[Editor's note: I wondered, what's the best place in the world to learn about Transhumanism, The Singularity, exponentially advancing technology, and related ideas? U of A grad student Ross Lockwood tells us about his experience in Kim Solez's LABMP 590 course at the University of Alberta and it sounds amazing!]
My first experience with the concept of a Singularity was watching Ray Kurzweil’s “Transcendent Man” on Netflix. As a Ph.D. candidate in Condensed Matter Physics, a field intimately related to Nanotechnology, the intrigue that some of my own research could contribute to an acceleration in the development of quantum computers and personalized medicine resonated deep within me. Over the next few weeks, I was seeing examples of accelerating technological development from within the academic pay wall, and it scared me tremendously. Every day that passed and every new paper I read, my concerns mounted: how could I keep up with the accelerating rate of development, how could I learn to use new technologies, how could I stay relevant when the pace of development outstrips my ability to understand it?
My mind was primed for an answer, and the answer took the form of a nondescript poster on a bulletin board in the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Science at the University of Alberta: LABMP 590 – Technology and the Future of Medicine.
I contacted the professor and immediately got a reply, “Welcome to the course, here’s a reading list to get you up to speed”. Essays with esoteric titles like, “The Paradox of Time” to “Friendly Artificial Intelligence” quickly filled my inbox, and I started reading, hoping that somewhere in the body of text I would find something to quell my mounting anxiety about the future. I dutifully read the material, fleshing out the concepts in my mind and my uncertainty slowly waned.
The Singularity Course, as we came to call it, was a lot different from what I expected. I went in with my physicist mind, looking for mathematical proofs and exercises, but the course was something that I’d never experienced before: professors from every department came in with a discussion. Topics ranging from the philosophy of medicine to the future of ethics were juxtaposed with hard science from the fields of personalized medicine and nanotechnology. There were no quizzes or take home exercises, we were expected to generate our own understanding by participating in the discussion.
Dr. Solez, who leads the course, has taken a completely new track when it comes to teaching about Singularity concepts. Instead of preparing lectures and asking us for rote memorization he is giving us the freedom to come to our own understanding on what the lesson in the material is. Students and lecturers alike are asked for their permission to post the lectures online, for review, missed classes, and distance education. Each week has a new flavour, a new set of guest lecturers, a new set of topics to discuss and digest. Whether the lecturer visited in person, called in from their office in Australia, or even the eye of hurricane Sandy, there was never a lull in interesting topics.
In addition to the lectures, the course had a student presentation and workshop component. The students who were enrolled gave a short talk in a similar style as the lecturers, on topics of their choice. A particularly fun day was the Entrepreneurship Workshop led by Shawna Pandya. With only 90 minutes, she was able to get three groups to come up with business plans with serious singularity undertones. Of course, my group came up with a silly sounding company, PHLEM, the Passive Health, Life and Emergency Monitoring system, which incorporates the internet of things and smart devices to keep track of personal health using very simple technologies like the ability to dial an emergency number. Many people have felt like this workshop, and the course in general, are accessible to anyone, making it a perfect opportunity as a continuous professional learning course.
The course had a dedicated contingent of about 10 students, however, demographically speaking they were very diverse: from medical students, science students, art students and graduates all the way to a recently retired electronics technician. This diversity lead to some very interesting student interactions, with so very interesting results like the course theme song. The most surprising thing about the students was how the numbers fluctuated through the semester. Word would get out that a broadly accessible talk, like our Dean of Arts’ talk, The Elixir of Life and a small group of people would rise to a full classroom of 200 people.
The most persistent feature in the classroom was the array of lights and video cameras that captured the discussion. With the permission of the lecturers and students, the videos captured every little piece of dialog. Students who missed lectures could very easily revisit the lecture videos on YouTube shortly after they were recorded, along with links to all the supplemental material that was discussed in class. On the two occasions that I was unable to attend I was quickly brought up to speed by the supplemental material, only missing out on my chance to interact with the lecturer directly. A quick look at Dr. Solez’s YouTube account gives a good account of the material presented in the course.
For me, the Singularity Course was much more than I expected, and probably even more than any of the lecturers intended. I was hesitant about being sucked into a vortex of pseudoscience, expecting far-reaching answers that bordered on science fiction. What I found was exactly the opposite: the hard truths that the progress of technological change is increasing rapidly, whether we believe in it or not. The Singularity Course taught me that, instead of being overcome by concepts and new ways of doing things, our only inoculation against the fear of being left behind is learning and participating in the new ways of doing things. Robin Winsor, CEO of Cybera, captures it all in his lecture: Change, Fear and the New Normal. It’s natural to fear the changes that we are seeing in new medicines and technologies, but the only way to stay on top of things is to learn about them.
And that’s why I’m enrolled in next semester’s course.