Embrace the Singularity

By Bill Tressler

Singularity University’s Pascal Finette giving a talk on entrepreneurship in Buenos Aires. Photo courtesy of Gisela Giardino.

The world around us is advancing at an exponential rate. Technologies like robotics, medicine, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence are advancing at impressive speeds; on the same coin, climate change, overpopulation, and pandemics also seem to be on the rise. Logic would dictate that one could be used to fight the other. That’s where Singularity University comes in.

Singularity University is a privately held company based in Silicon Valley on the NASA Research Park campus. Founded as a non-profit in 2008 by futurist Dr. Ray Kurzweil and Dr. Peter Diamandis, the goal of the organization was to use rapidly accelerating advancements in technology to solve problems facing humanity on a large scale.

“Singularity University uses the term ‘singularity’ because it’s a word borrowed from physics used to describe some environment in which our understandings or laws to make sense of it no longer apply,” says Aaron Frank, Director of Strategic Relations at Singularity University.

Someone who came from the 1700’s, for example, would not be able to grasp the reality in which we live today, with invisible radio and WiFi signals shooting through the air, instantaneous communication across the globe, and 3D televisions. There were 4,600 years between the invention of written language and the creation of the printing press, yet only about 70 years separate room-sized computer servers from pocket-sized computers in the form of smartphones. This is technology growing exponentially.

“I would argue that humanity has experienced ‘singularities’ thousands of times during its history,” says Frank. “The invention of language, the first cities, agriculture. Describing what life after those inventions is like is simply not possible to those living before them.”

Dealing with a world in which the planet’s tools and troubles are growing at an ever-increasing rate is what Singularity University is all about. One part school, one part think tank, and one part corporate launch pad, SU is focused on bringing together the best and brightest minds on the planet to start working toward solutions for the world’s most pressing issues.

SU comes across its students in a number of ways. Every summer, the school runs a 10-week graduate program that gathers 80 leading entrepreneurs in their respective fields. During the program, SU trains the participants in the use of the most cutting-edge technology in their field, then assists them in creating start-up companies which address what SU refers to as “grand challenges” such as education, poverty, global health, etc.

The school also hosts “Global Impact Competitions” in which individuals from almost 20 different countries compete in impact challenges. These competitions challenge the entrants to explain how they will use advanced technologies to impact the lives of people in their home cities. The winners of these competitions, 20 in all, are then given full scholarships to come to SU and participate in a summer program. These winners are included within the 80 accepted into each program.

While the technology on display at SU may be complex, their motivations are not. Simply put, SU’s goal is to inspire, educate, and empower leaders from around the globe to solve the greatest challenges facing humanity using cutting-edge technologies. “Our core mission is to positively impact a problem that affects at least one billion people within 10 years,” says Frank.

A lofty goal, to be sure, but Frank and the SU team are well on their way to doing just that.

An example of an SU student project, one that Frank cites as his all-time favorite, is the game MalariaSpot. Miguel Luengo-Oroz, an SU alum from Spain, is an electrical engineer and biomedical imaging expert.

While working for the United Nations, Luengo-Oroz found that they were having a hard time diagnosing malaria due to a lack of funding for additional researchers and lab equipment. To circumvent this, Luengo-Oroz created a crowd-sourced first person shooter video game in which players help doctors identify parasites and anomalies in blood samples. Twenty or more players playing a single blood sample was enough to identify parasites with nearly 100 percent accuracy–a zero-cost method of providing the extra hands in the lab that doctors needed.

“What was once lab equipment and precious doctor time, is now a crowd-sourced video game! This is the power of what individuals can do in our world today,” Frank marvels.

The Singularity University story is filled with tales of success just like that of MalariaSpot. When asked about other notable start-ups that were born at SU, Frank has plenty of ammo.

There’s Modern Meadow, a company that recently created synthetic meat and leather in a lab, using material genetically identical to the real thing–the bonus was, of course, that it didn’t require the storing or killing of any animals. This advancement has huge implications for the future not only of the ecosystem, but of countless millions, or even billions, of people for which food/protein procurement is a constant issue.

There’s also Getaround, a car-sharing platform that is gaining steam on the west coast. This service allows users to rent out their car to others when not in use, helping to reduce traffic and pollution in urban areas.

Made in Space is another SU success story; this company recently worked with NASA to install the first 3D printers on the International Space Station. Made in Space emailed the blueprints for a wrench to the astronauts on the ISS, allowing them to print the wrench out, the first time humanity has ever manufactured something in space.

In a world driven by profit and corporate interests, Singularity University’s humanitarian approach is a breath of fresh air. Only less than 10 years into its young life, the school shows no sign of slowing down. Frank, like many others, has big hopes for the future of this little organization.

“Right now I see SU as the one place on Earth that’s starting a conversation about the idea that the future is hurtling toward us at a speed that humanity is not quite ready for,” he says.

Singularity University, armed with the best minds and technology on the planet, is essentially fighting the future with the future. So far, they’re doing a pretty good job.