It’s not often that a book has the power to spawn an entire university. This seems to be the case with Ray Kurzweil‘s book The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (2005), a futurist discussion of where technology is leading us and an update sequel to two previous books of his: The Age of Intelligent Machines (1987) and The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999). In an in-depth article on the 2005 book, this Wikipedia article defines the Singularity as “a point in the future when technological advances begin to happen so rapidly that normal humans cannot keep pace, and are ‘cut out of the loop’.”
Most people would probably agree that technology is advancing so rapidly that we’re increasingly subject to information overload, but Kurzweil’s main thesis is basically an extension to Moore’s Law; that technology is accelerating at an exponential rate and will soon get away from human control.
In a scenario that could only happen in America, a group of educators and scientists have established an entrepreneurial university backed by NASA, Google and the International Space University, to be funded in part by venture capitalists and based largely on the ideas presented in Kurzweil’s book – then made him the university’s Chancellor.
Singularity University aims to attract the world’s top graduates, who will study across disciplines, in subjects such as A.I., robotics, nanotechnoloy, bioinformatics and finance and entrepreneurship. In this promotional video, vice-chancellor Dr. Peter Diamandis explains where the original idea for such an institution came from, where they’re headed,and promotes some lofty ideas about addressing the world’s major challenges. To quote Ray in the video: “The goal of Singularity University is to get the best minds in these information fields with the best students in the world. Both will contribute to each other and we will basically foster a deeper understanding of how we can solve the world’s major problems.”
Initially, the university will run 9 week summer sessions from the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. The emphasis will be on introducing grad students to other, complementary disciplines, presumably to foster a synthesis of ideas through cross pollination.
While the notion of using technology in an altruistic way sounds very appealing, I’m concerned that tying research to profits means there will be a price to pay at some point, no matter how fantastic the output that the university’s promoters are trying to produce. As one example, corporate sponsorship of pharmaceutical research can result in drugs that are of minimal benefit, that have side-effects that rival the malady in their voracity, and end up being over-prescribed by GPs who fall victim to a barrage of promotional advertising from the drugs companies keen to recoup their original investment. This all sounds a little forced to me, more of a “pressure-cooker” approach to research than a community of practice drawn together by common goals.