The Singularity gets a University

There’s been a huge amount of worldwide press coverage of the news that Ray Kurzweil has launched a “Singularity University”, to promote his vision (not to mention his books and forthcoming film) of an exponential growth in technology leading to computers more intelligent than humans and an end to aging and death. The coverage is largely uncritical – even the normally sober Financial Times says only that some critics think that the Singularity may be dangerous. To the majority of critics, though, the idea isn’t so much dangerous as completely misguided.

The Guardian, at least, quotes the iconic cognitive science and computer researcher Douglas Hofstadter as saying that Kurzweil’s ideas included “the craziest sort of dog excrement”, which is graphic, if not entirely illuminating. For a number of more substantial critiques, take a look at the special singularity issue of the magazine IEEE Spectrum, published last summer. Unsurprisingly, the IEEE blog takes a dim view.

Many of the press reports refer to the role of nanotechnology in Kurzweil’s vision of the singularity – according to the Guardian, for example, “Kurzweil predicts the creation of “nanobots” that will patrol our bloodstreams, repairing wear and tear as they go, and keeping our bodies perpetually young.” It was this vision that I criticised in my own contribution to the IEEE Singularity special, Rupturing the Nanotech Rapture; I notice that the main promoters of these ideas, Robert Freitas and Ralph Merkle, are among the founding advisors. At the time, I found it interesting in the responses to my article, that a number of self-identified transhumanists and singularitarians attempted to distance themselves from Kurzweil’s views, characterising them as atypical of their movement. It will be interesting to see how strenuously they now attempt to counter what seems to be a PR coup by Kurzweil.

It’s worth stressing that what’s been established isn’t really a university; it’s not going to do research and it won’t give degrees. Instead, it will offer 3-day, 10-day and 9 week courses, where, to quote from the website, one could imagine, for example, that issues such as global poverty, hunger, climate crisis could be studied from an interdisciplinary standpoint where the power of artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, genomics, etc are brought to bare in a cooperate fashion to seek solutions” (sic). Singularitarianism is an ideology, and this is a vehicle to promote it.

Among the partners in the venture, Google has succeeded in getting a huge amount of publicity for its $250,000 contribution, though whether it’s a wise cause for it to be associated with remains to be seen. As for the role of NASA and space entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, I leave the last word to that ever-reliable source of technology news, The Register: “There will be the traditional strong friendship between IT/net/AI enthusiasm and space-o-philia. In keeping with the NASA setting, SU will have strong involvement from the International Space University. ISU, founded in 1987 by Diamandis and others, is seen as having been key to the vast strides humanity has made in space technology and exploration in the last two decades”

14 thoughts on “The Singularity gets a University”

  1. Hi, Richard. I wasn’t sure you were criticising my ideas or our work in your 2 June 2008 IEEE Spectrum “Rapture” article because we weren’t mentioned there. Still, we posted our response at Nanodot to your technical points last October after IEEE chose not to publish our letter-to-the-editor (submitted 5 June 2008) for reasons of their own.

  2. the thing is- some people- MOST people think that the Singularity is just this fringe idea-

    it is not-

    it is nothing less than the most empirically and deductively supported statistical analysis of the history of Earth’s information/novelty/complexity and where all these indicators trend-

    the fact that they trend to an ontological upheaval of Eschatological proportions is MOOT-

  3. I agree with many of Kurzweil’s views about accelerating change, but think that the vision he offers is too prophetic and rigid, not to mention unconditionally optimistic. When superintelligence is created, it may simply destroy us, not merge with us.

    Funny how the Spectrum presented their Singularity issue as a fair split between advocates and detractors, but in this most recent blog post, Goldstein admits that it was meant to mostly be about detractors all along.

  4. Robert, I see where your uncertainty came from as I only referred to Drexler in the Spectrum piece. However, in correspondence with me after that came out Drexler forcefully dissociated himself with this vision of nanomedicine, and in retrospect I should perhaps have named you in the article.

    Thank you for pointing me at your response, which I found on Nanodot. I’ll reply in detail to that later.

    Brian, it’s not me that called it a University, so I don’t see why you should think I’m particularly hung up on that. But since you mention it, to me a University is somewhere like Stanford or MIT or Cambridge, characterised by the originality and rigour of its research, not an executive training program.

    /:set\AI – I’d appreciate a pointer to where one can find “the most empirically and deductively supported statistical analysis of the history of Earth’s information/novelty/complexity and where all these indicators trend” – it certainly isn’t to be found in Kurzweil’s books.

    Michael, last summer you said on your own blog “Some futurists that predict a major near-future transition justifiably attract ridicule. Ray Kurzweil, the most prominent, has a demonstrated tendency to extrapolate with great certainty, push a spiritual-mystical philosophy alongside predictions, present his own predictions with an air of inevitability or predetermination, and engage in other controversial actions that leads to an “either you love him or you hate him” dynamic. “ In a comment on my blog, you said “With his 2005 book, Kurzweil hijacked the term “singularitarian” and has tried to apply it to his highly complex, occasionally doubtful claims. I reject this redefinition”.

  5. Yes, all that stuff holds true, but I still find Kurzweil’s books to be very interesting and provocative. They talk about a lot of interesting technologies that either already exist or are on the verge of being developed. Also, I have some sympathy for Kurzweil because reading his books was one of the first things that got me really excited about transhumanism, even if I criticize his presentation today.

