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Greetings from the future camp

According to Ray Kurzweil, the Singularity is a point where man will merge with the machine and then live forever - which makes a nine-week academic vacation at Singularity University, named after the idea, sound a little like a cult. Our reporter went to the West to investigate and found 40 surprisingly sane gifted people who aim to change the world.

the guru Ray Kurzweil's ideas on the exponential acceleration of technologies, especially artificial intelligence and life extension, have made him an intellectual hero among certain technologically minded communities. All rights reserved to Popular Sceicne
the guru Ray Kurzweil's ideas on the exponential acceleration of technologies, especially artificial intelligence and life extension, have made him an intellectual hero among certain technologically minded communities. All rights reserved to Popular Sceicne
By Josh Dean, photo by Dave Lauridsen

"What happened to your finger?"
Bruce Klein asked after noticing my injured finger. A cooking accident, I answered. "Maybe we can inject some nano-robots into her to fix her," Klein replied, grinning jokingly.

Before hanging up his hat in the executive office of Singularity University (SU), Klein produced the film Exploring Life Extension and edited the book Scientific Conquest of Death, both of which are pretty self-explanatory. He is very thin, thanks to total adherence to a health regimen designed to prolong life (minimum number of calories, healthy food, no alcohol, many nutritional supplements) and perhaps due to the pressure of establishing the strangest and newest academic institution in the United States.

SU, which opened last summer on the campus of NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., is the kind of place where you can tell your classmates that your goal is to one day upload your ads to the computer and they won't look at you like you just announced your intention. Clone your father using bits of DNA saved from his body. To be honest, it won't sound strange here either. Raymond Kurzweil, the secretary of the school, has already said it - and he will repeat it if you ask him.
Kurzweil is one of the most prolific and radical-minded inventors of the second half of the past century. His inventions include a desktop scanner, optical letter recognition software, the first text reader out loud, and an electronic keyboard that exactly imitates the sounds of a grand piano, which he built in Stevie Wonder's dirge.

But in the past decade, at age 61, he has become best known for incorporating and espousing a series of controversial ideas that have made him a near-messianic figure among transhumanists trying to connect man and machine, nanotechnology advocates and others on the fringes of the futuristic circle. . As he argued in his 2005 bestseller, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Kurzweil believes humanity has entered a period of exponential growth in technology that is propelling us toward the next great evolutionary leap. By 2029, he predicts, there will be computers with human intelligence, and by 2045 we can upload our consciousness into computers, thus providing eternal life. This is the singularity. Along the way, we'll build some significantly smarter robots, harness nanotechnology to end disease, custom-create internal organs and limbs, and generally change the world with tools we common workers can barely imagine today.

So you can see why it all makes sense in the halls of SU. And you can see why I came to campus in July for a short visit, during the fourth week of the nine-week session, as I look forward to meeting a group of nerdy sci-fi fans who can't wait to connect with the Matrix. Will the lesson summaries be transmitted to implants in the participants' brains via Bluetooth? And if you think about it, isn't the gathering of people in one place considered a bit old-fashioned? But I was surprised. The 40 women and men from 13 countries who paid $25,000 each (or received one of about 24 scholarships) to participate in SU's master's degree program seemed almost pathologically grounded—pragmatic people more interested in starting a business than speculating about nature The computers in 2045. They were ambitious of the first order, first-class cluster people with biographies like: “Luke Hutchinson was born in Auckland, New Zealand, and grew up dealing with computers and building gadgets. He is a PhD candidate in computer science and computational biology at MIT. Luke has spent the last two years studying Chinese intensively as a hobby while completing his Ph.D. He is very interested in civil rights in North Korea as well as skydiving and backpacking in remote areas. Luke is an avid Android hacker and generally a technology geek."

The spirit of Kurzweil of course fills the corridors of the institution, but the real idea behind the program is practical and smart: to group together brilliant people who would not meet on a daily basis, and make them think about how to solve problems and advance technology.

