« Topsight: February 4, 2009 | Main | Long Tail Micro-Drones »

Flunking Out

singularityU.pngSo, Singularity University is now up and running (and has evidently fixed its web hosting problem). I've had a few people already ask me what I think of it. Based on what I've seen so far, I can just say:

This is about as close to getting it wrong as I could imagine.

I find the name and slogan annoying, but let's set those aside. I'm mostly astounded -- and not in a good way -- by the academic tracks. For those of you who haven't yet ventured into SU's ivy-covered marble halls, they are:

  1. Future Studies & Forecasting
  2. Networks & Computing Systems
  3. Biotechnology & Bioinformatics
  4. Nanotechnology
  5. Medicine, Neuroscience & Human Enhancement
  6. AI, Robotics, & Cognitive Computing
  7. Energy & Ecological Systems
  8. Space & Physical Sciences
  9. Policy, Law & Ethics
  10. Finance & Entrepreneurship

The message here? People don't matter.

The first track is just Singularitarianism 101. The next seven cover technology-based industries -- the mix of "here's what you can invest in now!" with "here's something that we can imagine" still to be determined. The last one, on "Finance & Entrepreneurship," gives away the game with its introduction: "...how can we monetize this new knowledge of future technologies?"

The only one that gives a glance at social forces? The catch-all on "Policy, Law & Ethics." Nice that they can fit all of those issues, which have consumed the human mind for millennia, into a single theme. Too bad they couldn't have found room for politics (which is not the same as policy), economics (sorry, finance isn't the same thing, either), demographics, history, cities and urban planning, trade and resources, or war, let alone art, media, psychology, or cultural studies, too.

For an institution that claims to be "preparing humanity for accelerating technological change," it sure seems to be spending a lot more time talking about nifty gadgets than about the connection between technology and society.

To put it another way: this is all about the symptoms of "accelerating technological change," and almost nothing about the consequences.

For a trade show or a business workshop, that's fine. For something calling itself a university, it's amazingly short-sighted. Given the nature of the subject matter, that's especially ironic/tragic.

Of course, constructive criticism is always more useful than ranty carping, so -- having noticed that they say that their academic tracks are still being created -- here's what I think they should have as their areas of study (limiting myself to ten, as well, albeit by cheating a bit):

    [Intro:] Future Studies & Forecasting:
    With Ray K as the chancellor, you're not going to get away without a Singularity 101 session -- but this doesn't need to be a full track.

  1. Remaking Our Bodies:
    Understanding biotech, radical longevity, and enhancement.

  2. Remaking Our World:
    Understanding energy, ecological systems, and nanotechnologies.

  3. Remaking Our Minds:
    Understanding neurotech, cognitive systems, and AI.

  4. Power and Conflict:
    Emphasizing the role that political choices have in shaping technology.

  5. Scarcity, Trade, and Economics:
    How does scarcity manifest in an accelerating tech world? How do you deal with mass unemployment, technology diffusion, leapfrogging?

  6. Demography, Aging, and Human Mobility:
    Shifts in population and cultural identity; understanding impact of extending life.

  7. Human Identity and Communication:
    Understanding the changing nature of identity in a densely-linked world, looking at how different forms of identity clash.

  8. Governance and Law:
    How does governance emerge? How are laws about technology shaped?

  9. Ethics, Morality, and Unintended Consequences:
    How ethics emerges in a swiftly-changing environment; morality and technology; precautionary/proactionary principles.

  10. Openness, Resilience, and Models for Dealing with Rapid Transformation:
    Open source, open access, open governance; understanding resilience.

That is: three tracks on emerging techs, two tracks on political/economic impacts, two tracks on human/culture impacts, and three on the processes and institutions that grapple with large-scale change. These kinds of classes would be much harder to put together than "This Tech Will Change Everything! 101", but they'd be correspondingly much more powerful.

A useful Singularity University (or whatever it would be called) would be one that dove deeply into the nature of disruption, how society and technology co-evolve, and how we deal with unintended and unanticipated results of our choices. As sorry as I am to say it -- there are some very good people, folks I admire and respect, who are on the faculty & advisor list -- this institution isn't what we need in an era of uncertainty, crisis, and potential transformation.


