“Want to become a billionaire? Help a billion people,” says Peter Diamandis who, along with Ray Kurzweil, founded Singularity University in 2009 to help people do just that. Part university, part think tank, part business incubator, Singularity University doesn’t offer degrees, but the benefit corporation does offer those who participate a chance to change the world… Really.
The school doesn’t focus on machines taking over from humans, the canonical understanding of the singularity. However, in The Singularity is Near, Kurzweil explores how the accelerating rate of progress in technology will inevitably move so rapidly it will exceed our ability to understand it. If that sounds like science fiction, so might some of the company’s areas of focus: artificial intelligence, robotics, biotechnology, and nanotechnology among others. Singularity University refers to these and others as “exponential technologies” — technologies that double in price/performance every year to 18 months. The disruptive implications of these technologies are at the heart of Singularity University, specifically as they relate to business and society.
“If you understand the potential of exponential technologies to transform everything from energy to healthcare to education, you have a different perspective on how we can solve the grand challenges of humanity,” says Kurzweil, who acts as Chancellor at Singularity University.
Founded as a non-profit, Singularity University, located on NASA’s research campus in Silicon Valley, became a benefit corporation in 2012. As conceived, Singularity University was always interested in the effects of exponential technology on society, but it gained its focus from a Google founder. According to Kurzweil, “Larry Page made an impassioned speech at our organizing meeting, saying ‘We should devote this study to actually addressing some of the major challenges facing humanity.’” Since then, Singularity University has grown from an annual 10-week summer program, now called the Global Solutions Program, to conferences, corporate programs, and partnerships with organizations like UNICEF. It also recently launched an accelerator, SU Labs.
Held each summer, the Global Solutions Program’s mission is to positively impact the lives of a billion people over 10 years. Students receive accelerated instruction in exponential technologies, and by the end of the program pitch a business plan. Past companies have included NewCos Getaround and Matternet. One company, Cambrian Genomics, which created a system for laser printing DNA for major pharmaceutical companies, wants to “democratize creation,” envisioning a world where people can create their own creatures at home.
In 2015, Singularity launched an accelerator. Each year, the SU Labs program plans to select seven startups focused on “humanity’s grand challenges,” of which the company identifies nine. The first round of companies includes Totus Power, which recycles electric vehicle batteries into mobile power packs for schools, and Be My Eyes, an app that allows the blind to connect with the sighted to get real-time explanations of their surroundings. The program also offers memberships to large organizations.
Through its Executive Program, Singularity University provides OldCos an opportunity to learn how emerging technologies will transform society and impact business. Diamandis, talking at the Economic Forum in 2015, used Kodak as an example. The company, which had invented the digital camera, ignored the invention due to its limitations. But the rate of exponential technology, had executives considered it, would have shown Kodak that a bet on digital technology would eventually pay off — and quickly.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in 2015, Diamandis said, “Our mission as a university is to give the top graduate students and executives from around the world an understanding of what’s in the lab today and what’s coming to market in the next two, five, ten years on these converging, exponential technologies. These technologies are the levers to impact a billion people.”
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