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Tech Transformation: Singularity University Plans for a Tech-Centric Future

The university's name stems from the sci-fi concept of a point at which technological changes are so rapid that they transform human life.

by Carolyn Said, San Francisco Chronicle, CA / December 29, 2016

(TNS) — Most pop culture depictions of the future, from The Hunger Games to the zombie apocalypse, feature dystopia.

Singularity University wants to help people — particularly corporate chiefs, global entrepreneurs, government officials, academics, creative types and nonprofit leaders — envision and create more upbeat prospects.

“I have a sense of urgency about the need to tell positive stories about a future of abundance, so we have an alternative,” said CEO Rob Nail. “We’re creating a new lens of how to look at the world and create a long-term future we want to live in.”

Singularity isn’t a university in the traditional sense. Occupying a handful of low-slung buildings on NASA Ames Research Center’s Moffett Field, it combines a think tank, business incubator, worldwide conferences and short-duration on-site education programs, along with a thriving online community of alumni and supporters.

Singularity’s name stems from the sci-fi concept of a point at which technological changes are so rapid that they transform human life. More specifically, it comes from co-founder Ray Kurzweil’s 2006 book The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. (He plans a 2017 update called The Singularity is Nearer, Nail said.) Peter Diamandis, the other co-founder, is best known for the X Prize, a $10 million reward for the first private reusable manned spacecraft.

Futurists and inventors, Kurzweil and Diamandis found a sympathetic ear in Google co-founder Larry Page, who championed their idea of a “transhumanist” approach to lofty goals. Google is a major corporate backer. Founded in 2009, Singularity changed from a nonprofit to a benefit corporation, a form of for-profit business, four years ago. As such, it can consider its vision of solving big problems alongside ordinary corporate goals of profit-making. Nail said the university is “growing rapidly and investing heavily” in its programs while balancing that with the “need to build a sustainable and growing business,” but doesn’t disclose its finances publicly. In 2012, the last year it reported results as a nonprofit, it had $4.9 million in revenue and $5.2 million in expenses, and ended the year with $2.1 million in assets.

Singularity aims big. Its pitch to applicants to its accelerator and students at its intensive 40-day summer program called Global Solutions is this: Come up with an idea to positively impact the lives of a billion people. Think clean water, renewable energy, health, hunger, poverty.

“We get thousands of applicants, and look for people who are stars; who have the mind-set and talent to be a game changer and are dedicated to applying technology to address the world’s biggest problems,” said Brad Templeton, a Silicon Valley stalwart and chairman of computing at Singularity.

It sounds both audacious and hyperbolic — and yet some companies hatched at Singularity have already achieved success at tackling worldwide issues.

Matternet, which harnesses drones to deliver supplies in austere circumstances, such as medicine to remote villages, just scored a multimillion-dollar investment from Mercedes-Benz. Made In Space, which makes 3-D printers for use in microgravity, has one aboard the International Space Station. Getaround, which arranges peer-to-peer rentals of personal cars, has raised $56.3 million and is planning a national expansion.

“Singularity exposed us to the forefront of leading technologies and trends that are accelerating exponentially,” said Sam Zaid, Getaround CEO and co-founder who attended Singularity’s first summer program in 2009 along with co-founder Jessica Scorpio. “Whether computing, genetics, AI, it helps you understand how these technologies could be used to benefit humanity in the most impactful way possible.”

Singularity lines up A-list speakers, from astronauts to Nobel Prize winners. “Anyone can watch their TED talks anytime, but this is about interacting and having discussions with them,” Nail said. “We’ll get a group of faculty to tell you how to disrupt your business — like telling Coke about Soylent.”

“Exponential” is a word thrown around a lot at Singularity, which focuses on technology with the potential to accelerate at warp speed.

A case in point: ImpactVision, one of the accelerator companies, has harnessed a NASA technology called hyperspectral imaging to determine foods’ freshness.

In the near term, food manufacturers can use it to improve quality. But long-term, the hope is that it will address world hunger by reducing waste, said Abi Ramanan, CEO and co-founder. “We’re working toward a more sustainable and transparent food system,” she said.

While the imaging tech is enormously expensive now, with the exponential pace of change, it won’t be long until people can use their smartphones to snap a picture of an avocado to learn when it will be ripe, or of milk to determine its shelf life, she said.

ImpactVision, which Ramanan and co-founder Gustav Nipe conceived of during last summer’s Singularity program, is already on pace for deals with major food makers. That rapid trajectory — and the early practical focus on revenue — is typical of Singularity’s accelerator, said Monique Giggy, who directs the startup program.

“We take people from moonshot to MVP — minimally viable product — in a few months,” she said. “They need that (product) to communicate with the world; show what they can do, get investors interested, find partnerships. Moonshots are usually understood as taking a lot of time and capital. We try to help them build a company that’s sustainable, creating a mechanism to generate revenue so they can stay alive long enough to get to the big idea.”

While Singularity seems so steeped in Silicon Valley’s ethos of technology as the world’s savior as to border on parody, its proponents say all the visionary focus comes with a healthy dose of skepticism. “This is not some rah-rah cheerleading session for technology,” said Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley forecaster who chairs future studies at Singularity. “The risks and costs are very much at the forefront of conversations, as well as the opportunities. The focus is action-oriented; it’s not just sitting in a chair listening to lectures.”

Unlike most conferences, participants aren’t in the hallways checking their phones, he said. And bucking the trend toward bite-size data downloads, Singularity lectures are 60 or 90 minutes. Indeed, at an executive-education course this month — one previously taken by the likes of Gavin Newsom, Steve Case and Reid Hoffman — participants, who’d paid $14,000 for the weeklong session, sat rapt for discussions of disruption from the likes of Kyle Nel, executive director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs.

“If you don’t change your model, you get wiped out,” Nel said as an artist drew on a wall poster to create “word bubbles” encapsulating his thoughts. In-store robots, 3-D printing and augmented reality are among the changes he’s bringing to the Fortune 15 home-improvement retailer.

At lunch, animated conversations in German, French, Chinese and other languages wafted around the outdoor picnic tables.

Singularity’s focus on the future is more crucial than ever, Nail said, as many people operate out of fear of living in a world where things change so quickly. “They’re clinging to anything that seems like the old ways,” he said, citing the election of Donald Trump and the British vote to leave the European Union as examples.

“We’re trying to help shift the minds of individuals and organizations about technology, about the future and their roles in it.”

©2016 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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