Brilliant. Thank you.

When do you start accepting applications, Prof. Cascio? I would gladly apply to your program ;-)

You raise some good points here. I am excited to see Singularity Univ. launch, and was impressed by the faculty list. Some really smart people who could inspire as well as instruct.

But, like you, I'm worried at the lack of focus on an actual human element in the courses of study.

Let's hope, for their sake as well as ours, that they add a generous helping of concern for and involvement with the people who are affected by technological transformations. (Which would be.... all of us)

BTW, I wish you would actually offer a lecture series on #s 7 and 9. I think a structured discussion of those issues would be fascinating.

Remind me to keep you away from all sharp objects.

As I'm sure many others did, you were the first person I thought of when I read the announcement. Very restrained, and effective critique, Jamais.

Separating the body from the brain/mind works; but I would have cross-over tracks which puts them back together :-)
"Human Enhancement" or "Transformative Human" would be the field and the subsets tracks would be:
1. Remaking our Bodies
2. Remaking our Brains
3. Remaking our Minds
based on NBIC+ sciences and technologies.

Where do I apply for a job?!

Thank you for reminding me why I like you as a futurist. Like you said, this kind of analysis would be much more difficult and much more powerful.

No corporate executive will pay $25,000 for future social studies/liberal arts crash course with a future twist.

The target is Singularity executive MBA and advanced tech business brainstorming.

Call it super-sized Singularity startup bootcamps.

None of what you would propose to teach would get the participants or attract the participants who can ride the leading edge of the wave.

Why would someone who could make a difference spend 10 weeks and pay money getting the cliff notes to be a futurist debater, philosopher and ethicist ? Just because they are too busy to read a liberal futurist or future environmentalist blog or forum ?

This is why you need a finance, entrepreneurship and futurist business plan track. You would end up with something that does not have a viable business model but end up with a non-profit charity.

Brian, I thought that SU was seeking to create a real academic university, not just a tarted-up executive seminar.

However, I'm disappointed that you seem to think that understanding the politics, ethics, and social element of transformative technologies is something left to blogs and "social studies/liberal arts," and not something needed by technologists and entrepreneurs. That's a sad attitude for someone who wants a beneficial singularity.

For me the title of Singularity University is offputting.
First, its not common language so will only attract those in the know or the very inquisitive with time on their hands.
Second, it implies one future and a particular view on the world. It will take a lot more effort and cost to market such a venture.
Third,as a future oriented CEO i wouldnt even try to sell this to my team. They would think i had left the planet, particularly now.
Fourth, its specific topic base means i have to learn about things that will never be in my space. Therefore I'd go listen to the appropriate faculty elsewhere and avoid the fee and major time commitment.

Linked over from On Singularity.

I found myself nodding along to your points, but I don't see Kurzweil going after the same objective. He's always had an entrepreneurial slant on the technological singularity (as in selling it) and I think he's on a personal crusade to popularize the notion and promote investment in singularity-friendly fields as it were. I don't follow him much anymore, but more power to him.

Jamais, according to their FAQ, SU is not trying to become a genuine academic university. Good thing, I'd say.

Excellent critique!

If Jamais feels strongly enough about this, he should approach funding agencies and prospective faculty members to create his own institution. He could structure it according to his own priorities.

No one can tell Ray Kurzweil how to structure his project, except perhaps NASA and Google, just a little.

Suggestion: If Dean Kamen is being left out of RK's SU, Jamais might consider approaching Kamen.

Well said. Your 1-10 list is the real deal, and very close, I feel, to the foresight-filtering perspectives offered in my book. Whenever we next meet, I'm buying you a drink!
regards, Adam (Author: Future Savvy, Amacom Press, 2009)

They indicated that were modelling after the international space university.



I very much doubt the hard take off scenarios. There will be disruptions and changes but I doubt a smooth and straight shot to Post-Singularity. 99.99+% of the people will not be ready for the disruptions or the hard takeoff. They will not believe it now. It has to happen.

