Singularity University was launched last week at TED. Their motto: “preparing humanity of accelerating technological change”. Of course, anything like this is bound to stir up some controversy, and indeed Singularity University launched to considerable debate.
I’ve been following Singularity University for quite some time – I know some of the people involved and have been invited to some of the “let’s find ourselves some sponsors” meetings.
When the initial concept was explained to me, I thought that it was a great idea, with a very poor name. It’s my opinion that by sticking with the name “Singularity University” they have deliberately hung a gigantic millstone about their neck. As explained to me, the basic idea for Singularity University is to get together an interdisciplinary group of “top minds” so that they can cross fertilize, educate each other, and help bring the benefit of new technologies to people faster. That sounds to me like “Convergence University”. Singularity University, by comparison, brings up thoughts of the rapture of the nerds – it should a place where geeks go to be among their own kind, so they can all be involved only with technology.
As you can see in Jamais Cascio’s Flunking Out, it is being perceived this way even though it actually has a much broader mandate. Jamais complains that the curriculum implies “people don’t matter”. And in some ways, he has a point – the school does seem very tech oriented, seriously lacking in human focus, let alone such important topics as governance and resilience.
Even more stridently, Alvis Brigis writes about Asocial Singularitarianism – Breeding an Incomplete View of Convergent Accelerating Change. My view, as above, is that Singularity University isn’t a one-sided as these people think, it’s just the NAME and the associations which come with that name that are making people assume the worst. One example of how it isn’t so one-sided is their focus on group projects at the end of the Graduate Studies Program – making a big team of diverse students work together to write a document on some important project (which they choose) will be an excellent crash-course in interdisciplinary technological futurism. As outsiders we won’t get to experience the teamwork aspects, but then we’re not paying $25k either…
I heard that one of the people at their founding meeting suggested that they stick more to technical stuff, because social issues are already overdone in academic environments. It does strike me that their tech-centered model is likely to be a much easier sell to their C-level executive market than a program focused on ethics or human psychology or sustainability/resilience. Perhaps their curriculum is trying to strike a balance between what they see as their market (people wanting to know about the state of the art in many technical fields, so they can better manage their own companies innovation) and any STEER material they would ideally like to expose customers to as well. Brain Wang at Debating Singularity Education Programs makes that point that innovation is more likely to emerge from technical programs than from social programs – which is to say, people who debate ethics aren’t spending their time solving problems… Economics favors those who focus on making things, rather than talking about what should be made.
In the end, I remain conflicted about Singularity University. I didn’t become a sponsor largely because of the name, but also in part because I’m not sure they have carved out the right role for a transhumanist educational facility. If you had to design a “Humanity+ University”, what would you make it do? Where does it focus? Who are it’s customers? What long-term impact would you like it to have on the world?