Robots taking over? Science fiction, perhaps... yet deep inside Silicon Valley Singularity University will explore how rapidly advancing technologies can revolutionise business and fight global scourges such as hunger and poverty
Thanks in no small part to Gordon Moore, we're used to the idea that technology is changing the world we live in with all the restraint of a runaway train. In 1965, Intel's co-founder predicted that the strength of computer processors would double every two years. This became known as Moore's Law and in the decades that followed it proved to be surprisingly accurate. The result of this exponential growth in computing firepower has been a transformation in the way that we organise our business lives around information and communications technology. By and large, it's been a friendly revolution, too, allowing us to shop, date, access entertainment and trade in ways that would have been impossible even 10 years ago.
But what of other technologies—those that impinge on everyday lives less obviously? From household cleaning equipment through to car components, nanotechnology is widely used in manufacturing processes, but few of us think too much about it. Meanwhile, disciplines such as robotics, artificial intelligence and even genetic research still seem the stuff of science fiction. And yet, as Professor Bob Richards, argues: "These technologies are advancing exponentially. Moore's Law applies to them as well."
According to Richards, that has profound global implications. "Most of us tend to look 10 years into the future and assume that will bear some resemblance to today," he says. But because technology is accelerating exponentially, the world in 10 or 20 years' time is going to be very different. "Human beings need to be prepared for that."
It was this premise that inspired Richards and co-founders Peter Diamandis and Ray Kurzweil to establish Singularity University, an institution scheduled to open the doors to its first students this month. Nestled in a NASA complex in the heart of Silicon Valley, the institution takes its name from a book by scientist and entrepreneur Kurzweil. The Singularity Is Near claims that by 2030 advances in artificial intelligence will see machines becoming more intelligent than their human creators. In the minds of the university's founders, this predicted watershed epitomises the challenges and barely perceived opportunities that await us in the near future.
The concept of machine intelligence transcending that of biological creatures is not new. From HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey through to the Terminator movies, it is territory that's been well explored by science-fiction writers as has the notion that science has the potential to create Utopias or spin out of control. Beyond the realms of sci-fi, envisioning the future has proved a lucrative career choice for the small but growing army of futurologists, who study technological, political, commercial and social trends to advise their corporate employers on what the world will look like in 10, 20 or 30 years' time. Throw a brick into the offices of BT, Cisco or Microsoft and the chances are you'll hit one of these "big picture" thinkers as they explain the future to furrow-browed executives.
So why set up a university? After all, the science departments of the world's top educational institutions are already well focused on our high-tech future, so what can a small campus set up in less than a year bring to the party?
Well, the first thing that has to be said is that Singularity University bears little resemblance to an Oxford, Yale or even a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It is a niche institution and will take in only 40 students at first, although this will rise to more than 100 next year. What's more, the intake for its main courses—lasting just nine weeks—will be entirely composed of postgraduates. The university is seeking the best of the best, so its students will be young people who have excelled in their specialist field.
But the main selling point is that during an intense period of study, students will be asked to engage with topics that lie well outside their comfort zones. "The traditional university education tends to push people into narrow funnels," says Richards. "What we are setting out to do is work on a much broader canvas. We want to take a multi-disciplinary approach."
There are, he adds, good reasons for this. For instance, let's take the premise that machine intelligence will surpass that of humans. If and when this comes to pass, there will be clear ethical, social and commercial implications. Advances in stem-cell research, robotics or nanotechnology will also have a far-reaching impact on the way we live, so a key part of the university's remit is to educate tomorrow's leaders—not just its scientists—about the accelerating rate of change in key technologies.
Then there is the question of scientific convergence. Richards argues that it isn't possible or desirable to place different areas of science into standalone silos. "What we're going to see is the coming together of technologies such as nanotech, robotics and AI (artificial intelligence)," he says. According to Diamandis, it is this union that will generate the most significant steps forward in terms of both pure science and commercial opportunities. "The biggest breakthroughs always come in the boundaries between the disciplines," he says. Those leaps forward are more likely to happen if scientists and engineers look beyond their own niche fields and begin to share, study and understand the work of others.
