Singularity University – Day One

Monday morning started off with an intimate conversation with Peter Diamandis and Ray Kurzweil. Both Ray and Peter made it clear that they are trying to make a creative environment for synthesizing new knowledge that requires creative thinking as well as cutting edge technology.

Peter explained what he’s come to refer to as a "benign conspiracy" to bring these students together, based on what they have done in the past, to do great things together for the future. This bunch was selected because they were 1) smart, 2) leaders, and 3) interested in solving big issues. (Note: 1400 applicants for 40 spots!)

Ray talked to the class about the dream behind Singularity U, and how one of the goals of the university is to put people together to look at things in new ways to create change.  He and the class discussed ways to use information technology to address the problems of humanity, now that we all have these tools for disruptive change.  "What we’re trying to create here is a new community that will sustain itself after it’s separated physically," he said.

Space was on everyone’s mind, of course, as the Singularity University is at NASA Ames Research Center,  and is going on at the same time as International Space University‘s summer session. International Space University President Michael Simpson was on hand to introduce himself to the students and tell them personally about his excitement regarding what this founding class might be able to accomplish. He explained how some of the challenges that Singularity U students have in front of them are similar those of new International Space University students. "It’s hard to continue to be yourself while being part of a team, but it’s these teams that make the world a better place, so that we can leave our cradle."

Peter talked about how he believes that he feels we need to stop living in a one world living scenario where we are restricted to the resources that are only on this planet, and that the earth is but "a crumb, in a supermarket full of resources," and that we can mine resources and the like to get more resources.

Ray emphasized how we have lots of resources here on earth and that "we have more resources than meets the eye." Take solar power, for instance. "There’s plenty of sunlight, and we will work to harness that, using nanotechnology," he explained.

Next came open questions with Ray for the rest of the morning.

One student asked, "Ray, graphs and charts speak to our rational mind. What can we do to make exponential thinking part of our intuitive mind?"

Part of Kurzweil’s answer tied into a recurring theme that morning: the Wisdom of Crowds. "I think we can now harness the wisdom of crowds, which does harness more of our innate emotional wisdom, and that’s one of the positive things about this decentralized communication. We can see the democratizing effects of decentralized communication. I wrote in my first book in the 80s, "The Age of Intelligent Machines," that the Soviet Union would be swept away by the then emerging decentralized communications: fax machines and early email, and I believe that’s what happened. We saw a big wave of democratization on a political level in the 1990s with the emergence of the web, and today we can see its profound effect. And even in some areas of the world that are hold outs from political democracy we’ve seen the tremendous effect of decentralized communication. Just recently, with the Iran situation. There are 100 million blogs in China and half the farmers in China have devices they can take out of their pocket to communicate with everybody else in the world and access all of human knowledge."

The problems of the third world were obviously also on the minds of many of the students, as one of the most repeated questions of the morning, although asked from different students in different ways, seemed to be "how can we use these amazing technologies to actually get help to those that need it in the world?"

"Once we can manufacture, using nanotechnology, very inexpensive modules that can be put together to build things like housing, we can meet the housing needs of even a growing biological population, and with high quality. So, that’s why I’m saying that ultimately it’s only these expansive information technologies that can meet the needs – the material needs and the resource needs, to address the problems we have, like polluted water which causes today so much disease in the world," Kurzweil explained.

Students also expressed their concern about the recent economy crash, and its potential effect on innovation. Kurzweil felt that the crash in the U.S. that quickly became a crash around the world, provided a real-time example of how interdependent all the different economies of the world are at this point. "The bottom line is that it is one economy and one culture," he said.
Below: Sunday evening, the students met at NASA with Peter Diamandis for an introduction dinner. As one student explained, "We had an alfresco dinner with paella, and then sat on the lawn and shared some personal stories about ourselves with the group."  (Photo by Zubin Wadia.)




  1. However, there is a way to harness the power of “exponential thinking” – in a sense. I take inspiration from biological systems in a similar fashion to the tree.

  2. I would think that instead of using nanobots to move molecules around there is an easier way to remove contaminants. If you boil water to steam you can separate out the contaminants and reclaim the water. Where nanobots or more likely engineered molecules would be used is fixing the arsenic into an inert form for disposal or recycling for industrial use. Although I prefer not to have arsenic used in industry. Energy for steam production would be another use for nanobots/engineered molecules.

  3. I recently attended the Numenta HTM workshop in San Jose where there was a huge level of excitment relating to the use of t HTM technology. Used in so many different industries it was surprising to see the breadth of its use.

    The most interesting point came during Dileeps technology presentation where he showed a computer memory model performing the same level of human prediction that we see in the cortex of a human being. Human level GAI is not decades away it is possible just several years away, then the singularity truly begins. Many of my conversations at this workshop related to how to reach the point where neural networks are designing themselves which sounds to me like the beginnings of the singularity.

