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Singularity University: The Harvard of Silicon Valley Is Planning for a Robot Apocalypse

The students and teachers at Singularity University welcome a future where robots run the world.

During a recent Executive Program at Silicon Valley’s Singularity University, the institution’s co-founder Peter Diamandis made some confident predictions.

Within the next decade, he said, self-driving cars will eliminate all driving fatalities. Artificial intelligence will soon surpass the skills of the best human doctors and remove all inefficiencies from health care systems. These AIs will invent new pharmaceuticals to cure previously fatal diseases and will 3D print customized medicines based on genetic analysis of individual patients. Perhaps best of all, he said, plummeting production costs and rising prosperity will make such fantastic medical care essentially free.

It’s common for tech industry rhetoric to invoke the ideal of a better world, but since its 2008 inception, Singularity University has articulated an astonishingly ambitious series of goals and projects that use technological progress for philanthropic ends. Medicine is just one of many domains that Diamandis wants to fundamentally change. He and others at Singularity are also working to develop and support initiatives that will provide universal access to high-quality education, restore and protect polluted environments, and transition the economy to entirely sustainable energy sources.

His audience was a group of 98 executives from 44 countries around the world; each had paid $14,000 to attend the weeklong program at Singularity University’s NASA Research Park campus in Mountain View, California. As Diamandis moved through the sectors of the economy that artificial intelligence would soon dominate—medicine, law, finance, academia, engineering—the crowd seemed strangely energized by the prospect of its imminent irrelevance. Singularity University was generating more than $1 million of revenue by telling its prosperous guests that they would soon be surpassed by machines.

But his vision of the future was nonetheless optimistic. Diamandis believes that solar energy will soon satisfy the demands of the entire planet and replace the market for fossil fuels. This will mean fewer wars and cleaner air. Systems for converting atmospheric humidity into clean drinking water will become cheap and ubiquitous. The industrial meat industry will also vanish, replaced by tastier and healthier laboratory-grown products with no environmental downsides. He also predicts that exponential increases in the power of AI would soon render teachers and universities superfluous. The best education in the world will become freely available to anyone.

The lectures at Singularity University’s Executive Program are brisk and engaging, dense with charts and visuals, but punctuated with humor in the style of TED talks. During the two days I spent there, there were sessions on cryptocurrencies, AI, robotics, 3D printing and manufacturing, health care, and nanotechnology. Speakers tend to run wildly successful companies and hold simultaneous appointments at older universities such as Stanford.

They also tend to share a distinct attitude toward technology. Many managed to be cheerfully apocalyptic—certain that enormous displacements and disruptions loom on the horizon but still confident this will improve the world.

This is one of several apparent paradoxes that define Singularity. It’s a university that doesn’t grant degrees. It helps launch dozens of buzzy tech startups, but it’s devoted to something much loftier than corporate networking and profits. One of its core missions is to solve what it calls humanity’s “grand challenges.”

This is not the usual Bay Area bluster, where new companies promising revolutionary change are often devoted to things like creating better algorithms to customize burrito preferences or find casual sex partners nearby. Singularity University’s grand challenges really are some of the fundamental problems in the world: hunger, poverty, disease, pollution, and lack of access to education.

That its faculty, founders, and students typically believe they can not only ameliorate but fully eradicate these problems might seem like another instance of delusional tech-fueled optimism. After spending some time at Singularity, however, their vision of a radically better world starts to seem ambitious but perhaps possible, a shimmering utopia just beyond the edges of the actual.

Futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil, another cofounder of Singularity, popularized the term “singularity” in his 2006 book The Singularity Is Near. It refers to a hypothesized future era when machines become more intelligent than humans and begin designing other machines more powerful than anything the best human engineers can produce. These machines, in turn, will make another generation of even superior technologies, and the results of this iterative process will sweep rapidly upward along an exponential curve. Singularity University presupposes this exponential growth and is dedicated to harnessing technological power for positive change.

While there is not broad consensus among scientists that the singularity will happen, the idea has moved steadily from the fringes towards the center of mainstream discussion over the last decade. The Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom’s 2014 book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies presented the singularity as a matter of existential risk for humanity, outlining scenarios in which superintelligent machines enslave or destroy humans.

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The book prompted Tesla founder Elon Musk to describe artificial intelligence as potentially “more dangerous than nukes.” Kurzweil and Diamandis take the catastrophic scenarios that Bostrom envisions seriously, but they also foresee a number of positive possible futures in which humans become immortal by merging with machines and the world’s major problems are quickly solved.

The basis for both the utopian and dystopian predictions is the concept of exponential growth. “Our brains think in a local and linear fashion,” Diamandis said, “but the rate of technological progress is global and exponential.” He illustrated the idea with graphs of Moore’s law, a 1965 observation by Intel cofounder Gordon Moore that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles every two years.

