the future of medicine and biomedical technology from Stanford developmental biotechnology professor, Stuart Kim; and a talk by Harvard Law School professor and Internet law expert Johnathan Zittrain.

And that was all just on Monday.

Four start-ups emerged
Earlier this year, Singularity University (SU) ran its inaugural summer session, a nine-week program based at NASA's Ames Research Center here in the heart of Silicon Valley, aimed at giving the best 40 of more than 1,200 applicants a highly concentrated education in a series of exponentially growing technologies like biotechnology and bioinformatics; nanotechnology; AI, robotics, and cognitive computing.

For those students, who were chosen based on having demonstrated top-level academic rigor, entrepreneurial and leadership skills, an interest in global issues and who were seen as already being at the top of their chosen fields, the nine weeks were a marathon of long days and nights of lectures from world-leading thinkers, workshops in the technologies that could shape the future and group projects centered on coming up with ways to positively impact a billion people. Already, four start-ups have emerged from the summer session.

But now the first of SU's nine-day executive program is in full swing, and according to co-founder, X Prize Chairman and CEO Peter Diamandis, the goal now is to distill the best parts of the nine-week SU version and present them to the new students in a way that will be of the most use to them.

"The executive program is really focused on providing the information in a much more organized and digestible fashion for executives, addressing the issue of what's in the lab today and where is this going in five years," said Diamandis (see video below). "What is the key terminology that (the students) should know about these fields, what are the top ten breakthrough milestones that you should be watching out for, and, ultimately, how are these breakthroughs going to affect you, your company and your industry."

That's obviously a very ambitious mission statement, but for many of the 20 people lucky enough to be taking part in the executive program, Diamandis and his fellow organizers have succeeded in pulling together something very worthwhile, even as it is one of the most intense experiences of their lives.

"It's like taking medical school and boiling down four years into about four days," said Michael Gillam, a physician who runs the health care innovation lab at Microsoft. "That will give you a sense of the sort of depth of the material" covered during the executive session.

From the beginning, SU's founders--futurist and "The Singuality is Near" author Ray Kurzweil; Diamandis; and ex-Yahoo Brickhouse head Salim Ismail--had planned on the institution offering both the longer summer sessions and shorter, three- and nine-day executive programs. In the process of actually putting them together, though, Ismail said, the three-day version got scrapped for simply being too short.

Instead, the executive program's first group of students--20 people of varying ages and professions, half of whom are American and half international--arrived at Ames on Friday having paid the $15,000 fee, each in search of something a little bit different.

Sole focus is on tomorrow
For Gillam, the rationale for taking nine days off from work--he said he'd come on vacation from Microsoft since it would have been impossible to take part in the summer session--was crystal clear: to get a deep dive in the technologies that are coming screaming down the line at us.

"You can go almost anywhere today and hear about historical trends (or a) deep analysis of today," Gillam said. "But there's virtually no place where the sole focus is on tomorrow, and where we are going. That was extremely intriguing and what captured my attention."

For Peter Platzer, a currencies and commodities trader from New York, attending SU was all about having meaningful interactions with the diverse and accomplished group of faculty and staff and to get a better understanding of the kinds of exponential technologies that are being discussed there.

And according to organizers, some of the students, whose numbers include venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and government representatives, even came solely for the chance to meet, and potentially invest with, members of the start-ups that came out of the summer session.

Alumni network
Those potential relationships are possible because one of the things that's already developing at SU is a strong alumni network. That's evident at the executive program in the group of summer session graduates who have returned as faculty assistants--who also happen to be able to sit in on all the deliberations and discussions--and in the number of faculty who themselves have come back for more.

Diamandis said that there's no doubt that SU is fostering an ongoing network that is sure to benefit all who join. For example, he suggested that if, in the future, a graduate wanted to find someone who was a European robotics expert, they would likely be able to find such a person in the SU program. Because the executive program will be repeated in February and again in April, and the nine-week program next summer, there will only be more members of the network as time passes.

And as proof that SU graduates take their membership in that network seriously, Ismail pointed out that though it's only been two months since the summer students graduated, they'd already had a reunion.

To faculty member Dan Barry, a former NASA astronaut--and cast member of CNET News parent company CBS' "Survivor"--the main difference between the summer session students and those in the executive program is that while the former tended to be very smart people at crossroads in their lives and careers, the latter are very established in their respective businesses and are seeing how they can become aware of, and perhaps utilize, the future technologies being discussed.

Still, Barry said he sees more similarities than differences between the two groups. Both, he said, are "interested in technology and the future and are concerned about the state of the planet and the people on it."

For Barry, taking part as part of the faculty has been a refreshing change of course that, thanks to the "potential and excitement (I see) reflected in their eyes," has re-energized him professionally.

"When I talk with other astronauts...about space, we tend to talk about technical things," Barry said. "When I talk (to the students) it helps me to remember...what's spectacular about going to space."