Guardian UK – It’s day one at the Singularity University: the opening address has just been delivered by a hologram. Craig Venter, who was one of the first scientists to sequence the human genome and created the first synthetic life form, is up next. And later, we will see two people, paralysed from the waist down, use robotic exoskeletons to rise up and walk.
But first, the co-founder of the Singularity University, Peter Diamandis, gives us our instructions for the day. Your task, he says, is to pick one of the “grand challenges of humanity” – the lack of clean drinking water, say. And then come up with an idea that “can positively impact the lives of a billion people”.
There’s about 50 of us present and the room has been divided up into tables, one for education, another for poverty, another for water, and I’m not sure where I should sit. Diane Murphy, the university’s PR executive, hesitates for a moment and then directs me over to the table marked “food”. “Tell you what,” she says. “Why don’t you take Ashton Kutcher’s chair over there. He’s not coming until later.” (When he does arrive, he pulls up a chair at the next table over. What can I say? If Ashton Kutcher fails to solve global hunger, it will be my fault.)
Half the people in the room actually have done things which have had a positive impact on a billion people. Or, in some cases, more. Not just Venter, who has flown in on his private jet; there’s also Vint Cerf, who is considered one of the fathers of the internet – he worked on Arpanet, the internet’s predecessor – and is now “chief internet evangelist” at Google. And Sebastian Thrun, the man behind one of Google’s latest and potentially most disruptive technologies yet, the self-driving car. He’s also the head of the top-secret Google X lab.
Elon Musk, the co-founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors, who created the world’s first electric car, and is working on a replacement for the space shuttle. In the audience is Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn. And Troy Carter, Lady Gaga’s strategist. Later in the day, Buzz Aldrin shows up. He is, in this company, a genuine celebrity. All the scientists want to have their photo taken with him, and even Kutcher has the good grace to look a bit bashful. “What do you make of the Singularity University?” I ask Aldrin. “I’m a pretty high achiever,” he says. “But I come here and think ‘Gosh. I’ve just got to do better.'”
Aldrin’s lack of achievement notwithstanding – second man to walk on the moon, 66 missions flown in the Korean war, one-time duetter with Snoop Dogg – he has a point. The Singularity University’s USP and founding ideology is based on doing better. Its belief in progress is so hard-wired that at times it has a retro-futuristic 1950s flying-cars-and-rocket-packs air about it.
The standard programme at the Singularity University is a 10-week graduate course which costs $25,000 (£15,500) and last year had 2,400 people applying for 80 slots. It’s the Silicon Valley version of an MBA. And demand is such that it has also started doing mini “executive” courses, of the type that I attend. “Billion-dollar companies are springing up overnight,” says Peter Diamandis. “And billion-dollar companies are folding overnight.” Or as Mike Federle, the chief operating officer of Forbes tells me: “CEOs are desperate to know this stuff. Everyone’s trying to figure out what’s coming next.”
What’s more, instead of being held in the Singularity University’s campus at Nasa’s Ames research centre in northern California, we’re in the heart of the Hollywood dream machine, at Fox Studios in Los Angeles. Jim Gianopulos, the chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment, went on a Singularity University course, and has since become evangelical about it.
The group around my table start unembarrassedly throwing around actual ideas: it’s possibly why billionaires are billionaires, and chief executives are chief executives. They actually get on and do stuff. “What about artificial meat?” suggests Mike Federle, which in other company might be blue-sky thinking, but here is more factual observation. “We could make a steak right now,” says Robert Hariri, a doctor who founded a biotech company that specialises in pioneering stem cell treatments. “But it’ll cost you $20,000.” I keep my mouth shut and share a sympathetic “we-can’t-all-be-geniuses” smile with a nice Latino man across the table. “Ricardo Salinas”, says his name tag. The second-richest man in Mexico (and 37th richest in the world), I discover later.
It’s not even lunchtime and we’ve listened to presentations by Craig Venter on his plans to create biofuels made by microalgae: an acre, he believes, will be able to produce 10,000 litres of oil per year, as opposed to corn, which can produce just 18. He’s just received $300m of investment from Exxon to make it a reality.
Andrew Hessel, the Singularity University faculty member on biotech who is attempting to open-source cancer treatments, talks about how biology is the next exponential technology. The genetic code will become “a programming language”. We’re on the cusp of massive change. DIY bio-hacking has already begun. “Viruses are coming first,” he says. “Viruses are easy to make.” And then there’s Vint Cerf on the “internet of things”. In the near future, devices will talk to each other, he says. “You’ll be shopping and you’ll get a call. It’s the refrigerator saying, ‘Don’t forget the marinara sauce.'”
It’s been quite a year for Thrun: seeing another presentation at TED by Salman Khan about his online education site, the Khan Academy, Thrun decided to video one of his artificial intelligence classes at Stanford and put it online. An astonishing 160,000 people enrolled, of whom 23,000 graduated. Top of the class was a disabled woman called Melody Bliss, who works full-time, and has kidney dialysis three times a week.
Diamandis asks the scientists there for their best predictions for the next five to 20 years. “AI abilities are going to be indistinguishable from those of human abilities,” says Thrun. Most jobs will no longer exist. “There will be an explosion,” he predicts, “in art and music.” Our definition of what it is to be human is going to change, says Dan Barry. Normal will no longer be enough. Robots are being taught to emote. We are going to start relating to them.
Christopher deCharms, a neuroscientist who has helped develop a new sort of MRI machine that can do brain imaging in real time, goes even further. “I believe that in 10 to 20 to 30 years, truth detectors will work. And they will be retrospective back today. There is going to be a revolution in privacy. Transparency is going to come all the way back to our thoughts.”