What is the vision of the Singularity University?
People today have an opportunity to connect together and work on projects which even ten or twenty years ago would have seemed impossible to tackle. The sorts of global challenges we’re facing need international interdisciplinary teams working on them. We want to provide a place where people can meet with others and find new approaches and ways to increase their impact.
In a world of experts and narrow specialisation, we want people to be comfortable saying I don’t know that much about your specific area but it resonates with what I do and I think maybe I can help. But to get to that point a common vocabulary is essential, which is what students develop in the first half of our program.
Could you say a bit about the curriculum?
The first five weeks is an intensive set of lectures and workshops which everybody takes together. They gain an introduction from experts about what’s going on in different technologies – say, biotechnology or robotics – but also go into finance and economics and policy and ethics.
In the second five weeks students are divided into different tracks (there are six tracks: Biotechnology and Bioinformatics, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, Energy and Environmental Systems, Medicine and Neuroscience, Networks and Computer Systems, and Nano-technology) and they work together in teams of four to come up with solutions to particular challenges.
So the shift is from understanding the problem areas towards looking at solution spaces.
Is the intention that when they leave the program they will actually start these projects in the real world?
We ask them to come up with ideas that are viable, to develop proof of concept. We certainly hope that some of them go on to start them up, and we have an incubator which they can work with do to that, but it isn’t always best to start them right away. It may be that some ideas have arisen in the process that they want to combine with what they’re already doing, for example, or that they are busy with their current work but will come back to it.
Is there a critical component included in the curriculum?
Yes, we want people to look at future risks and also risks in changes that are happening today. For example, we brought in an (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) MIT economist who warns about how technologies are radically changing employment prospects. We also have people come in who have worked on specific projects and want them to go into details of what the critical failure points were. Of course, we are at the heart of Silicon Valley and so there is a “can do” attitude in relation to technology, but if for example one speaker was saying “this is how things are” they wouldn’t be able to get away with it.
What is the biggest thing that students gain from the experience?
I think it’s the ability to feel comfortable talking and working with people in a multitude of different fields. They come in with an area of expertise and we help them to think about what analogous changes are happening in other fields, and to think about what new set of tools they might be able to put together working collaboratively.
What are the qualities you look for in students?
There really isn’t any one thing we can say about our participants. For example, in the 2013 group we had students from 31 different countries and a varied set of backgrounds – architects, veterinarians, artificial intelligence and mathematics researchers, entrepreneurs. But our students are all hard-working, tenacious and interested in global challenges.
How did you manage to attract high quality students and faculty in the beginning?
When we were building it up in 2008-9 we had already put together the faculty team. Star faculty were then able to attract people and spread the word on the basis of their expertise. When it was announced we also did a public launch at TED.
In the beginning a lot of our students came from articles and press. Now alumni are a large part of it.
Final question, is the Singularity near?
It always is…
Photograph of Kathryn Myronuk by Evan Kafka/Glasshouse Assignment
Photograph by Michael Lutch. Courtesy of Kurzweil Technologies, Inc
As part of our Interviews with Innovators series Nicola Sayers interviews Kathryn Myronuk, director of research and faculty at the Singularity University.
The Singularity University, founded in 2009, is a learning institution located inside the NASA research park in Silicon Valley. Its stated aim is “to educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.” Its core programme is a ten week graduate studies program (GSP) which takes place in the summer and convenes future leaders, entrepreneurs and technologists to work on team-based technology solutions to widespread global challenges. It is intended to complement traditional education providers.
It is named after futurist Ray Kurzweil’s concept ‘The Singularity’, a hypothetical event when super-human intelligence will become greater than biological intelligence and the future will qualitatively and radically shift.
Nicola Sayers is an experienced researcher and strategist in higher education futures as as a lecturer in philosophy and futures studies; she is currently a PhD candidate at The School of Advanced Studies, University of London.
Nicola's Inspiring Leader is Tavi Gevinson who is the founder of an online teenage girls magazine, Rookiemag, now 18-year old Tavi (who started blogging when she was 11 and founded Rookiemag when she was 15) has a creativity and vision that is inspiring. The dream-like aesthetic of everything she works with draws out the ‘strange magic’ of the everyday, a wonderful antidote to the utilitarian ‘how to...’ guides that dominate women’s magazines. Most importantly, though, she empowers young girls to find (and trust) their own voice and has created an open, intelligent, self-aware dialogue about feminism, art and life in this day and age.
About Interviews with Innovators series
This edition’s interview is a preview of one of our Interviews with Innovators series, that we’ve launched as part of the Leadership Foundation’s 10th anniversary activities. In addition to this interview, there are interviews with Ben Nelson of the Minerva Project and Daphne Koller, the founder of Coursera. Shortly we shall also be publishing an interview with A.C. Grayling first Master of New College of the Humanities. All the Interviews with Innovators series are available online.