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From X PRIZE to Singularity University

Peter Diamandis - Photos courtesy of X PRIZE Foundation

William Gibson came up with the then-fictional notion of cyberspace in the 1980s when he saw a bunch of teenagers playing video games while listening to Sony Walkmen. In this interview, Dr. Peter H. Diamandis, Chairman of Singularity University (Ray Kurzweil is Chancellor), reveals that he got intimations of “the singularity” in 1993 when he noticed people connecting to others by using their cell phones while traveling underground on the D.C. subway.

Diamandis is a serial social venture entrepreneur. He was born May 20, 1961, and graduated from MIT with his first degree in 1983. His enterprises include International Space University, the aforementioned Singularity University, Zero Gravity Corporation, Space Adventures, Ltd., and the Rocket Racing League. Dr. Diamandis’ most famous and influential creation is the X PRIZE Foundation, an educational, non-profit, prize-granting enterprise that aims to use competition to inspire innovations that are good for human civilization.

The $10 million the X PRIZE Foundation offered for its Ansari X PRIZE competition inspired Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to team up with Burt Rutan and create SpaceShipOne. It would win the competition by becoming the first non-government funded spacecraft to reach outer space. The X PRIZE is now offered in a growing number of categories, including the heavily publicized Progressive X PRIZE for automotive energy efficiency.

We spoke to Diamandis primarily about Singularity University. According to SU materials, “Singularity University, based on the NASA Ames campus in Silicon Valley, is an interdisciplinary university whose mission is to assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies (bio, nano, info, AI, etc.), and apply, focus and guide these tools to address humanity’s grand challenges.” Their nine-week Graduate Studies programs start on June 27 and their Executive Programs will start in the fall.

h+: Why are you starting Singularity University?

PETER DIAMANDAS: [laughs] It’s something that needs to happen. I am absolutely convinced that humanity is going to undergo some fundamental evolution over the course of the next few decades. We’re going from evolution by natural selection to evolution by intelligent direction. And the vast amount of breakthroughs — some of the most amazing breakthroughs are going to occur at the boundary conditions between all these exponentially-growing fields.

I feel that all disciplines (some more than others) are critical, and all nations will have a role in the evolution of humanity over the decades ahead. And sometimes, key technology breakthroughs are really fundamentally dependent on other breakthroughs. For example, an engineering concept might never see the light of day because the policies or laws are not in place to support its birth… or because someone can’t get the required capital together. So it’s very important to take people who are brilliant in their individual fields of AI or nanotechnology, robotics… whatever it might be, and help them understand how the other fields can fundamentally make or break their work.

So a critical aspect of this project is that it’s interdisciplinary. And it’s important that there may be some ex-Soviet scientist in Kazakhstan who’s got a brilliant piece of technology sitting on a shelf or some incredibly creative teenager in India who has a missing piece of the puzzle. These days, of course, innovation and breakthroughs can come from anywhere, so the interdisciplinary and international aspect is a critical part of what we’re doing. So those fundamental understandings are what drove me to propose this idea to Ray Kurzweil.

Photos courtesy of X PRIZE Foundation

h+: What do you intended to accomplish with SU?

PD: The primary goal… primary targets to be accomplished… are assembling a world-class team of graduate and post-graduate students every year that will ultimately build a network of future leaders who know each other, have a common vision, and can work well together.

h+: The article about SU in the S.F. Chronicle emphasized SU as a locus for problem-solving. Is that a priority?

PD: It’s an important aspect. I want to be very clear. The first priority is attracting and creating that network of the top people in their fields. There are two elements for our selection process that are important. One is that the students have to be the best in their individual field, but that’s not enough. The second part of the equation is that they really have to be demonstrated leaders. They have to be someone who is not passive, but rather able to go and lead and create. And by the time you’re in grad school or post-graduate, your attributes, like your willingness to take risks and lead have been demonstrated in some fashion.

Once we have a population of brilliant future leaders, the second goal is to teach them across disciplines so that they can create innovation.

The third goal… we’re hoping they’ll start new companies. We really want to create an ethos at SU for the founding of new companies that are right at the birth of these exponentially-growing fields.

