Leading futurists, thinkers to launch Silicon Valley university

Dubbed Singularity University, the new program, run by Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis, will focus on exponentially growing technologies.

Co-founded by noted futurist Ray Kurzweil and X Prize CEO and chairman Peter Diamandis, Singularity University will begin offering a 10-week interdisciplinary course in exponentially growing technologies this summer.Photo by Singularity University

Starting this summer, some of the world's leading thinkers in exponentially growing technologies will be gathering annually at NASA Ames Research Center, in the heart of Silicon Valley, for 10 weeks of discussions on how to change the future. And you could join them.

The gatherings will be part of what is known as Singularity University, a brand-new academic institution co-founded by inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, X Prize chairman and CEO Peter Diamandis, and former Yahoo Brickhouse head Salim Ismail, and anyone can apply.

Singularity University is less a traditional university and more an institution that will feature intensive 10-week, 10-day, or 3-day programs examining a set of 10 technologies and disciplines, such as future studies and forecasting; biotechnology and bioinformatics; nanotechnology; AI, robotics, and cognitive computing; and finance and entrepreneurship.

The founders anticipate that students will come from all over the world, and they hope the program results in the founding of new companies, the evolution of scientific and technological thinking, and the solidifying of professional and personal networks among the highly-accomplished students and faculty.

To Kurzweil, Singularity University is a place to problem-solve and talk about the results of the most recent iterations of the exponentially growing technologies that have shaped modern life. Among them, he said, are vacuum tubes, integrated circuits, chips and microprocessors.

Now, he said, we are on the threshold of an explosion of the newest such technology, including 3D and self-organizing molecular circuits. And to Kurzweil, the ability to bring together the leaders in this wide range of fields is a rare opportunity to jump-start the future. (The program's name is based on the theories Kurzweil popularized in his best-selling book The Singularity is Near.)

For Diamandis, who previously co-founded the International Space University (a space studies program on which Singularity University will be modeled), the idea of building an interdisciplinary academic institution around the concepts of exponentially growing trends seemed natural--and powerful.

So, after bringing together 50 leading thinkers for a founding conference at NASA Ames, Kurzweil, Diamandis, and Ismail got the backing of Ames' director, Pete Worden, and a commitment of space at the center--a highly visual Silicon Valley landmark along highway 101--for the annual summer programs.

In addition to the core 10-week course, which will be open to graduate and post-graduate students, Singularity University will also offer 3-day and 10-day executive programs. The shorter version will be targeted at CEOs and CTOs, while the 10-day program will be aimed at rising-star executives who want to add to their knowledge and networks.

"These programs are there to give executives a look at what's in the lab today," said Diamandis, "and what is likely to hit the marketplace in the next 5 to 10 years."

This summer, Singularity University will kick off with just 30 or so students and will piggyback on the International Space University, which will host 120 students at NASA Ames. But in following years, the new institution is expected to expand to about 120 students, each of whom could be the next Larry Page or Sergey Brin.

"If we do our job correctly," Diamandis said, students "will meet, (discover their) common visions, and start companies together. They'll have a chance to match a nanotech expert from Russia with an AI expert from Silicon Valley and see what magic happens at the boundaries."

A stellar faculty
As evidence of how seriously many people in the fields of focus take Singularity University, it has pulled together what can only be described as a very impressive roster of faculty.

Among them are The Sims and Spore creator Will Wright; 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.

Befitting the serious nature of the program, its curriculum is not for the faint of heart. The first phase, said Diamandis, is a series of plenary lectures in which all students take the same coursework and learn together about each of the 10 disciplines.

"It's about learning the vocabulary" of the disciplines, Diamandis said, "the basic principles, so they can communicate better between themselves."

In the second phase, students will take deep dives into one of the 10 tracks, typically not one in which they already specialize, learning together in 10-person classes.

And in the final phase, the entire student body will come together to work on a team project.

"This is where the student body will focus as a group in taking on one of the world's grand challenges," said Diamandis, dealing "with global hunger, pandemics, climate change," or something similar.

And while the program's students can expect to work very hard and be deeply immersed in their studies, the faculty will be equally challenged.

"It caused all of us who were invited to be faculty to pause and think about it," said Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley-based forecaster who is teaching in the Singularity University program. "We're expected to be there for the full nine weeks, which is a breathtaking commitment of time."

But for Saffo, who is helping to organize the future studies and forecasting track with Kurzweil, being intimately involved with the program at every level is precisely the point.

"The real benefit of teaching is being able to participate," Saffo said. "It would be a waste of time to just show up, give a couple of lectures, and leave."

And while their involvement at any level would bring Singularity University the prestige it needs to recruit talented students and faculty, both Kurzweil and Diamandis said they would be teaching each summer.

For Kurzweil, that means teaching some of the future studies and forecasting classes, and for Diamandis, it means helping to build the curriculum and teaching where he is needed.

The students, meanwhile, will need to pony up some serious money to take part in Singularity University. The base fee for the 10-week program is $25,000, though Diamandis said that there will be a significant number of full and partial scholarships available, funded by private companies, and other contributors.

Ultimately, the results of Singularity University won't be known for some time. But given the people behind it and the likelihood of a steady stream of highly talented students, the odds of it producing the kind of deep thinking and world-changing technology the founders hope for are good.

"I have no doubt that society gets ever more complex, and the consequences of ever-growing technology become ever more difficult to anticipate and respond to," said Saffo. "So having a 10-week program of smart, committed people looking at the challenges from an interdisciplinary point of view can only be a good thing."