Peter Diamandis
Peter Diamandis
I spent my first afternoon on campus in Melanie Swann's "Future Systems Simulation Workshop". Swann, a hedge fund manager in Silicon Valley, is one of the lesser known members of such heavyweights as Vint Cerf, the father of the Internet, and Will Wright, creator of the computer game The Sims. That day she presented to a group of ten students how to best use predictive models, having already spent the morning flying over the Bay Area in Chaplin to observe cloud formations and witness the logistics of operating a small aerospace business. (everything is looked at here through the prism of entrepreneurship).

Swann went through PowerPoint slides that presented the future development as she sees it. "I predict that the future will merge traditional electrical devices with molecular electronics, combining organic and inorganic materials," said Swann, following one of Kurzweil's favorite formulas. "By 2018, we should have the ability to fully simulate the nervous system of the human brain. I think there is a good chance that we can make a backup of our brain file before that." Around the room, students nodded in agreement and tapped away at their keyboards, unfazed by the idea.

In reality, the SU is not just about Ray Kurzweil. It wasn't even his idea. The credit belongs to Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize Foundation and the annual certification program that takes place every summer on which SU, the International Space University, is based. The ISU is a multidisciplinary crash course in all things space related that has been attracting the stars of the future of aerospace since 1987, when Diamandis started it with his friends Bob Richards and Todd Hawley.
A few years ago, Diamandis read The Singularity Is Near and was inspired to spread his message. He shared the idea with Richards, who was also fascinated. ("Peter changed his behavior and his diet and started taking supplements. He became a follower," says Richards. "I became a follower, but I didn't have the self-discipline to follow through yet.") The two began talking about integrating the ideas into ISU, but then they decided, says Richards, that "Ray's set of ideas is broad enough to base a university on."
In late 2007, Diamandis turned to Kurzweil. "He understood it immediately," Diamandis said. By mid-2008, they hired two "architects" from SU, who, in collaboration with Diamandis, organized a founding conference, held in September at the Ames Center, where they recruited sponsors (including Google) and established a general system. Students will live on the Ames campus and attend classes just like in college; When the summer semester will be divided into three parts. The first part will include 10 hours of daily lectures that will provide an overview of the so-called exponential technologies such as artificial intelligence and nanotechnology that will be taught by the most respected experts in these fields. In the second part, students will choose specific "tracks" such as studying futurism and forecasting (which is what happened when I sat in one of Swann's classes), then they will be divided into four groups in preparation for the last part. During the summary part, each group should think of a project that could affect the lives of a billion people within a decade and that could be implemented almost immediately.

The project received the nickname "ten to the power of nine" - the mathematical notation for a billion. In SU studies there will be no tests or papers to submit. It is intended to be more of an intellectual resort than a practical provider.

Kurzweil announced the opening of the SU at the 2009 TED conference, the annual gathering of the greatest minds in the world of technology, entertainment and design. Diamandis hired Salim Ismail, who previously served as vice president of Yahoo and ran "Brickhouse" - Yahoo's internal startup incubator. About 1,200 requests to participate in the program poured in.
Ismail was far from Kurzweil's follower. "I only knew a little bit about his work," he said while throwing a frisbee outside the red-roofed hacienda-style building that houses the SU, late at noon on my first day there. "I haven't read any of his books."

Bob Richards says that the founders of the SU were well aware of the "advantages and disadvantages of branding the institution with 'Singularity'" - for example, the "chance that they would be branded as the Church of Ray", which would have loaded the barrel of ammunition for the cynics who felt the need attack. “[SU is] not a religion,” he says. "It's an academic institution", although not one that should compete with MIT or Caltech, and not one that operates in the traditional manner in which graduate schools operate, where the student focuses on an absolutely unique subject for years and graduates as an expert in the field. ("People study the trajectory of an ion on one particular neuron", Diamandis told me and rolled his eyes). "The idea", says Richards, is to "attract virtuosos and turn them into cluster people". And beyond that, the idea is to get these virtuosos to focus on turning brainstorming into business.

Already in the fourth week, Ismail said, certain things began to develop. He recalls one meeting where the students and faculty discussed ways to prepare the Earth for climate change. Scientists have proposed spraying seawater into the air to deflect sunlight. The problem is that this is an expensive proposal, which should be done in international waters, which will also raise the question of who will finance or manage it? A student who previously ran an Internet business for consulting firm Accenture raised his hand when the idea came up in class. "Make the clouds in the shape of a Nike or BMW logo," he said. Or sell advertising on the clouds so that passenger planes can see it."