And number four: we’re going to be asking the students to focus these tools — these extraordinarily powerful tools coming out of these exponentially-growing fields — on the world’s biggest problems. We have these large, global, intractable problems — pandemics, hunger, energy… whatever it might be. And the only way we’ll be able to handle them is by wisely using the power of these exponentially-growing technologies.

h+: You mentioned intractable problems. It’s an interesting choice of words, since you’re trying to make them tractable. So in terms of your own sense of being a visionary futurist, and Ray Kurzweil being a visionary futurist — do you think that the future people have envisioned is in danger of being sort of canceled by one crisis or another?

PD: I think these transformative technologies are powerful and cannot be stopped. They can be slowed down. For example, if you look at the curves that Ray Kurzweil has shown for Moore’s law, it’s a pretty consistent growth curve across recessions, depressions and wars. The biggest dangers that we have are the things that could fundamentally disrupt humanity — a global pandemic, a nuclear war, a form of terrorism that uses the same exponentially-growing technologies to do as much harm as they could do good. The technologies that we have at hand today are such that small groups of individuals can do extraordinary good or extraordinary harm with them.

h+: The original term singularity, from Vernor Vinge, relates to superhuman intelligence emerging decades in the future. Why use the word “Singularity” for this project?

PD: We had some discussion and debate about what we should name the university. And, to be clear, the university is not about The Singularity. It’s about the exponentially growing technologies and their effect on humanity. Now, one of the potential outcomes can be what has been referred to as The Singularity. There could be a multitude of futures. We’ll find out. But for me, when we talk about Singularity University, it’s really about these technologies and their ability to be used for good for humanity.

You know, we toyed with other terms… like Convergence University and others. But in homage to Ray and his work and his book, which was sort of the formative document that got me focused on this project, we called it SU.

h+: In terms of the Singularity, do you see a relationship between Kurzweil’s notion and other people’s notion of the Singularity, and your interest in space, and then your work with the X PRIZE?

We want to create an ethos at Singularity University for the founding of new companies that are right at the birth of exponentially-growing fields.

PD: My interest in space is sort of encoded in my DNA. It’s my life’s mission to open the space frontier. But I remember a moment in early ’93. I was in a subway in Washington, D.C. and I noticed that two or three people were on their cell phones. And I pulled out my cell phone, there was a signal and I was able to make a phone call. And at that moment, it hit me how totally ubiquitous technology was becoming — how inextricably tied to our lives. And it hit me that we were on a path of ongoing mergers with technology that was unstoppable and irreversible. So I was seeing Kurzweil’s Singularity.

So when that hit me, that humanity was on a mad dash to merge with or incorporate technology in an irreversible fashion… that was the only thing that caused me to momentarily take stock of my space-focused vision. I was so enamored with the concept, it got me to pause and wonder: was opening the space frontier still of any value?

h+: And this is a big discourse among people who feel that Singularitarian and other technologies open up a virtual space that’s going to be so worthy that the physical space is no longer as important.

PD: Sure. And of course, that will be a debate.

By the way, I had the pleasure of flying Stephen Hawking into zero-G about 18 months ago. I don’t know if you read about that. If you go to the website for my company, Zero G Corporation (see Resources below), you can find stuff there about it. We flew Stephen Hawking into zero-G. It was a very successful flight. We had huge media coverage around the world. So I asked Hawking why he was doing this? And he answered — before the media at the press conference — that he believed that if the human race does not evolve into space, we don’t have a future. Because there are so many problems — with asteroids, pandemics, war — that we, effectively, have to backup the biosphere.

So opening the space frontier is critical for the purpose of backing up the biosphere, and for getting access to the resources needed for the continual growth of humanity. And the Earth, if you look at it, is a crumb in a supermarket filled with resources — the asteroids, the interstellar materials and so forth. We have the ability to have limitless manufacturing and limitless energy. And we really need the raw resources required to envision whatever might be possible.

Left to right: Robert K. Weiss, Larry Page, Peter Diamandis, Buzz Aldrin - Photos courtesy of X PRIZE Foundation

h+: What are some of the directions for the university, some areas of study or some speakers that you think are the most exciting, or are the most exciting for you, that will be coming up?

PD: Well, we have this partnership with NASA and with Google, and we’re in discussions with a number of other major high-tech companies in Silicon Valley. And we have the courses of computational network systems, AI and robotics, human-machine interface… those are exciting.

h+: Earlier in the conversation, you were saying that you hoped people who come to SU go on and start companies and projects and so forth. Are you planning to do follow-through and maintain contacts with people who participate in this?