The forecasting and planning do now is to look at exactly what is around the next corner and giving the earliest most detailed heads up about it and to figure out how things will impact and to get in a position to advise on the best way to handle it.

I think the new tech has to be accelerated so we have the tools to better handle our current problems. If anything the tech development is happening too slow. Yes, we will have new downside to deal with or prevent, but I do not see people getting it together on a mass scale to do anything about the downside of the next tech when they are still dealing with the downside of tech that is a century old.

I think we will still have much of the same social problems as technology advances.

Certain problems are ameniable to technological fixes. Disease, starvation, energy etc...

The politics, ethics and social matters do have their place but as part of a TED conference or a conference specifically on the risks and issues. Trying to force feed it in this kind of program will not work. If you want another program then go ahead and start one. You have the organizational capability.

When has there been effective action to totally pre-empt a developing future social or environmental problem ? Action now against climate change and environment happens as the problem is already happening. Definitely try to do something about it but I think we have to expect that certain actions will not be taken on sufficient scale and thus try to make a general move for multi-purpose robustness and preparedness. Ride along with what people are willing to take action against or for and try to beef it up for robustness against other problems.


One of my biggest beefs with transhumanism in general is their fascination with machines and lack of interest in people. For me futurology has always followed Asimov's Foundation principles - that predicting the future is always about people. So, while interested in tech my key 21st century focii have been foreign policy, military, demographics, economics.

The Singularity will occur in a rich human matrix and it is unlikely that the international system of nation-states will disappear before it occurs. So there needs to also be a context where military, warfare, political, international relationships are considered. For example, as we approach the cusp of the Singularity might not this tip the balance of power between nations and how can we manage the risk of war?

If the Singularity occurs as a Digital Gaia scenario, human beings will become part of it. How does current human society determine the form the eventually emerges in that case?

I think that strangely we need to put number ten as number one on the list. Without open sourced thinking as well as technologies people fail to see the resilience model that shows how we can shape our bodies ourselves. The simplest parts of that equation people often fail at because they are not constantly rebuilding their own mental models.

So much of our conscious imaginative process is totally ruled by these mental models. From this imaginative space we create our perceptive reality which is what allows us to stay fluid.

Nice critique Jamais. It echoes many of my observations about the hard-tech bias that seems to pervade transhumanist and singularitarian forecasters and thinkers. I've written up a more comprehensive riff (Asocial Singularitarianism - Breeding an Incomplete View of Convergent Accelerating Change) here:


@ Brian Wang: I think you seriously misunderestimate 1) the monetization of social components of convergent acceleration, 2) the social obstacles to diffusion of hard tech, and 3) the value of a more comprehensive view of the drivers of acceleration.

I fully support singularity-as-a-scenario (SaaS), but not as a singular exclusive vision of the future. That closes off forecasting doors that we need to open more quickly if we are to experience a soft take-off.

I think you've got it mostly right Jamais - and I think any top executive who feels he doesn't need to understand those things likely isn't doing a very good job for his company.

Great critique. My personal approach to these issues (floating cities, AKA seasteading) fits far better in your curriculum than the original. Effects on society is a huge part of technological change - that's where the meat is, not in the technology itself.

Yes indeed, as the amount of individual physical liberty derived from technological freedom increases exponentially, it becomes absolutely essential that our ability to shape and define other people's abstract thinking maintains parity, if we wish to likewise maintain our current power to manipulate and control them.

Jamais: for my comment, I am reprising what I just posted to the Association of Professional Futurists' listserve re: Singularity University:
Exactly. In addition to the various points people have made,
correctly, about the emphasis on content -- and very slanted content at that -- rather than futures / foresight process, the point that no-one so far has apparently considered is that the curriculum as described contravenes every standard of academic and intellectual quality against which universities are judged and by which they are accredited. Specifically, some indication that the curriculum connects to the previous academic work in the field, and acknowledges the literature and accomplishments by the global intellectual community within the discipline.