Ismail estimated that at least four companies were born in the first month, and that it is likely that more will grow in their wake. In fact, one of them was in construction under the trees not far from where we were standing. "Yonathan is an advisor to President Shimon Peres" said Ismail, pointing to a young man who was standing next to an erasing board placed on a pedestal. The guy to his left is an artificial intelligence entrepreneur from Canada, he continued, and the young woman in red is an adviser to the Prime Minister of Canada.

The team worked on a community-car-sharing idea called Gettaround. Think of it as a car-sharing company that uses private cars instead of rental cars: the people who join the group rent out their cars for the periods of time the cars sit unused, which in most cases is about 90 percent of their lifetime. In one weekend, the group built an iPhone app that showed where and when the vehicles were available, and could unlock and start the vehicles by remote control.
A ride-sharing company like this might not be the kind of grandiose project you'd expect from something called the lofty ten to the nine, but the Gettaround team is quick to respond. Sarah Sklarcyk, a University of Michigan medical student who worked on the project, said they chose transportation because it's an issue that can be solved with technology that already exists. "It's not cancer or AIDS or poverty; It's not an amorphous problem that we don't really know how to solve." The way the Gatorade team will save humanity - if you follow the path of abstract logic into the thick and scary forest - is that it makes people rethink their cars. It is not another property but a way that allows the group to move around. In the future, we'll be relying on robotic autonomous vehicles on the roads that can be ordered—stay with me—via some future version of the iPhone app. Probably something that will be embedded in our skull and activated by blinking. Correction: By thinking.

You would expect a person with messianic status to be dynamic and charismatic. You would guess that a man who takes about 150 supplements a day in an attempt to prolong his life would have great hair and a healthy glow. In reality, Ray Kurzweil is quite small, quiet and not exactly sloppy, but certainly not polished and impressive. He rarely changes his expression. Sociable but not very sociable.

It was the last week of the SU semester; Kurzweil and I returned to campus for the "graduation" ceremony. As we chatted in the conference room at the SU administration, it occurred to me that he wasn't trying to give the impression of a messiah. However, he is keen to convey the fact that things are changing rapidly, and that the vast majority of us have no idea what that means. From Kurzweil's perspective, most of us are limping along in a straight line while the various technologies at our service are on a space shuttle headed straight for the clouds. (He likes to illustrate the idea with exponential graphs; his book is full of them).

SU, for Kurzweil, is a way to make these points clear to influential people in key industries. "The singularity is a result of the exponential growth of information technology," he said. "This growth is happening. We are on a steep ascent of this growth. It took the telephone 50 years to be adopted by a quarter of the population. Things are happening faster and faster. The cell phone you have today is 100 times more powerful than the computers we shared at MIT when I was a student. It's a billion times bigger in terms of the calculation against the dollar, and it's going to happen again.

Kurzweil is sometimes a bit "flying". He seems to think we can get out of any situation via singularization by using some exponential growth curves. If his supplements failed to keep him on earth long enough for his awareness to be uploaded to the computer, he arranged for him to be frozen until the technology arrived.

The spokeswoman told us that it was time for Kurzweil, who already had three appointments scheduled at the same time, to move on. Kurzweil's hair stood up a little when I asked a question that might have been obvious - "How is the idea of ​​the singularity important today, that is - right now, in this world we live in?" - In response he asked if I had read his books. I said I read 'The Singularity is Near', which was a half-truth (I stopped in the middle after 672 pages). He stood up and walked over to the shelf that held rows of his books.

"'The singularity is near' isn't just talking about 2045," he said. "We are already at the point where the future has effects on the factors that affect us." He means that the future is racing towards us like an out-of-control robot car and that we need to start using the tools that the future gives us to their full potential before it runs us over. He grabbed a copy of his latest book, Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever, and signed it. "To Josh," he wrote. "Continue to rise."

In the morning the final presentations; A student played the cello in the lobby of the main building as people rushed around with laptops and cards. A member of the Xidar team, who was working on disaster responses using smart phones, approached the school spokeswoman to ask if she could issue a press release, which sounded like a strange idea in its antiquity to this group.