If projecting this pattern decades into the future is valid, incredibly powerful circuits will become almost inconceivably tiny. This could enable infinitesimal computers to circulate throughout the human body to monitor and repair cells and tissues. Laptop-size machines would possess computing powers vastly superior to the largest supercomputers in the world today.

That Moore’s observation has been christened a “law” gives it a linguistic aura of infallibility, as if this exponential trend is an immutable fact of the universe. Moore himself, however, is skeptical that his law will persist indefinitely. He predicted in a 2015 interview that it would cease to describe the rate of progress at some point within the next 10 years.

Ray Kurzweil, by contrast, has proposed a law of his own—“The Law of Accelerating Returns”—that extends the principle of Moore’s law beyond the domain of integrated circuits to a broad range of technological and evolutionary systems. His position is that even if a particular technology does not always show exponential improvement over time, the invention of radically new and better technologies will compensate for slowing rates of progress.

Diamandis believes that Kurzweil’s law has profound implications for societies, legal systems, and governments. “Imagine if I can describe an idea in natural language, 3D print it, get it on the web, and begin selling it. It’s inevitable that intellectual property will lose some meaning in such a world,” he said.

Point-to-point delivery systems using drones will fundamentally reshape the transportation industry, and cheap customizable 3-D printers will largely replace manufacturing. Traditional schools and universities will fail to attract students interested in learning, though they might still function as venues for networking and socialization. “I don’t know what educational purpose college will have when the best faculty is an AI,” he said.

The most radical change will be widespread unemployment. “Everyone’s core business will eventually go to zero,” Diamandis said. This conclusion flows naturally from his definition of technology as “what makes the scarce abundant.” He applies the point not only to material resources but to intangibles such as analytical prowess, expert judgment and decision-making, clear and compelling communication of ideas, and any other areas in which humans currently enjoy a competitive advantage.

Like projections about the effects of artificial intelligence, predictions about the impact of pervasive unemployment bifurcate in opposing directions. The darker scenarios involve rapid growth in income inequality that spurs riots and wars and mass migrations. The optimistic scenarios, which Diamandis considers more likely, depend on governments recognizing the necessity of redistributing wealth to some degree and perhaps implementing a minimum income for all citizens. If the most serious threat to both manufacturing and white-collar jobs comes not from China but from Silicon Valley, then much of political discourse shows the same local and linear thinking Diamandis wants to transcend.

The Q&A after his lecture dispensed with the analog technology of hand-raising. Participants sent questions via their smartphones that were instantly ranked by popularity and displayed on a large screen. One popular question revealed a widespread anxiety: How can humans stay relevant in the economy of the future? “Bring in half a dozen 23-year-olds,” he said, adding that young people were less likely to be hindered by the calcified conventions of traditional organizations.

Many other people wanted to know whether he thought that income inequality would still exist once technology made all goods and commodities cheap and plentiful. “I think in the future we’ll have super-haves and haves, not haves and have-nots. The super-haves will have space yachts and travel to Mars and be able to afford technologies that radically extend their lifespan, but everyone will be lifted out of poverty. So it will still be a problem, but it will be better than the current world with haves and have-nots.”

There was little doubt about which class the audience represented. At one point during his lecture, Diamandis mentioned a new venture he’s involved with that offers personalized medical care based on extensive genetic testing and analysis. The price tag was $25,000 for eight hours at the clinic. Several audience members expressed interest. Still, when he threw out terms like “technological socialism” to a group of corporate executives, no one gasped or fainted.

Other speakers were more circumspect. Neil Jacobstein, an AI and nanotechnology expert who also lectures at Stanford, made a point of avoiding the word “socialism.” “I support free high-quality education and a base income for everyone,” he said. “Don’t read that as socialism—I just want a floor on misery. Even if you’re selfish, it’s still more sensible to put a floor on misery. We are all on this planet together, and we damn well better act like it.”

During a pause between lectures, I wandered over to see some of the gadgets and devices in Singularity University’s lab. The technologies were a mix of the serious and the silly. There was a dancing humanoid robot the size of a toddler on one table, and a contraption solving a Rubik’s cube on another. One scientist was wearing a neural headset that allowed him to drive a remote-control car with the electrical activity of his brain. I strapped on a virtual reality headset and rode a plunging roller coaster. At an adjacent station I took a virtual reality tour of a refugee camp for Syrians displaced by the war—the goal was to promote deeper empathy through a more immersive experience.

At the back of the lab was a prototype of something called a hypercube, which at some point in the next 18 months will be launched into low-Earth orbit to track pollution and help make agriculture more efficient. Though not much larger than a basketball, each hypercube costs a few hundred thousand dollars and can determine the chemical composition of materials just through imagery. This will allow it to monitor the compliance of mining companies in real-time and respond to oil and gas leaks with unprecedented speed.

The science fiction writer and futurist Arthur C. Clarke once said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Singularity University is provocatively poised somewhere in the blurry borderlands between science and magic. It’s full of jaw-dropping ambitions and technologies. How much turns out to be trickery, only time will tell.