Singularity University: reflections on 10 weeks of innovation

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 fifth article in the series, he reflects on what he learned during the 10 week long programme.

From the beginning of time, when man first tamed fire and a fashioned a basic tool from a rock, technology has been the force that has moved human development forward. The great surges of change over the last 250 years have been led by technological revolution. These include the industrial revolution (1771), the age of steam and iron railways (1829), the age of steel and heavy engineering (1875), the age of automobiles, oil and petrochemicals (1908) and the age of information and digitalisation (1971), the age we are presently experiencing.

Throughout all these periods of technological disruption, society has moved forward, changed and adapted to a new way of experiencing itself and the world. As has been argued, throughout this series of articles, the period of time we are now in is such that technology is approaching the knee of the exponential curve, meaning that change is exceptionally fast and ubiquitous, making life both exhilarating and terrifying.

There is an old adage which goes: “with great power comes great responsibility”. This could be rewritten: “with exponential technology comes exponentially greater responsibility”. We just need to look at the power of technology. The coming revolution in robotics means that robots will be able to do things like build our motor cars but also perform military functions that could wipe out cities. To illustrate this further, a teacher and mentor of my mine, often uses the example of nuclear technology. It has the power to do good, to create energy, and the power to do bad. We just need to think about the devastation caused at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Technology has the potential to serve both sides of the coin – good and bad.

In these times of exponential change it is very important that government, business and civil society are actively engaged and debate the changes that technology is bringing forth. Engaged as to not regulate away the potential of technology to serve humanity but also engaged to be vigilant enough to protect society from its possible ills. It will be like walking a tightrope to achieve the right balance.

While the future is uncertain and we definitely face more perils than in the past we also have greater means to deal with whatever challenges there might be. Today’s post finishes this series of SU inspired articles with an underlying feeling of hope for the future. A hope that we will be able to walk the tightrope and find the balance needed to protect ourselves from the dystopic future that is often shown in Hollywood movies like Terminator. A hope that technology, along with the correct social constructs like negative taxation or adequate social security, is able to usher in a period of abundance for all.


Morpheeo – my biotechnology start-up team

I have hope because I believe there are enough people in positions of power that hold a moral responsibility to make the world a better place. I have mentioned Elon Musk, Larry Page, the XPRIZE Foundation using 10x thinking and taking moonshots to build a better world for all. Other people like Peter Diamandis are publically calling for us think about what we venerate in society. He would like us to change our social definitions of things like billionaire. He is calling for us to only label someone a billionaire if they have been able to positively impact a billion people. Might this type of thinking inspire people to take a different approach?

There is also a whole new group of future Elon Musks and Larry Pages waiting on the side lines. If you are an actor and want to be a movie start you head to Hollywood. If you are into technology and dream to build a tech company, you head to Silicon Valley. The Valley’s coffee shops are often deadly quiet places, full of young bright 20 somethings huddled behind Apple Macs, all working on interesting and new tech ideas that have the power to change the world. This trend can also be seen in the coffee shops from Cape Town to Baghdad. The career choice of millennials is no longer to work for a multinational or government it is to start a company. To be a geek is something young people now aspire too. These are our future change makers and they are exponentially wiser and worldlier than many of us were when we were twenty somethings.

I also have hope because of the conversations that seem to now be happening. We talk about self-driving cars and the reduction in road fatalities they could bring. We talk about the potential of CRISPR-Cas9, a new biotechnology that could enable us to edit away cancer causing genes. We debate the idea of human longevity and ask the question: “How long would you want to live?” We build privately funded space rockets and talk about the possibilities of building a colony on Mars.

Ray Kurzweil talks about the power of an idea: “To this day I am convinced of this basic philosophy: no matter what quandaries we face – business problems, health issues, relationship difficulties, as well as the great scientific, social, and cultural challenges of our time – there is an idea that can enable us to prevail.”

SU group project completion

SU #GSP15 class celebrating the completion of group projects

Having spent 10 weeks at Singularity University I come away inspired. Whatever challenges we face we have the tools to overcome them. The arc of exponential change favours us. History is written by those who dare to swim against the current and do what was thought of as impossible the day before. The heroes of our time from Steve Jobs, to Nelson Mandela all pushed against the force of the ordinary. All that is needed is a will to dare, to challenge ourselves, to look at the problems we face with fresh eyes and a deep sense of the possible.

I was privileged to spend my time in Silicon Valley with 79 other individuals from around the world that I know will be changing the world. If they can, we all can.



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