Τετάρτη, 27 Μαρτίου 2013

College of the Future


“My kid is going to have an extraordinarily interesting life,”
declares Singularity University CEO Rob Nail. “My kid will never
drive a car and never go to college like I did.” Instead, all
vehicles will be autonomous, and the school will be
unrecognizable.


Singularity University (S.U.), physically located at the
National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Ames Research
Center in California, was founded by futurist inventor Ray Kurzweil
and Peter Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the innovation-promoting X
Prize Foundation, in 2008. Its modestly stated goal is to assemble,
educate, and inspire a new generation of leaders who will strive to
understand and use exponentially advancing technologies to address
humanity’s grand challenges.


S.U. takes its name from the concept of the Singularity, first
popularized in 1983 by science fiction novelist Vernor Vinge.
According to Vinge, the Singularity will occur when technological
progress powered by self-improving artificial intelligence (A.I.)
becomes so rapid that it speeds beyond our ability to foresee or
control its outcomes. Since 2000, when the Singularity Institute
for Artificial Intelligence was co-founded by A.I. theorist
Eliezer Yudkowsky, there have been seven Singularity Summits.
In December S.U. became the official sponsor of the
conference. 


Is interest in Singularity University just a passing technorati
fad? It’s too early to tell, but initial signs indicate that the
college is more than just a summer camp for self-congratulatory
nerd millionaires. In fact, Singularity University may well be the
prototype institution for revolutionizing education and
entrepreneurship. 


Consider the university’s immersive 10-week summer course, which
aims to address the biggest challenges facing humanity during the
next 20 to 50 years. The summer core curriculum engages 80 students
drawn from business, research, and government in interdisciplinary
hands-on workshops and site visits to leading-edge tech companies.
The class of 2012 was drawn from 36 countries and had an average
age of 31. Seminars are taught by some of the world’s leading
researchers, entrepreneurs, and thinkers in the fields of robotics,
artificial intelligence, neuroscience, biotechnology,
nanotechnology, and digital fabrication. Then the competition
begins: Students are divided into “109 Teams,” each of which aims
to develop a project featuring a technology that will affect at
least 1 billion people in the next 10 years. 


In addition to its summer graduate program, Singularity
University runs intensive seven- and nine-day executive courses on
specific topics. Its FutureMed seminar, for instance, offers course
tracks in regenerative medicine, health informatics, integrative
health, personalized medicine, neuromedicine, synthetic biology,
drug discovery, and medical robotics. The faculty includes
luminaries from business and academia such as Gabor Forgacs,
scientific founder of the organ printing company Organovo; Roni
Zeiger, chief health strategist at Google; Esther Dyson, board
member of the personal genomics company 23andMe; and Todd Brinton
of Stanford BioDesign. 


Singularity University’s 109 Team projects are not just academic
exercises; real technologies and real companies emerge from them.
The peer-to-peer car sharing and local car rental company
Getaround, for instance, grew from the insight that there are 1
billion cars in the world today, and most sit idle 22 hours of the
day. So why not let owners rent their cars when they are not in
use? Renters use an iPhone app that locates a nearby vehicle, pays
the hourly or daily rental fee, and even unlocks and starts the
car. 


Nail notes that Getaround’s technological challenges were fairly
simple compared to trying to change the regulations that prevented
the company from obtaining insurance. (Getaround insures for damage
and liability with a $1 million policy from Berkshire Hathaway.)
One of the biggest challenges S.U. grads confront is how to get
ossified government agencies out of the way of technological and
commercial progress. 


Nail thinks Getaround is only the beginning. Within a decade, he
believes, most new cars will operate autonomously, no drivers
needed. Car sharing combined with autonomous vehicles will
revolutionize the way people get from place to place. This means,
among other things, that California Gov. Jerry Brown’s push to
build high-speed rail from Los Angeles to San Francisco for more
than $100 billion will be a complete waste of money, because
car-shared autonomous vehicles will be able to travel safely down,
say, Highway 101 at 150 miles per hour. Google has calculated that
existing roadways could handle 15 times more vehicles if they were
all autonomous. Traffic jams would be a thing of the past. And the
fact that cars will no longer be sitting idle means that far fewer
will be needed in the first place. 


Nail says that so far S.U. teams have created 18 actual
companies, and he expects that “hundreds of companies and endeavors
will arise from Singularity University student projects in the next
two years.” A company called Matternet aims to leapfrog the problem
of developing countries’ bad transportation infrastructure with a
network of autonomous drones that deliver essential products such
as medicine to remote villages. Modern Meadow adapts the latest
techniques of tissue engineering to develop cultured leather and
meat products without slaughtering animals, thus using much less
land, water, energy, and chemicals.


So why won’t Nail’s kid go to college? “My worst class in
college was statistics, because I had a terrible teacher,” he says.
“In the next generation it will be unacceptable to have a terrible
statistics professor because students will be able to find the best
teacher online.” For most students core introductory courses will
be available online at any time. Nail cites the Young Lady’s
Illustrated Primer,
the interactive book from the 1995 science
fiction novel The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson, as the
“Holy Grail of educational tools.” One day soon, says Nail,
lectures, lessons, texts, videos, demonstrations, and testing will
all happen online by means of portable computers powered by robust
artificial intelligence. 


The production of new knowledge is accelerating exponentially,
Nail notes, which means that graduate students dawdling along for
years on a Ph.D. will become “fatally irrelevant.” Universities
will still play a big role as research institutions, he argues, but
they will increasingly have to model themselves along the same
dynamic interdisciplinary lines as Singularity University. Nail
does believe that some high-end universities will still exist,
chiefly for their social components and legacy
credibility. 


As an example of how far along this path we already are, Nail
cites One Laptop per Child founder Nicholas Negroponte’s latest
experiment in Ethiopia. Negroponte’s team simply dropped off boxes
of preloaded, solar-powered tablet computers in two remote
Ethiopian villages and waited to see what happened. No instruction
of any sort was provided. The illiterate kids have since learned
how to sing ABC songs and even hacked Android to customize their
desktops. The hope is that in 18 months the kids can learn to read
on their own with no schooling at all. 


In 20 years, Nail thinks, any company or government that wants
to remain relevant will seek out Singularity University faculty and
alumni to help it understand how to leverage technology to meet the
challenges posed by energy production, education, food production,
health care, biosecurity, and environmental change. Given the
advances in medicine, nanotechnology, and biotechnology, he says,
“We believe that we are going to be living much longer. So we don’t
want to live in a horrible future. We want to live in an amazing
one.”  

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