Technology

Singularity U.: No Frats, Just Breakthroughs


In 2005, futurist Ray Kurzweil published The Singularity Is Near, a comfort-rattling forecast of a few decades hence when artificial intelligence will overtake human capability and an array of other huge leaps will fundamentally alter our lives. Now, Kurzweil is helping to launch a university rooted in the book's predictions.

In June, Singularity University is scheduled to open with a faculty replete with scientific celebrities, and an initial class of 30 students at NASA's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. The subjects taught over a nine-week period are a menu of the disciplines whose exponential advancement Kurzweil suggests will overturn the world as we know it—nanotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, energy, and more.

Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X-Prize Foundation and co-chancellor of the university, said he called Kurzweil after reading The Singularity Is Near about two and a half years ago. He asked whether Kurzweil was interested in launching a program similar to the International Space University, a space technology program that Diamandis founded at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Kurzweil agreed. Google (GOOG) has become a sponsor of Singularity University, and several company executives, including company co-founder Larry Page, are either on the faculty or are university founders.

Forward-Looking Radar

Singularity University is not meant to teach Kurzweil's specific predictions. "Our students will be the future generation of leaders and entrepreneurs who will create the exponentially growing technologies" described in Kurzweil's book, says Diamandis, whose Santa Monica (Calif.) foundation runs competitions for scientific advances with awards of as much as $30 million.

In the fall, the university will start offering 3- and 10-day versions of the program for executives. The shorter programs are meant to give corporate executives "the forward-looking radar they need to determine how these key technologies might transform their companies and industries in the 5 to 10 years ahead," says Diamandis.

Advisers and faculty include Vint Cerf, regarded as a co-inventor of the Internet and currently a vice-president at Google; Will Wright, the creator of Sim City (ERTS); Robert Freitas, a leader in the development of nano-robots; Stephanie Langhoff, chief scientist at NASA Ames; and Peter Norvig, chief of research at Google.

The venture comes at a time when CEOs are increasingly outspoken and nervous about U.S. math and science education, arguing that America's global competitiveness depends on vast improvements in the abilities of high school graduates. So far, there are few signs of progress in raising the test scores of U.S. students in math and science. Microsoft (MSFT) founder Bill Gates, whose Gates Foundation has become the leading private funder of education improvement programs in the U.S. with $2 billion of grants in high schools, said last month that the effort had produced just a few successes.

Interdisciplinary Cross-Fertilization

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said that part of the $150 billion proposed for education in the economic stimulus bill before Congress would go toward training more science and math teachers.

The idea of Singularity University is to assemble graduate students and those already working in various scientific fields, with the belief that advances come more easily when experts in different fields work together. A graduate student in nanotechnology, for instance, would receive expert briefings in future studies and forecasting; in biotechnology; in finance and entrepreneurship; in networks and computer systems—in 10 disciplines overall.

Each of the students would then be looking from different angles at the same set of problems. "The magic of breakthroughs occurs when you have nontraditional thinking around a problem that is stuck," Diamandis said. "It's when a mathematician works on a biological problem, for example."

The campus at NASA Ames is at Moffett Airfield, just a few miles down the road from Palo Alto's Sand Hill Road, a locus of venture capital. Venture capitalists will be part of the faculty, and there will be a "pitch day" toward the end of the program when students can try to attract funding for a proposed business. Diamandis expects numerous businesses to emerge from the program.

The size of future classes will expand to 120 students. Tuition is set at $25,000.

LeVine is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau.


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