What Traditional Academics Can Learn From a Futurist's University

For 9 weeks and $25,000, Singularity U. challenges some entrenched notions about learning and technology

Pauline Lubens for The Chronicle

Ray Kurzweil, who co-founded Singularity U., describes "singularity" as the point when computers will transcend human thinking. The program mixes technology, futurism, and corporate support.
September 14, 2009

"We're going to be unapologetically interdisciplinary," said Neil Jacobstein, chairman of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing, during one of the first lectures at Singularity University. "That's not because it's fashionable, or because the faculty took a vote, but because nature has no departments."

The students burst into applause.

That dig against traditional institutions was par for the course at the unusual new high-tech university, which wrapped up its first nine-week session at NASA's Ames Research Center here last month. Students were asked to come up with technological projects that would help at least a billion people around the world, reflecting the techno-utopian vision of the institution's founders.

Those founders had a bigger stamp on the curriculum than would any traditional university president or chancellor. They are Ray Kurzweil, an inventor and futurist who believes artificial intelligence soon will exceed human thinking, and Peter H. Diamandis, a successful entrepreneur devoted to helping humans colonize other planets.

Mr. Kurzweil helped popularize the term "singularity," used to describe the moment when thinking machines transcend their creators.

Mr. Diamandis co-founded a company that was the first to take a tourist to the international space station and is best known for creating the X Prize, which offers multimillion-dollar prizes to motivate people to solve grand challenges, like making commercial spaceships.

Absorbing Genius

Both men are known for thinking big about the future and for starting companies that capitalize on their predictions. And both are, well, out there in their views of how radically different things will be in just a few years. Mr. Kurzweil, for instance, just co-wrote Transcend, a book in which he argues that technology will soon allow us to replace our DNA with tiny computers that we can reprogram to help fight off diseases.

Many of the 40 students who made up the inaugural class said they agreed with some (though not all) of the founders' beliefs, but they appeared far more interested in learning what makes them tick as entrepreneurs. Spending quality time with Mr. Kurzweil and Mr. Diamandis—and with the famous professors on the summer program's roster—was a key reason several students cited for shelling out the $25,000 for tuition.

As one participant put it: "This is what we're actually aiming for—to absorb as much of the genius as we can."

Demand for the program was stratospheric, with more than 1,200 students applying to fill 40 slots, according to the institution's leaders. That makes the program more selective than Harvard University. And Singularity University isn't even accredited.

It's all evidence that the university has touched a cultural nerve, playing on hopes and anxieties about how technology is changing society—and tapping into an urge to more actively shape that future.

Those same forces are leading professors at traditional universities to explore similar questions. A high-profile meeting of computer-science professors this year, for instance, explored the potential long-term dangers of computer technologies, with an eye toward shaping policies to avoid the worst-case scenarios popular in Hollywood movies like The Terminator.

Singularity University is itself an innovative approach to education, bearing more in common with a fast-paced start-up company than an ivory-tower university. Some of the professors here—many of whom teach at traditional colleges during the year—said traditional higher education can learn from the entrepreneurial venture.

A Different Culture

During Singularity University's orientation in June, a cellphone taped under one of the students' chairs suddenly started ringing. Students gradually realized that each of their chairs concealed a new G1 smartphone—a gift from Google, which makes the software that runs on the phones, and which is a corporate sponsor of the university.

It was the first of many corporate-sponsored surprises that made the university's proceedings feel, at times, like a reality-TV show packed with product placements. (Many sessions were in fact, filmed, and leaders say some of the lectures will soon be made available free on the university's Web site.)

Among them:

n When one homework assignment was due, the first student to turn it in got an unusual perk—a ride in an electric sports car made by Tesla Motors. All the students received a "lecture" about the car by a company spokesman, as part of a session on emerging trends in energy technology.

n During the first week of classes, the university held a "spit party," where students submitted saliva samples to have their DNA sequenced by a company called 23andMe. The students were later given their results as part of a discussion about trends in genetic research.

n And several students participated in an optional field trip into zero gravity (for an extra fee), in an airplane that made violent maneuvers to create short periods of weightlessness for its passengers. The trip was operated by Zero Gravity Corporation, which was co-founded by—you guessed it—Mr. Diamandis. The students dressed up in evening attire (with women wearing shorts underneath) and called it the first-ever cocktail party in weightlessness.

The summer session was divided into three parts: In the first three weeks, students sat through marathon lecture sessions by experts from business and academe. During the next three weeks, each student chose one of four areas of focus for more in-depth study. And during the final three weeks, students broke into groups to work on those world-changing student projects.

At times the proceedings had a chaotic feel, with leaders adding new speakers at the last minute and making other changes in the schedule, according to some instructors. But students say they were given an unusual amount of influence in how things progressed. Halfway through the first full day of lectures, for instance, students were asked to rate the quality of the presentations with a show of hands. Most students gave them a six or seven out of 10 and said they wanted more time for questions—a request that leaders pushed future speakers to meet. At many traditional universities, student evaluations occur only after a course is over. Singularity students, many of them entrepreneurs themselves, were also not shy about trying to change the agenda.

"Students would just say I would really like to see this, so I'm just going to do it," says Neil Thompson, a student who at one point organized a lunch meeting between a few students and an expert the group wanted to meet.