PD: Oh, absolutely. And we’re going to be teaching the students who come to SU about entrepreneurship and finance. And the students who come up with great business ideas… we’re going to have a pitch day to the venture capital community at the end of the program. And we’re also creating a program we call the one percent club. So students who donate one percent of the equity of their company to SU will be given prominent notice. Also, besides the summer program, there will be three-day and ten-day executive programs. And CEOs, CTOs, CMOs of companies will come to get some of what I call forward-looking radar. Any CEO who’s not worried significantly about the future of their company, or doesn’t recognize the power of these exponentially-growing technologies could have to transform their industry, needs to be.

h+: I’ve talked to some people who have the expectation that SU is going to solve really big hard problems. Should people have the expectations that you’re really actually going to solve some of the big ones?

PD: I think we’re mostly going to get to grapple with what the technologies could do once they come into existence. And I think having a clearly defined idea of that is the first step in solving problems that will emerge So is understanding what the problem is and what the technologies might be. But… you guys know I chair the X PRIZE as well?

h+: Right.

PD: So I think there will be a relationship between SU and X PRIZE. The X PRIZE Foundation is focusing on those same big problems and creating prize purses, defining the grand challenge in an objective, measurable, clear way and then setting up a large cash purse for the person who achieves it. And I hope a lot of the SU graduates will actually form teams to compete for some of these grand challenges.

h+: You should get a reality TV show. [laughter] Do you think the cost of SU is justified? Some might compare the cost to TED, which is $6,000 for four days. Is that a valid comparison and would you like to explain the value that will be received by people who attend SU?

PD: Sure. The cost is similar to what we’ve charged for ISU for the last 20 years. It’s a non-profit organization. So the cost is based on what it’s going to cost us to operate. We bring in people from around the planet and we’ll be giving an extraordinary experience. And the price includes housing and food as well as tuition, so it’s very reasonable. Plus we give out a significant number of partial and full scholarships. But some people can afford to pay it, and are happy to.

Finally, at the end of the day, the students who come to SU are going to plug in to a global network that is so extraordinary that I believe will be worth the cost… just in terms of the people they will be able to meet.

h+: Is there a way that someone reading this article right now can get involved with SU?

PD: We’re going to allow people to participate online and view some of the lectures online, like TED does. And we’re going to encourage people to attend day and 10-day programs, as well as nine-week programs. The first nine-week graduate student program starts on June 27th, and runs through the end of August. And the first three-day and ten-day programs will take place probably in October.

h+: So Peter, you told us your goal is to live 700 years. Why, and how are you going to do it?

PD: When I was in my late 20s, I watched a TV show where they were talking about ocean reptiles being some of the oldest living animals on the planet, and that it was believed that some of these could live as long as 700 years… old sea turtles. And I said, “If they can, why can’t I?” Simple as that. And I still fundamentally believe that. And I believe that in the next few decades, we will unlock the secrets of human aging and we’ll be able to slow down, stop, and ultimately reverse aging. And that not an if, it’s a when.

Alex Lightman is the author of the first book on 4G wireless, Brave New Unwired World (Wiley) and founder of pioneering companies in 3-D and Hollywood websites, wearables, and IPv6. He welcomes friending on Facebook.

The Singularity University Graduate Program opens this Saturday, June 27. h+ will be blogging live from SU next week.



  1. “William Gibson came up with the then-fictional notion of cyberspace in the 1980s when he saw a bunch of teenagers playing video games while listening to Sony Walkmen.”

    This is a common misconception. Gibson was not the “inventor” of the cyberspace idea.

    While it did not use that name, the whole idea of “cyberspace”, including virtual worlds, was contained in the short story “True Names”, by Vernor Vinge, published in 1979. He beat Gibson to the punch by nearly a year.

  2. Arthur Clarke wrote “The Lion of Comarre” in the late 40’s. Phillip Dick wrote “A Maze of Death” in 1970, “Ubik” in 1969 and “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch” in 1965.

    Artificial Reality and “symbiotic computers” appear in Christopher Anvil’s “Space Patrol” stories which appeared in Analog in the Sixties; Murray Leinster wrote about the Internet in “A Logic Named Joe” in 1946… and so on. Gibson coined the term but not the concept.

  3. We could credit Plato.  OK, so I could have written William Gibson came up with HIS then-fictional notion of cyberspace…  

    Meanwhile, it was the scenario in which Gibson came up with HIS vision that was the point… 



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