The Singularity is near — and it has a university

It seems like everyone is talking about the Singularity these days. There’s a Singularity Institute, a Singularity Summit, and even Intel Chief Technology Officer Justin Rattner predicts that the singularity will arrive by 2050. Now the singularity has its own institute of higher learning, appropriately dubbed Singularity University, founded by Peter Diamandis (chairman of the X Prize Foundation) and inventor/futurist Ray Kurzweil, who popularized the idea in his book “The Singularity is Near.”

The Singularity, for those of you with only a fuzzy idea what the trendy term actually means, was coined by Vernor Vinge, a computer scientist and (excellent) science fiction writer, back in 1993 to describe the point at which rapidly accelerating technology makes the future literally impossible to predict. The technological singularity has been most closely associated with the development of artificial intelligence, and the point at which AI is powerful enough that machines can improve themselves.

Singularity University will emphasize an interdisciplinary approach to the idea, with 10 possible tracks for study: Future studies and forecasting; networks and computing systems; biotechnology and bioinformatics; nanotechnology; medicine, neuroscience and human enhancement; AI, robotics, and cognitive computing; energy and ecological systems; space and physical sciences; policy, law and ethics; and finance and entrepreneurship.

“The core unifying principle is the notion of people who are passionate about understanding how these powerful fields and technologies will be transforming humanity in the coming decades,” Diamandis says.

It won’t be a university in the traditional sense: Pimply-faced undergrads won’t be getting their bachelor’s degrees here. Instead, the university bases it structure on the International Space University, and this summer will share facilities with the ISU at the NASA Ames Research Park in Mountain View, Calif. (Afterwards, Singularity University will remain at Ames, while the space university moves on.) Diamandis, who founded the ISU, says it provides a successful model for quickly training people around a specific field and notes that some students have gone on to lead national space agencies.

The core curriculum will be a nine-week summer program for graduate students, consisting of a three-week overview, three weeks of specialized study in one of those tracks, and three weeks on a team project. And if you think that already sounds like whirlwind tour of a complicated subject, the university will offer even faster overviews: A 10-day program for “mid-level” managers, and a three-day program for C-level executives.

So is this all an effort to legitimize a science fictional dream, which has been described less generously as “the rapture of the nerds”? Clearly Diamandis and Kurzweil don’t think so; nor does Google, which signed up as the first corporate sponsor; nor does NASA Ames Director Pete Worden, also one of the university’s founders; nor does Salim Ismail, the university’s executive director and formerly the manager of Yahoo San Francisco-based Brickhouse unit. Ismail says Singularity U’s key goal is to provide a place where experts from a wide range of disciplines can learn and bounce ideas off one another for tech-based approaches to some of the world’s most important issues — global warming, alternative energy, telemedicine, and more.

“Politics alone aren’t going to power our way through this,” he says.

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