The bulk of the sessions dealt with the good that technology could do for the world—and many students described themselves as firm optimists.

But in one two-night session, the students listed the 10 most difficult challenges posed by the coming "singularity."

But even that ended on an upbeat note, according to Marianne Ryan, a student at the university who is now headed back to a doctoral program at the University of Michigan's School of Information. "On the second night," she said, "we brainstormed solutions to them."

Other Studies of the FutureOther Meetings

Just a few months before Singularity University opened, another big meeting of the minds convened to talk about the future of technology. Eighteen top computer scientists from college and business laboratories attended the invitation-only event, sponsored by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence.

This one was held at a conference center at Asilomar State Beach, in California, the location of a famous gathering in 1975 of scientists to discuss social and policy implications of genetics research.

Participants in the meeting, which lasted two days, discussed three major topics: concern about the pace of technological change, shorter-term technological challenges, and ethical and legal issues. Most disagreed with Ray Kurzweil's scenario of the future, though his worke clearly shaped the discussion.

"There was overall skepticism about the prospect of an intelligence explosion as well as of a 'coming singularity,' and also about the large-scale loss of control of intelligent systems," said a draft report from the meeting, released last month. "Nevertheless," the report said more research should be done to "minimize unexpected outcomes."

A few universities have departments or centers devoted to "futures studies," to tackle just such concerns and to make forecasts about what's to come. Such centers flourished in the 1970s, in the wake of Alvin Toffler's Future Shock. "They were like mushrooms after the rain," says James A. Dator, director of the Hawai'i Research Center for Futures Studies, at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. "But very few of them remain."

Mr. Dator says there is a rise in interest these days, though, and he sees Singularity University as an example of that. He points to courses in futures studies that have started at Anne Arundel Community College, the University of Notre Dame, San Diego City College, and other institutions in the past few years.

The benefit of futures studies, he says, is to question the assumptions of universities themselves, which he sees as offering a "pro-growth perspective" rather than recognizing that our uses of fossil fuels may not be sustainable, or other scenarios.

Peter C. Bishop, an associate professor of human development and computer science at the University of Houston, agrees that interest in futurism is on the rise. He is a founding board member of the Association of Professional Futurists.

He says that though Mr. Kurzweil is the most popular futurist of the moment, he is unusual in his certainty about how things will pan out. Most futurists try to imagine many possible outcomes, Mr. Bishop says, rather than describe a single vision. "Being certain about what's going to occur gets you lots of attention, but we don't think that's the right way to approach the future," he added.

Mr. Bishop was an early adviser to Singularity University, but says he did not have time to participate further.

Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster who is a consulting professor at Stanford University, chaired the futures-studies track of Singularity University. He says technology has become "an elemental force that, more than any other single factor, is changing our lives," and so should be considered by students in all disciplines. He praises Mr. Kurzweil's books for giving context to the new university, and for helping people understand just how fast change may come as technology improves at an exponential rate.

He says one thing he has been surprised at is how little higher education has changed as a result of technology. "Compared to most other markets, higher education in particular really hasn't felt the earthquake," Mr. Saffo says. "It hasn't had the, 'Oh my god, the world is different from now on.' Higher education is still pretty much the way it was in the 1950s."

The Singularity University model offers "some interesting lessons for academics," Mr. Saffo says.

Connecting DisciplinesOrigins

Mr. Diamandis says he dreamed up the idea for Singularity University while trekking in Chile during a vacation. He had brought along Mr. Kurzweil's hefty book, The Singularity Is Near, which boldly pronounces a timeline for drastic technological change over the next few years. Mr. Diamandis says that he felt it suggested a need to study the many technological areas identified as exhibiting exponential change, and that his first thought was to start a university to do just that.

Mr. Diamandis has created an academic institution before. In 1987 he cofounded the International Space University, which has become a leading training ground for officials in space programs around the world. The university has a campus in France, where it teaches a master's-level program, and holds a summer session here at NASA Ames.

Just a few months after thinking of the idea, Mr. Diamandis rounded up some heavy hitters from business and academe for a planning meeting last summer.

Mr. Saffo, the Stanford University futurist, remembers the gathering. "We all said, 'What year are you thinking of starting?' And they said 2009, which was just a few months away," he says. "We said, 'You've got to be kidding!' I mean, I start planning my course for 20 students at Stanford a year in advance."

Though the group of professors and advisers started meeting in person and by phone to draft a curriculum, the basic plan seemed to be to bring everyone together to see what would happen.

A key part of the university's game plan is for the students to follow through on the ideas they dreamed up for their final projects. One night Mr. Diamandis told students that he hoped some would start successful companies to bring their student projectsinventions to market (and he suggested that students donate a small portion of the profits to the university).

So what did the students come up with?

One team described a technology that would print easy-to-assemble building materials for affordable housing using a 3-D printer (essentially printing out a physical house). Another imagined a car-sharing system that would let people rent out their vehicles while they're not in use.

A couple of the teams are now working toat least one team has secured venture funds in an effort to make their visions a reality.

Ms. Ryan, a student on the affordable-housing team, says that several people in her group plan to take a leave of absence from their colleges or to quit their jobs to work for the fledgling company. She plans to stay involved while continuing her studies.

"We truly believe it is going to make a difference in people's lives," she says.