This looks like a vanity publication, in institutional form. Shame on Google. Shame especially on NASA Ames and shame in particular on
Peter Diamandis. Especially the latter two, as I know they are acquainted with members of the actual academic futures studies community, so their uncritical involvement in this is even more appalling.

But perhaps I am jumping the gun: I have not, after all, interviewed either Diamandis or the staff at NASA Ames who might be involved in this project; for all I know they will provide balance to the singularity that is Kurzweil.

Nothing on conflict/warfare. Half of what is going to be done in this space will be slaved to that topic (unfortunately).


We should discuss the implications of something that is happening that will effect people and uses an early form of one of the Singularity technologies. So take a real case instead of generalities or hypotheticals.



By simply laying down a 10-centimetre blanket of DIME Hydrophobic Materials sand beneath typical desert topsoils, the new super sand stops water below the roots level of the plants and maintains a water
table, giving greenery a constant water supply. 3000 tons/day is
already being produced. 1 ton of silicate coated sand would probably
be good for 10 square meters. 4 days of production to cover one square kilometer. Germany regulatory bodies have declared the material to be safe. It helps conserve 75% of the water for irrigation in desert like conditions. 85% of the water in the middle east and north africa is used for irrigation.

This could help alleviate current and future water crisis, relieve poverty (more local agriculture), and reduce water wars and water polticial tension. Plus help preserve coastlines and help groundwater. Germany's environmental agency has declared the product safe.

Doing this at the scale that is heading towards is geoengineering.

It has taken seven years, but one could imagine a project like this starting/emerging from a Singularity University team project. Would it have been more likely from Jamais program or from Ray's ? Is the nanosand a good thing and conserving irrigation water a good thing ? I think it is.

Tracks 2,4,5 of Jamais program.

Tracks 4,7,8 and 10 from Ray.

I think it would have been more likely to emerge from Ray's program. The key is not understanding the general problems in an abstract way but the science of how to do it and the business of how to make it happen.

Has the Sierra Club developed and rolled out a viable technical solution for anything ?

Awesome commentary, Mr. Cascio.

One thing that strikes me about the kinds of arguments that tend to emerge around this sort of subject is the way things tend to get polarized, with some folks invariably trying to frame what they see as "technical" endeavors as the Most Important Things. I'm an engineer and a bit of a gadget geek myself so believe me I can understand technology enthusiasm -- but perhaps *because* of working in industry, as I have for the past 7+ years (in very technically-oriented positions), I don't really draw a distinction between the gadgets and the means those gadgets come into being, how their uses are determined, how they are distributed, what ethical issues they bring up or illustrate, etc.

It's all part of the same system, and the Singularity U curriculum you've astutely criticized here essentially tries to act like large chunks of that system don't exist. Which to me looks both silly and like they're shooting themselves in the proverbial foot.

I really do wonder sometimes whether the folks who get wrapped up in Singularity-hype actually want anything to actually *work*. I will be watching the Singularity U press with interest, but let's just say I will be very, very surprised if the endeavor actually leads to any viable solutions for anything. I will certainly acknowledge it if something useful does come about but I am not holding my breath.

Wendy Briggs: You are getting hung up on a narrow definition of University. They said I mentioned in my posting. It is modeled after the International Space University, which is advanced cramming on space topics. It has helped people close the gap and become astronauts or have significant roles with space organizations and companies.

@Alvis Briggs - I get social sites, applications ala digg, facebook and memebox. I sometimes don't write about some areas where I or something that I am involved with could actually launch a commercial venture. I understand how to leverage open source projects and social platforms work to leverage community content and attract the developer community.

Almost 3000 articles on all kinds of advanced technology. I think they clearly show that I have a comprehensive view on the drivers of acceleration and social obstacles to tech. Anyone who is running a startup and introducing a new product or service would be missing a huge element if they did not know the political, economic, social obstacles and alternative tech.

So unlike what Jamais has said. I am not saying they do not need to know it but it is not going to be 60% of this program.

I actually have a few more detailed proposed solutions and actions.

1. Run the "missing aspects of the agenda" on weekends during the course and in the week after. Try to get permission from Singularity University to pitch it before and during the program. See how much can be charged and how many sign up.