In the Peter Diamandis building, a one-story building renamed for the ISU and SU academic semesters, which contains a cafeteria and a large ballroom, the chords of Ziggy Marley's song "Future Man, Future Woman" were played. Diamandis stood in front of two screens and a huge globe on which the school's logo was projected and the team project ideas were presented. "Ten to the power of nine," he said, facing a crowd of Silicon Valley influencers. "Will positively affect a billion people over the next decade. Without further ado, I pass the floor to the first team that will show you what it can do."
"Look around you," said Margo Liptsin, a member of the team known as Acasa and a doctoral student in the history of science at Harvard University. "Almost everything is created automatically, with one exception - this building. His skeleton was still built slowly and with Sisyphean handiwork." Axa's plan, she said, was to address the problem of substandard construction around the world. Even the simplest prefabricated houses are built by hand, relatively expensive and take a long time to build. "What would happen if there was another way to build houses? What would happen if we told you that we could build a house using 70 percent less energy and zero waste? how?" She paused for emphasis. "By printing the house".

Axa's plan was to commercialize the long-standing fringe technology on a large scale - by using XNUMXD printing and, in effect, printing houses. A mobile unit that can be easily built on site, pours the concrete coming out of a funnel into a designed mold; A one-story house could be ready in two days. "The idea is not just theoretical," said Liptsin. "Nowadays we build walls in this way". This was a vital point. While SU students spent a lot of time in the previous weeks brainstorming downloadable ads and other far-reaching ideas. A successful 'ten to the power of nine' project must begin with the use of existing technology in order to have a chance of meeting the goal of the entire project - to affect the lives of a billion people within a decade. "Neil will tell you how we will carry out this task."

Neil, was Neil Thompson, a tall Canadian with curly blond hair who is currently working on his doctorate in business administration at the University of California, Berkeley, but considers himself "multidisciplinary," with a special interest in brain-machine interfaces. He started by discussing the existing challenges. For now, the technology won't work on foundations or roofs, for example. But Bharuk Kushenbis - a professor at the University of Southern California - the inventor of this large-scale printer, joined the Axa group and was committed to making improvements to the idea.
In the near future - said Thompson - they hope to be able to print features of the interior of the house, in addition to roofs and foundations. It will be possible to adapt the technology
to local materials (adobe for example - a natural building material made of sand, clay and water), and by "leveraging exponential progressions" - here he switched to a graph that showed an exponential curve, which appeared in every presentation - the rising line (the shape of the Nike logo) presenting Kurzweil's philosophy - It would not be impossible to use the technique in space, by melting moon rock and saving the need to carry bags of cement along with the cargo of future astronauts.

Back to Earth - Axa did not require too much investment to start moving the project. With $10 million and 16 months, Thompson claimed, they could do a proof-of-concept, build a prototype home and get regulatory approvals. He started playing Axa's video. Basically - a commercial with an original music soundtrack and inspiring images, edited in two days by team members and was inspiring to the same extent as the commercials for which big companies pay millions.

It was as clear that this was a sales pitch to the gathering of venture capital investors that was present as it was a semester end presentation. Several people stood up and asked pointed questions about exponential weaknesses. For example, do slums have the sewer and water infrastructure needed for a sudden increase in buildings for permanent residence? One person sitting a few rows in front of me said he was "amazed" by the idea but pointed to the numbers ten million and 16 months. "They both seemed, um, optimistic to me."

In the end, it appears that the connection between SU ​​and Kurzweil was primarily a marketing tool designed to attract attention and top-notch faculty. It also ensured that everyone who came to SU was open-minded and curious, and motivated to take fringe technologies and bring them into the mainstream. The students, at least, were satisfied with the result. Almost every one of the citizens of SU's induction class reported that the program "exceeded expectations," as if they were filling in a circle on a survey that was automatically checked by a machine.

