Where science fiction meets reality
At Singularity University, quirky ideas see the light of day
An ardent belief that technology can solve the world's greatest problems defines the 80 students of Singularity University, who graduated at NASA Research Park on Saturday, Aug. 18, after 10 weeks spent brainstorming ideas to "positively affect the lives of a billion people within a decade."
With blue-chip corporate backing and personal involvement from the likes of Google co-founder Larry Page, the four-year-old university — housed amid crumbling military buildings near Moffett Field's Hangar One — is a futuristic think tank where science fiction meets reality and quirky ideas see the light of day.
Paying $25,000 in tuition, students — including computer scientists, digital artists, engineers, doctors, business students, filmmakers and entrepreneurs — team up to create companies, nonprofits or research initiatives to address problems in poverty, energy, health, environment, education, security, water and food.
Technology to use the open seas as a venue for agriculture was a project for one group this summer. Last year, a Singularity group launched Matternet, a startup that aims to harness drone technology to haul goods in developing countries that lack highway infrastructure.
Among several startups springing from Singularity are the peer-to-peer car-sharing service Getaround and BioMine, which uses mining industry technologies to extract value from electronic waste.
"The important thing is believing in an idea, as crazy as it might be, no matter what, until it comes true and revolutionizes the present to make a future a better place to live in," wrote Catarina Falleni, a designer from Italy and one of this summer's participants, in a description of herself.
The 80 members of Singularity's Class of 2012 represent 36 countries and range in age from 19 to 51, with an average age of 30.
In the Saturday, Aug. 18, ceremony at the Computer History Museum, students got a chance to showcase their projects. GE Senior Vice-President Beth Comstock delivered a keynote address, with an additional appearance by a "special surprise guest."
In Singularity's first closing ceremonies in 2009, Google's Page said: "If I were a student, this is where I'd want to be."
Singularity University was founded in 2008 by Peter Diamandis, a physician, engineer and founder of the X-Prize, and Ray Kurzweil, an inventor and futurist who defined "singularity" as "a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid ... that human life will be irreversibly transformed."
Kurzweil, 64, who takes 150 pills a day in an effort to retard the aging process, told PBS last month that technology will soon make it possible to extend the human lifespan indefinitely. Among his many publications is the 2005 book, "The Singularity Is Near."
At Singularity's founding conference four years ago, Kurzweil and Diamandis asked an assembled group of scientists how a new institution could harness the exponential growth in technologies — including artificial intelligence and robotics, nanotechnology, networks and computing systems, biotechnology and bioinformatics and medicine and neuroscience.
At the time, Page said: "I think we need to be training people on how to change the world. Obviously technologies are the way to do that. That's what we've seen in the past. That's what's driven all the change."
Google, along with Autodesk, Cisco, ePlanet Ventures (now ePlanet Capital), the Kauffman Foundation and Nokia provided early corporate backing and senior leadership for Singularity's board. Genentech recently joined as a corporate sponsor, according to Singularity business development manager Aaron Frank.
Faculty members include former astronaut and robotics researcher Dan Barry; technology security expert Marc Goodman; stem-cell researcher, physician and entrepreneur Daniel Kraft; and Brad Templeton, former chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Guest speakers include Silicon Valley scientists, inventors and company founders.
Singularity students live in an on-site dormitory and have the run of a large classroom, lounge and "innovation lab" that includes tools and a 3-D printer.
In addition to the summer Graduate Studies Program, Singularity runs seven-day executive-training courses "for people to learn about the curriculum we teach in the summer program," Frank said.