2. Try to get some days in the program to present. Condense the material into cases or as take away references.

3. The clearly highly aware people on this comment thread and Jamais can put together study briefings and cases on the missing futurist humanities sections or cases for each section.

This could be a variant of the effort that Jamais led for CRN for scenario building.

Broader futurist - non-singularity scenarios.

Briefing of current status and trends and case on topics like
- social obstacles to tech change (Alvis you taking that one)
- Scarcity, Trade, and Economics
High unemployment


Jamais, I think you may have a valid point that social concerns are underemphasized in the current rough-draft curriculum for the initial SU course, as summarized on the SU website.

But, to me the high-level organization of the course is less important than the actual contents. If social issues are discussed in the intro, the conclusion, and then in the individual mini-courses (on the various technology areas) as contextually appropriate, this seems just fine to me.

I don't really see why you find it so important that the course material is partitioned according to social issues rather than according to technologies. Either approach will lead to some redundancy. In the current approach, the same social issues will get repeatedly discussed in the mini-courses on multiple technologies. In your proposed approach, the same technologies will get repeatedly discussed in mini-courses on multiple social issues.

As a likely SU instructor, I'd be interested for your suggested reading list for each of the content areas you enumerate above. I'm sure other prospective SU instructors would be too. There is certainly general interest in the issues you mention among the folks involved with SU, even though the proposed course organization is different than what you would prefer.

And of course, if SU grows into something more ambitious with a variety of course offerings, I would expect there to emerge offerings containing more in-depth material roughly along the lines you suggest.

Ben, thanks for this.

I proposed the social-centered structure for a few reasons, but they all come down to moving away from the unidirectional technological change -> social change model that seems so commonplace in emerging tech/Singularity discussions.

Implicit in a structure that focuses on particular technology categories is a "here's why this tech is nifty/dangerous" approach. By focusing instead on areas of impact, I'm pushing a "here's an important issue, let's see how the different techs get woven through" model. Both may talk about technologies and society, but the tech-centered structure looks for cause and effect, while the social-centered structure looks for interactions.

This is especially useful when thinking about how developments in one techno-social arena can alter developments in another. Successes in one field can alter funding or demand for another; same with failures. Accidents and malicious use will almost certainly have cross-technology impacts. Political issues surrounding the development of one technological discipline can have fallout in the development of others.

Looking at these technologies in terms of the impact areas also encourages looking for parallels and generalizable conclusions. This becomes particularly useful when dealing with catalytic technologies that aren't on the survey list. By understanding the cross-tech issues and impacts, a student would be better-equipped to look for how a novel technology affects -- and is affected by -- its social/market/political environment.

The humanities have done nothing to help human progress, in a concrete way. Why waste time studying them, if you want to create a better world?

Singularly epic failure predicted for this venture. Not one of the Grand Engineering Challenges will be solved or accelerated thanks to it. Innovation refuses to work that way. The primary outcomes of these “hey, let’s get together and invent the future”-workshops (oh, now it’s a University - how prestigious), are moist hot air, handwaving, a whole lotta carbon dumped in the form of air fuel, thick wads of cash exchanging hands …and the future arrives at exactly the same pace as it would have without the futurefest. And someone else invents it.

In other news, the event horizon of music composing has arrived: Songsmithularity is here. Any songs beyond this point are not ours to compose…

The Long Nose of Innovation

“Any technology that is going to have significant impact over the next 10 years is already at least 10 years old. That doesn’t imply that the 10-year-old technologies we might draw from are mature or that we understand their implications; rather, just the basic concept is known, or knowable to those who care to look.”

Entirely new ideas are very hard to come by; refining old ones to world-changing perfection takes a long time; just look at any Grand Technology, like phones, microchips, operating systems. No doubt, version 7 of Songsmithularity may actually kick some talented musician’s butt.

Of course, some seriously neat tech may take less time. But no less than a decade. It seems 3-5 years is the absolute minimum to get anything worthwhile done. If you’re starting from scratch, be prepared to do your homework first, adding 5-20 years.

