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Singularity University and exponential technologies: notes from an alumnus

Michael Fichardt recently spent 10 weeks at Singularity University. Located in Silicon Valley, the institution is part university, part think-tank, and part business-incubator, which aims is to “educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.” In a series of five articles, Fichardt details his experiences at Singularity University, ranging from the ideas and technologies he saw to the lessons he learned there. In this, the first article in the series, he outlines what the Singularity University programme entails and what the students are challenged to do.

Founded in 2009, Singularity University is the brainchild of Ray Kurzweil, inventor and futurist, and Peter Diamandis, serial entrepreneur and thought leader. The idea is to teach 80 students from around the world about exponential technologies and global grand challenges. After learning about these technologies and the challenges the world faces students then set out to come up with ideas and companies that have the potential to positively impact 1-billion people within 10 years.

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This Northern Hemisphere summer I was fortunate to attend Singularity University’s (SU) Graduate Students Program (#GSP) located at NASA Ames Research Centre in Silicon Valley. Our class, #GSP15, was made of 44 nationalities and had a female to male ratio of just over 50%, a rarity in the globally male dominated tech industry.

#GSP15 class
The first five weeks of the program are jammed packed with interesting lectures, case studies and talks by experts in artificial intelligence, computing and networks, nano-technology, energy, medicine and neuroscience, bio-technology, robotics and space. The class is also taught about design, entrepreneurship, future studies and forecasting, finance and policy, law and ethics. A large part of the curriculum is devoted to the global grand challenges the world faces in areas like education, energy, climate change, prosperity, food, health, water, security and space.

Evenings are filled with fireside chats by people like Peter Diamandis, Ray Kurzweil, Scott Hassan (credited for doing much of Googles early programming), Pete Worden (former Director of NASA Ames Research Centre and Chairman of the Breakthrough Prize Initiative), Charles Hull (the inventor of 3D Printing), Guy Kawasaki (former chief evangelist at Apple) and Anousheh Ansari (first self-funded woman to go to the International Space Station and sponsor of the Ansari X-Prize) to name a few.

Guy Kawasaki – One of Apple’s first employees, author and marketing evangelist
We had three different cultural nights planned during the program where students join together to put on a cultural show from their home regions and countries. For many these evenings are the highlight of the program.

During the second five weeks we were required to self-organise into project teams of between two and five people. A start-up weekend is organised and then groups get to work on their projects with the mission to build companies that will make a positive difference to our world. Groups pivot from idea to idea, teams breakup and reform with different people, then breakup some more before finding their most comfortable fit. Mentoring sessions are had, prototypes are built and businesses are validated. In a mad scramble all of this leads to 23 teams pitching their start-ups to a panel of internal and external experts. The judges choose the top 5 teams to present on stage at the program’s closing ceremony, where promotional videos of all the other team projects are also shown.

The top five teams from #GSP15 were Aipoly, AIME, Anticip8, Impact Vision and Red Olive.

Aipoly, is a visual recognition app that uses machine learning technologies to read photos and then provide an audio description of the photo. It is an ideal app for blind people who are able to take photographs with their phones and have those photographs explained to them by the app https.

GSP15 – AiPoly from Singularity University on Vimeo.

AIME stands for Artificial Intelligence and Medical Epidemiology. It is a start-up that uses artificial intelligence to decipher environmental data and predict areas at risk of viral disease outbreaks. AIME will initially focus on dengue fever, a tropical mosquito- borne disease.

GSP15 – AIME from Singularity University on Vimeo.

Anticp8, is a company that focuses on more accurate weather prediction. If renewable energy companies were better able to predict the micro-climates in the areas in which they run their power plants they would be able to more accurately inform the energy system operator of the amount of power they could deliver to the grid. This increased level of accuracy would mean that renewable energy companies could demand as much as a 20% premium in price for the energy they dispatch.

GSP15 – Anticip8 from Singularity University on Vimeo.

Impact Vision uses hypo-spectrum cameras to record spectra signatures that you cannot see with your eyes alone. It uses image recognition and predictive learning to interpret the images. The technology enables users to see chemicals, materials and bacteria, all in real time on your smart phone. It helps people to better understand the environments they are in.

GSP15 – Impact Vision from Singularity University on Vimeo.

Red Olive has developed a smart motorcycle helmet which improves the safety of motorcyclists. It uses an array of advanced sensors and an android app to provide warnings and instructions to the motorcyclist.

GSP15 – Oliver from Singularity University on Vimeo.

Post the programme, students will continue with their team projects, start new companies or return to what they previously did, but all will see the world through different eyes, eyes which have a sense of the possibility.

Over the next four weeks I will be sharing with you my learnings from my time in Silicon Valley. I will first explain what exponential technologies mean; I will then highlight some of these technologies that are set to disrupt the world; I will describe the idea of Moonshots; and I will finish off by providing some reflections from my time at SU.

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