Of course, we will have to wait and see if the plans coming from SU will bear fruit. The Gatorround team has raised $250,000 from private investors and hopes to soon begin testing the idea of ​​car sharing on college campuses in the San Francisco Bay Area. Axa has a business plan, the cooperation of the inventor of the technology and a team of participants ready for action, but as of last fall - it is still chasing a venture capital investment. The members of the two remaining teams - Xydar, a disaster response system based on handheld computers, and One Global Voice, which intends to build a platform for building applications on the second generation wireless network (which is much more common in developing countries than the faster third generation networks) - will continue to seek investors and partnerships.

The Singularity University's most long-term impact may be the alumni social network it will create. Next year, the program will grow and it should include 120 students; A shorter format for business executives began last fall.

Yonatan Adiri, Shimon Peres' advisor, took on the role of overseeing the alumni's social network. He, too, had never read Kurzweil's book until Peres gave it to him. What he took from it - he told me minutes before the graduation ceremony - was the message that every part of our world is changing, rapidly, and that those who prosper are the people who are able to grasp the technologies that are given to us better than everyone else.

"I believe that each and every one of us [SU graduates] will have within the next three to five years a moment of powerful singularity, that is, a moment in which he or she will be able to influence a large number of people," he said. "Someone said - and I think this is a very appropriate way to define this thing - that it was more about the science than the fiction."

Josh Dean, a regular reporter for Popular Science, wrote about a free Internet-based college last September.

13 תגובות

  1. It is inevitable that there will be no shortage of unexpected mistakes, running amok to catch up and anticipate the future. On the way to change a certain situation, new unknown problems arise which will cause delay and withdrawal, perhaps catastrophe. A person is not without mistakes.

  2. Abby, this is the most fascinating article I've read here!
    Brainstorm, since when is brainstorming a despicable thing?!
    What is offered here is a brainstorming of geniuses in their field from different fields with a creative mind in order to make far-reaching changes in the use of existing technologies.
    This is exactly what is done in every successful startup company such as Intel, HP, 3M which has become a well of hundreds of registered and confidential patents.
    You who are afraid of change and embrace the familiar and the safe, surf the science website that shares with its surfers technological changes and discoveries several times a day! You use cell phones that send radiation to your brain - and you know it - eat food products that are sometimes not based on anything natural or in a small percentage (yes, there is some water in Coke..) send email and text messages without knowing how they go, and you are the ones who are afraid of innovation ??
    The atmosphere is warming, there were 4 earthquakes in the last month, the polarity of the earth changes rapidly every day, 70-year-olds are having sex today using Viagra, and building houses quickly and efficiently seems delusional to you?! What the hell are you doing here?!

  3. At least these people provide exact dates that would allow their claim to be refuted or confirmed.
    In my opinion, it will probably be disproved...

  4. People have dreams.
    One dreamed of a cannonball that would reach the moon
    And the other dreams of beating old age.
    These naïve dreams are finally coming to fruition
    With the abundance of information available to us at the click of a mouse,
    I can walk down the street and chat instantly
    With my brother who lives in New York and a glass of clean water to drink in the heart of the desert.

    So, my dear Frost, go eat you tcholet and see
    Big Brother is on repeat. You can probably learn something useful there...
    Abby, thank you for another fascinating article.

  5. In general, I would ask him why "the graph of human progress is necessarily exponential", and in a slightly less general way, I agree with Frost's comment.

  6. The whole story of Ray Kurzweil and the idea of ​​the singularity sounds like a modern messianic vision - the elements of which are narcissism, technology, and naive 'progress' of yuppies who are talented in themselves but have a rather limited intellectual horizon - especially in all that concerns the social, moral and political meanings and consequences of the 'vision' the Messiah' the tower).

    Vain dreams will speak, and messianic dreams in general. Reality is better than any imagination - and I guess already in 2018 we will see that the imagination was quite imaginary.

  7. Look how stupid we are.
    After all, if everyone invested all their efforts in order to find a cure for the disease of old age, then we would have found it a long time ago.

  8. Like Kurzweil, I believe in the progress of technology, but the whole idea of ​​the S.U. College to speed things up is a rather delusional thing when the technological progress comes from cumulative investments of trillions by universities around the world, increasing cooperation, experimental studies by giant companies like Intel and V.V. .m and countless start-up companies. Even the economic crisis didn't hurt the pace of progress.

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