“Starting from scratch” meaning creating something entirely new, unprecedented tech. Say, someone claims an AGI leading to the Singularity is possible in less than a decade. You can’t take that seriously unless that someone’s been working on it for 10-30 years and already has some proof of concept.

“Seriously neat tech” meaning recursively self-improving or somehow evolving and optimizing, kicking humans out of the loop. An example of minor seriously neat tech is an operating system that learns what you do, and does everything you’d rather not; a servant, not just a tool.

I’m not saying they’re saying “under a decade” (except for one fairly credible researcher http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/goertzel20080823/ - credible because he seems to at least have the necessary time put into his work) but the tone of their communication is that they’re going to solve some major, grand, large scale, high impact problems, just by putting a bunch of smart people in the same room and letting the CO2 levels rise. And do that in a relative hurry. You may ask “Where does it say so?” Don’t know if it does explicitly, but it doesn’t say: “Going to bear fruit 20-30 years from now”. You can’t sell that. There always has to be this feeling of immediacy, communicated between the lines, that the future is just around the corner to get people excited and open up their wallets.

Whereas, in the real world, what actually Actually happens, anything worthwhile usually takes a whole Lifetime to come to grips with, let alone do something about it that hasn’t been done before.

The easy stuff is already done. Problems we’re faced with solving today are Deep. 10 weeks doesn’t have that quality. Not even a year. A decade is a good start.

What good is it to put a group of relative strangers in a room? Cross-pollination? Synergy? For that time they only manage to become a bunch of useless specialists, deprived of their research tools and teams. You can rattle off a number of such “innovation acceleration” terms and tout the blessings of group effort, but it won’t change the fact that history is replete with stories of epic, world-changing breakthroughs that are the result of an SDI - Single Dedicated Individual - or a small team led by one. Groups of disparate people that get together for 10 weeks to discuss? Yeah, I guess there are a few examples of those too, but key individuals played a crucial part. Lose them, and the success of the project goes down the tubes. And they surely weren’t accelerated by anything like SU.

These kinds of schemes have a built-in fail. They’re architecturally incapable of achieving what they claim. So what’s effective? Use the funds wasted on this non-starter to fund individual researchers/teams of important and promising tech. Massively fund massively important and promising tech. Perhaps that’s what they actually do with the money.

The only good outcome I expect is that it makes the issues more known and that may increase funding.

Perhaps, if all the smart, key people who actually have a potential to make a difference attend the next 20 sessions, you *might* see something come out of it, but until then all we’re likely to see is an ever increasing corpus of futurebabble.

Great article as usual Jamais,

I also think the current SU curriculum is weak on the social, cultural and political impact of emerging disruptive technologies. Actually, these things interest me more than technology per se, and I consider the (maybe) impending big S as more of a human explosion than a technology explosion.

Yet, I feel that the social, cultural and political impact of emerging disruptive technologies is too often discussed with a far too cautious, precautionary, almost defeatist approach.

I mean, we agree that society and technology are in a feedback loop with one influencing the development of the other, but there is often a hidden assumption that social development must slow down technology development (this hidden assumption seems a recent phenomenon). What if it is the other way around, with social development speeding up technology development?

The mass adoption of cell phones, VoIP and P2P file transfers (aka IP piracy) are examples of breakthrough mass adoption of new technologies. The first has been pushed by commercial interests, but the second has been timidly opposed by commercial interests, and the third has been very strongly opposed by commercial interests. Yet you cannot stop a tide with a spoon and today it seems that everyone is downloading movies - which will force rethinking the IP system.

The lesson is that we-the-people are smarter than they think and quick to adopt things that have a positive impact on our lives. Senior ex-bigots have adopted Viagra en masse (sadly without renouncing their bigotry).

So I think the first generations of affordable and operational life extension therapies, psychoactive drugs, fully immersive VR with neural links, brain implants etc. may trigger a wave of mass enthusiasm for more radical generations of disruptive technologies, which would accelerate acceleration.


Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Powered By MovableType 4.37