So how will this actually work when the first students enter the building and switch on their laptops? What should these bright sparks expect as they wait for initial sessions to begin? "What we will have is people from all over the planet forming networks and working together on the problems that challenge the world," explains Richards. Diamandis warms to the theme: "The idea is that they will learn about all the technologies that we cover at the university. You'll have someone who is an expert in molecular science talking to someone who is an expert in robotics."
Courses will involve a heady mix of hard science and visionary futurology as students grapple with both the nature of scientific advance and how pioneering technologies are likely to impact on humanity. Areas that students will cover include the aforementioned nanoscience and robotics, plus medicine, neuroscience, human enhancement, computers and networks, and space. In addition, the university will explore subjects such as entrepreneurship, law, ethics and politics.
There is a strong visionary element here, but the university is also looking for people who can transmute scientific ideas into practical solutions that will create business opportunities or help address global problems. Working for the common good is a key theme. "At the end of their course, every student will be given a challenge," says Richards. "They will be asked to come up with a proposal as to how technology can be used to benefit society."
The university has already attracted more than its fair share of interest from the business community. In addition to financial support from NASA, Singularity University has bagged sponsorship from Google while building its faculty of staff from the ranks of Microsoft, Cisco and the venture capital community.
Diamandis says that the willingness of the business community to support the venture underlines its relevance to commerce. As well as its postgraduate student programmes, the university is running short courses for board-level executives and middle managers. "We live in a disruptive time in terms of the impact of technology," he says. "Business concepts can be born and die in the space of a couple of years and if you don't see what is coming you can be blindsided. CTOs and CEOs want to see what the world looks like."
He argues that the business community is seeking more than visions of the future. There is also huge interest in the potential of Singularity University to produce ground-breaking ideas. "NASA is backing us because it can see that our approach to bringing together people from a range of disciplines could be crucial in developing the technologies they will need to deliver on its mission, says Diamandis. "Google is on board because Larry Page believes that the work we will do can help solve pressing problems that face the world, such as hunger, pollution and climate change."
Business backers are doubtless reassured by the fact that Richards and Diamandis have "form" in the niche university stakes. In the 1980s, they founded the International Space University, which recruited students from around the world under the umbrella of an apparently narrow remit—the exploration and exploitation of space. Based near Strasbourg, it has produced more than 2,000 graduates with masters degrees in technical and non-technical subjects. Ahead of its launch, Singularity University is also luring top-grade students with $25,000 to spend on courses. "We had over 1,200 applicants for the 40 places," says Diamandis. "It's been very exciting to see the quality of the candidates we've been attracting."
It's not hard to see why the technologists and leaders of tomorrow might be attracted to an institution that provides the freedom to break out, study new things and expand horizons, but it would be wrong to suggest that Singularity University is unique in its multi-discipline approach. As Professor James Fleck, dean of the Open University Business School, points out, the European Research Council has set aside 30 per cent of the budget it has for funding inter-discipline research. Meanwhile, at ground level, universities are also encouraging cross-fertilisation. Fleck cites his own department at the Open University as an example of this trend. "There is a tendency towards fragmentation in academia," he explains. "But what you often find in business schools—and this is true of the OU—is that the disciplines often come together."
Nor, he argues, is Singularity University's remit to study the impact of rapid technological change a particularly new phenomenon. "A lot of cross-disciplinary work into the implications of innovation has traditionally been done in the UK and the East Coast of America, in places such as MIT," he says. Fleck has conducted research in this area. Nevertheless, he welcomes the launch of the university. "The basic premise is spot-on," he says. "There is a valuable purpose in focusing on that concept of the singularity—the nexus of technological change—that will affect us all."
There are questions, of course. Singularity University is about to open, but it will be some time before we know if its small but elite student body will produce work that will fulfil the ambitions of the founders while delivering real benefits to its business backers.