  6. So is Space development an ideology ? Is the International Space University (which is also not a University by your or my definition but so what ? it is branding/marketing) a vehicle to promote an ideology of space ?

    2400 graduates over 21 years. Various projects. Many who went are working in positions at space companies and agencies.

    Peter Diamandis himself seems to have done more to get space development charged with some interesting new efforts. Sub-orbital tourism from xprize. micro-gravity and vomit comet companies.

    To me the ISU is executive and advanced vocational training with some brainstorming/team project stuff which may or may not spin off into anything.

    The most impactful kind of startup that could result would be something like the company/research that is making hydrophobic sand. 3000/tons per day now and it will be used to reduce water losses in irrigation by 75%.

    This would positively hit on water scarcity, poverty reduction (more local agriculture) and less war tension (less chance of future water wars). The system has to be scaled to millions of tons per day for that kind of large scale impact. That kind of thing could only start or be sparked by the kind of program that the Singularity University would have. The waterproof sand has taken 7 years to get where it is and will take many more years to possibly have the large scale impact that it might.

    There are advanced robotics (not nanobots but small scale robotics) that are going into the blood stream. There are more complicated and functional nano-scale devices from molecules to macromolecules to virus to cell sized devices with biological, self-assembly and/or chemical origins and some with wireless and light based or other engineered activation and control. (magnetic guidance etc…)

    So what about the vision of nanobots is wrong ?

    We are putting the sensors in, we are effecting the processes and finding bad cells and doing work along the path to finding and fixing wear and tear.

    We could take out cells, totally rework them, replicate modified versions and stick them back to rejuvenate systems.

    Removing cells from a trachea leaving a framework, then putting a patients own cells or stemcells into it so that the trachea is not rejected. One could see that leading to some in-vitro applications that would be like wear and tear repair when combined with small devices.

  7. Though Is share Michael’s opinion that Kurzweil’s published vision may be overoptimistic, I don’t distance myself from Kurzweil’s views. On the contrary, he is one of the living persons I admire most.

    A Singularity may come a few decades after 2045, or many decades, or never. So what? Mind uploading may not be developed in the 21st century, but only in the 22nd or 23rd. So what? Kurzweil is indicating the road to the future, and a beautiful future it is.

    Let’s go! Even if we may go slower than Ray hopes.

  8. Brian, I’m not clear what point you are trying to make. Indeed, many university and company-based researchers are developing many useful nanotechnologies with applications to clean water and medicine; what I don’t understand is why a 3-day course on the singularity would be likely to help any of these technologies along.

    Giulio, you’re almost making me feel guilty for trying to trample on your dreams…

  9. Re “Giulio, you’re almost making me feel guilty for trying to trample on your dreams…”

    Hi Richard. By all means feel free to “trample on my dreams”. If you are right, these will remain just dreams and the sooner I wake up the better. If I am right, these are engineering plans that will be actually achieved someday, resulting in a better life for all.

    Let’s continue to discuss on the basis of the factual information and the best theories that we currently have, and remember that, sooner or later, experimental evidence will settle the issue.

  10. The point you made: Kurzweil predicts the creation of “nanobots” that will patrol our bloodstreams, repairing wear and tear as they go, and keeping our bodies perpetually young.” It was this vision that I criticised in my own contribution to the IEEE Singularity special…

    So I point out how various precursors to full blown molecular nanotechnology are achieving significant aspects of the various visions which are criticised. So how valid can the criticisms be if we are already doing it ? If there is widespread use of complex nanoparticles and macromolecules and customized cells for doing all kind of medical applications and then MEMS and NEMS devices in the blood. Then when does saying we could have 3.0 version ala nanomedicine transition into a misguided or mockable vision ?

    The 3 day courses are for execs to get a crash course in expanding their view of what are possible targets. It would be for execs who have companies where they are already considering it but want pointers from those who are prominently calling for or doing somethings that are on the edge. And the 10 week crash programs are for condensed bootcamps and extended startup workshops.

    UK universities probably may give out some crash programs.

    Stanford University. Which you would agree is a university gives out a 6 week, $54,000 exec MBA program

    I probably can find exec MBA programs somewhere in Europe of comparable duration.

  11. Brian, there’s nothing wrong with universities and their faculty making an honest crust running short courses – I’ve done plenty of them myself. But in an important sense you’ve got this backwards – Stanford can charge $54k for a short course because it is a major research university; it isn’t a research university because it runs short courses.

    Please go back and read my singularity piece again.

  12. There are straight up special vocational training programs that charge a lot of money for short courses. $2000-3000+ for a 3-5 day fastrack on some information technology subject, or telecommunications or running nanotech related equipment. Those courses are often not associated with a university. NASA has some expensive short courses. There are some expensive startup/entrepreneur or CEO conferences with some training tracks. Anyone can charge 10K, 25K, 50K or whatever for a short course if people are willing to pay it.

    So what is your judgement on the International Space University? It has been running for 21 years. It seems like a viable and useful institution. 2400 relatively satisfied graduates.

    A University in the narrow definition ? No. There are many undergraduate only universities that do almost no research. Is it because they are appropriate the term “University” and extending it to mean something else ? Gee. I wonder if any group has come along and taken a word with one meaning and then tried to boot out the previous accepted definition and users of the term. ie. Nanotechnology.

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