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19 November 2009

Progress at the Singularity University

Filed under: Singularity University — David Wood @ 10:30 am

I wonder if you’re going to be teaching at the Singularity University?

That was one of the questions a colleague asked me, when news broke recently that I would be leaving Symbian to explore alternative career options and future scenarios.

I was flattered.  The Singularity University is a recently founded “interdisciplinary university whose mission is to assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies in order to address humanity’s grand challenges“.  As the Singularity University website continues,

With the support of a broad range of leaders in academia, business and government, SU hopes to stimulate groundbreaking, disruptive thinking and solutions aimed at solving some of the planet’s most pressing challenges. SU is based at the NASA Ames campus in Silicon Valley.

There’s already an impressive list of SU faculty and advisors.  I replied to my colleague that there were no plans for me to join this group – though I’ve been keeping an eye, from afar, on progress at the SU.

A few days ago, Business Week reported on the successful completion of the SU’s first 9-day executive program:

Singularity University Gives Execs a View of the Future

The school’s executive program offers participants the chance to learn and discuss how technology is changing, or even disrupting, their industries

In his various roles as a computer programmer, an emergency-medicine physician, and the director of Microsoft Medical Media Lab, Michael Gillam stays well ahead of the advances that are transforming health care. Yet even he can be caught unawares by the pace of technological change.

Gillam was reminded of this recently during a nine-day boot camp aimed at instructing professionals on how robotics, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and other cutting-edge disciplines are affecting industries. Gillam, one of 20 participants in Singularity University’s inaugural program for executives, was listening to futurist Ray Kurzweil. “We will have plenty of computation as we go through the 21st century,” Kurzweil told attendees in the small dining room featuring Spanish Mission-style decor. “That is not so controversial. The more controversial aspect is really, will we have the software?”

Watching the presentation, Gillam realized that the medical industry is woefully unprepared to handle and analyze the vast amounts of data likely to be unleashed in coming years as health records are digitized and physicians are able to track more information. “[I realized] we have to do this quickly,” Gillam says. “You look at those graphs and you feel a strong sense of urgency.”

That’s the kind of conceptual shift Singularity University’s creators hope to provoke. Kurzweil, author of The Singularity Is Near, and X Prize founder Peter Diamandis began Singularity earlier this year. Singularity offers a nine-week summer program for graduate students and the compressed session Gillam attended.

Preparing for Disruptive Innovation

Singularity’s founders and its executive director Salim Ismail, formerly head of Yahoo’s Brickhouse product incubator, want participants to leave with a sense of where opportunities lie—and the dangers of failing to prepare for them. “We want to help them avoid becoming the next Kodak,” Ismail says in reference to the film company that failed to prepare for the advent of digital photography

The 9-day course looks attractive – but carries a $15k price tag.  Despite this price, it seems there’s already considerable interest in the next run of the course, happening 26th Feb to 7th March:

18 companies, the governments of six countries, and representatives from four U.S. agencies have expressed interest in the next executive session, scheduled to start in February. Some companies have also approached him about creating an in-house version on their own sites, an option Ismail is considering. “The world is completely changing in every domain at a very fast pace,” Ismail says. The companies that are interested in Singularity University “think we have a finger on the pulse of how it’s going to change and how you can navigate that.”

In the meantime, videos of sessions from the executive program have started to appear.  David Orban has posted 8 videos at www.wired.it/video/persone.

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