Computers

Singularity University Gives Execs a View of the Future


In his various roles as a computer programmer, an emergency-medicine physician, and the director of Microsoft (MSFT) Medical Media Lab, Michael Gillam stays well ahead of the advances that are transforming health care. Yet even he can be caught unawares by the pace of technological change. Gillam was reminded of this recently during a nine-day boot camp aimed at instructing professionals on how robotics, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and other cutting-edge disciplines are affecting industries. Gillam, one of 20 participants in Singularity University's inaugural program for executives, was listening to futurist Ray Kurzweil. "We will have plenty of computation as we go through the 21st century," Kurzweil told attendees in the small dining room featuring Spanish Mission-style decor. "That is not so controversial. The more controversial aspect is really, will we have the software?" Watching the presentation, Gillam realized that the medical industry is woefully unprepared to handle and analyze the vast amounts of data likely to be unleashed in coming years as health records are digitized and physicians are able to track more information. "[I realized] we have to do this quickly," Gillam says. "You look at those graphs and you feel a strong sense of urgency." That's the kind of conceptual shift Singularity University's creators hope to provoke. Kurzweil, author of The Singularity Is Near, and X Prize founder Peter Diamandis began Singularity earlier this year. Singularity offers a nine-week summer program for graduate students and the compressed session Gillam attended. Preparing for Disruptive InnovationSingularity's founders and its executive director Salim Ismail, formerly head of Yahoo's (YHOO) Brickhouse product incubator, want participants to leave with a sense of where opportunities lie—and the dangers of failing to prepare for them. "We want to help them avoid becoming the next Kodak (EK)," Ismail says in reference to the film company that failed to prepare for the advent of digital photography. Other examples abound, Diamandis says. "The newspaper industry and the publishing industry are falling as a result of digital communications," he says. "You have Detroit in serious trouble.…These are century-old billion-dollar industries, and many of these [disruptions] had been foretold." Both programs take place at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field in the heart of Silicon Valley. The first of the executive programs ended Nov. 15. Attendees hailed from business, nonprofits, government, and academia in 10 different countries; some sessions lasted from 8 a.m. till past 10 p.m. "If we do our job right, this will affect where companies invest, the types of companies they acquire or don't acquire, the type of employees they hire, and where they put their research and development dollars," Diamandis says. During the first few days, participants heard from thinkers and practitioners in six key areas: artificial intelligence and robotics; nanotechnology; biotechnology and bioinformatics; medicine and human-machine interfaces; networks and computing systems; and energy and environment systems. Instructors included Ralph Merkle, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing who specializes in nanotechnology; Dan Barry, a former NASA astronaut who's now an entrepreneur, taught robotics. TechShop for EntrepreneursIt takes more than money to prepare for change, said biologist Andrew Hessel, a veteran of biotech companies including Amgen (AMGN). "You can throw a billion dollars at these types of problems and not really go too far," he said during his session on biotech. Later in the week came visits to Bay Area companies and organizations that are putting new technologies in motion. NASA researchers discussed using algae to produce new types of fuel, while researchers at Halcyon Molecular talked about breakthroughs that helped them produce ultrafast, low-cost genome sequencing techniques. Participants were especially wowed by a jaunt to Menlo Park's TechShop, a kind of Kinko's for industrial design that gives members access to an array of tools, from drill presses and band saws to laser cutters and metal-bending machines. Initially set up with hobbyists in mind, TechShop has also become an entrepreneur's workshop that underlined one of the key themes of the week: Thanks to technological advances, even small players on a budget can disrupt long-established companies. "It used to cost almost a million dollars to get prototypes out the door," Gillam says of TechShop. "Now someone can do it on their own in a couple of weeks." TechShop charges a $120 monthly membership fee. For the last part of the program, students worked with facilitators from Palo Alto (Calif.)-based innovation and design consultancy IDEO and used feedback from university faculty to describe how they expect the emerging technologies to impact their industries in the coming decade. Forum on the FutureLunk Jayanata traveled from Jakarta, Indonesia, to glean insights for his three companies, including one that invests in tech startups. "This is the only institution that gathers all these smart people in a forum to discuss what's coming," he said. Singularity University hopes the classes will also pay dividends through an alumni network that helps keep participants on top of the latest developments and helps them recruit future employees and business partners. "There's no way any one of us can keep up with everything," says Ross Shott, a student from the summer program who helped run the executive program. "But there's very little that's going to slip by all of us." Ismail says 18 companies, the governments of six countries, and representatives from four U.S. agencies have expressed interest in the next executive session, scheduled to start in February. Some companies have also approached him about creating an in-house version on their own sites, an option Ismail is considering. "The world is completely changing in every domain at a very fast pace," Ismail says. The companies that are interested in Singularity University "think we have a finger on the pulse of how it's going to change and how you can navigate that."
E.B. Boyd is a freelance journalist in San Francisco.

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