WIRED: “Singularity University day 1: Infinite, all directions”

November 9, 2009

Wired Senior Editor Ted Greenwald is embedded with Singularity University’s inaugural 10-day Executive Program. Follow his coverage of the entire program at http://www.wired.com/epicenter/singularity-university/. Ted is also Tweeting using #singularityu.

See Ted’s full post at http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2009/11/singularity-university-day-one-infinite-in-all-directions/.

A security guard checks my driver’s license as I drive into the entrance to Moffet Field, a disused naval airbase that hosts the nascent Singularity University. Night has fallen, but it still feels like entering a top-secret installation out of a James Bond movie, crowned by with strange domed buildings and adorned by sculptures of airships.

Singularity University's inaugural Executive Program participants, with Ray Kurzweil, and Peter Diamandis

The Singularity University Executive Program is small — one-to-one staff/faculty ratio, according to executive director Salim Ismail, formerly of Yahoo’s tech hothouse. Inside an elegantly appointed palace, some 30 students assemble, a bright, well groomed group of 30-to 50-somethings representing a dozen industries and nearly as many countries.

The SU administrators shoo the crowd into an adjacent room where rows of chairs have been arranged to face Raymond Kurzweil’s slide show. After introductions from Ismail and X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis, who is clearly the driving force behind the school, Kurzweil steps in front of the assembled students. He’s a surprisingly unimposing character, a sort of Walter Mitty for the Facebook age. A casual mention of pills leads him to root around his pockets, looking for the vitamins, minerals, and who-knows-what he pops hourly to slow down the aging process so he can live to see the Singularity — the moment when machines overtake human intelligence and human history shifts into hyperdrive.

He begins by taking on his critics, which he does periodically throughout the address. “They say, Kurzweil underestimates the complexity of — fill in the blank. I agree with critics about the challenge. I disagree about the power of the tools we’ll have to solve the problems at hand.” The essential point is that humans are geared to linear change — say, an elephant charging across the African veld. But evolution — both biological and technological — happens exponentially, clouding our view of the future. Exponential change is inherently counterintuitive, so we underestimate its power. “30 steps linearly is 30 steps,” he says. “30 steps exponentially is a billion.”

For the next half hour, Kurzweil rifles through graph after graph showing how technology is changing exponentially — in all fields, in all eras. It’s a compelling presentation that leaves the audience slack-jawed. Some are resistant, though. What happens when terrorists have the same capability to re-engineer viruses that makes it possible for medical science to disable them? Won’t politics and economics to derail technology? What about capital — does it grow exponentially as well?

The futurist deftly swats down such questions like so many pesky mosquitos. Concerns like that arise from linear thinking. A quick look at history confirms that human problems stimulate technological solutions that then yield further exponential evolution. I’m not entirely convinced, but it’s hard to disagree with the man’s logic.

Kurzweil poses for some group photos and then runs to catch the next flight back to his home near Boston. The inaugural SU Executive Program is underway. Classes start tomorrow at 8:30am.

Original article is under copyright and is re-published here with permission of the Ted Greenwald and Wired.com.