  4. Crispycakes’ criticism is a valid one, if we directly use nanobots to remove impurities such as arsenic. Indeed, programming and constructing incredibly complex, autonomous nanorobots for such a simple task would be inefficient.

    However, there is a way to harness the power of “exponential thinking” – in a sense. I take inspiration from biological systems in a similar fashion to the tree. Here is my tentative method:

    1. The nanobots are programmed with the software to construct limited varieties of compounds based on certain compounds, probably carbon based but likely with some metallic residues. Instead of directly attacking contaminants, these nanobots would act as mobile factories for producing non-biological enzymes.

    2. One possibility is to produce an enzyme with a molecule specific “head” which would catalyse the attachment of a specific contaminant to a sort of “sticky” (a long chain carbohydrate may work) group. These molecules would then adhere in larger conglomerations which could then be removed by simpler methods of filtration.

    3. Naturally, you would need many such enzymes, each specific to an individual contaminant. This is where the nanorobots come in two ways. Firstly, by using enzymes, they can amplify their effect. Our cells use similar methods to massively amplify the effects of tiny quantities of hormones in cell signaling. As in cells, this process can be carried out recursively – the nanorobots can construct an enzyme (or set) which in turn construct another enzyme and so forth until one constructs the actual decontamination enzymes. As such, the rate of the reaction becomes an ever-increasing exponential or multiple exponential, since the enzymes act as catalysts and are not used up in the process. (so if you keep producing enzymes at a linear rate, the decontamination reaction will be exponential)

    4. The benefit of nanorobots is that a small number of them can be programmed with the software to construct a virtually unlimited set of such enzymes and can produce them in-situ from simpler components. Thus, a wide range of contaminants can be dealt with without the need for extensive facilities. As well, they can deal with virtually any amount of water necessary, due to the exponential nature of the reaction I mentioned. (scaling up from a tonne to ten tonnes takes only twice the time, and so on.)

    5. The reason why biological enzymes won’t work is precisely why arsenic poisons us. The main reason is that heavy metals disrupt many proteins (such as, but not limited to enzymes), causing them to unfold from their functional 3-d configuration into their 1-d string of amino acids. (To see this in action, add some of your favorite heavy metal to an egg-white or fresh liver.) Because non-biological enzymes can be constructed from different materials to be more robust and do not have to be folded from 1-d strings, they will be suitable for such tasks.

    6. If you want an even more rapid reaction, the water can be heated. Every 10K approximately produces a doubling in reaction rate. Biological enzymes typically operate in a very narrow range of temperatures (due again to the protein-folding issue), but engineered enzymes will likely remain functional at vastly higher temperatures. Simply boiling the water from room temperature (20 C for argument’s sake) cuts the time needed to 1/256 the original.

    7. This is a very generalized approach. If I did need to produce such a system, I would construct (with nanorobotic assistance) a device with a highly folded internal cavity, (operating something like a hybrid between a kidney and a heat) which would take in water in smaller amounts, apply a high temperature and pressure to greatly increase the rate of reaction and then reabsorb the heat and release the water (under less pressure) through a filter.

    8. If there are any ideas I have missed, please tell me. I rather like improving my ideas, so anyone pointing out flaws (and possible improvements or alternatives) is welcome to do so.

  5. I would not make the blanket statement that crowds must be either one or the other…wise or easily manipulated. Crowds are like individuals. They are influenced to act based on the context within which they find themelves. In Iran this last couple of weeks we saw a message to march in silence, clearly one of the most effective forms of protest that was the result of crowd wisdom. We also saw violence promulgated through mass or crowd communication that was destructive. I am sure that when Ray Kurzweil speaks of crowd wisdom, he is referring to admonitions to large groups to participate in positive problem solving which would produce a crowd’s wisdom. Every tool at the disposal of Humans can be used to produce good or deleterious effects. Choices and context can make all the difference that is needed to get the desired results.

  6. “This bunch was selected because they were 1) smart, 2) leaders, and 3) interested in solving big issues.” And lest we forget, they were able to pay thousands of dollars for the honor of being included. In the past, the future has been determined by those with wealth, benefiting those with wealth. Are we on the same path now? When life-extention becomes feasible, will only those with wealth secure it? How/when will we democratize the future?

    • Today the most effective method of life extension is Caloric Restriction and perhaps Cryonics!
      Caloric restriction is far cheaper the eating junk food and Cryonics via the Cryonics Institute is only $28,000 easily funded via life insurance for the price of daily coffee! So currently it seems that life extension has more to do with will power then wealth…ironically as recent evidence suggests the majority of wealth (defined as 1,000,000$ in assets) is also a will power issue verses an inheritence issue since most current US millionaires are self made within their own life times.

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