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.)