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For $14,000, a Weeklong Firehose of Silicon Valley Kool-Aid

An immersion course in “exponential thinking” at Singularity University lures executives wary of disruption.
January 27, 2017

Futurist and Stanford professor Paul Saffo looked out over a mostly male, mostly affluent-looking audience one morning this week and challenged them to identify the most significant event of 1989.

“Fall of the Berlin Wall?” someone offered. Saffo shook his head and gestured at a slide showing a memo titled “Information Management: A Proposal,” the first blueprint for what became the World Wide Web. “In terms of history, this did more to change the world,” he said solemnly.

His audience of 90 executives from finance, energy, and other sectors murmured and nodded approvingly—this is just the kind of perspective they came for. They had traveled from 26 different countries to a nondescript building at NASA’s Ames Research Park in Mountain View, California, to attend Singularity University, a for-profit, non-accredited institution dedicated to the theories of futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil. Several times a year it admits groups of executives for a $14,000, weeklong course in “exponential leadership”—and an invigorating dose of Silicon Valley Kool-Aid.

“We need to disrupt our current ways of thinking,” said one attendee, Stela Mocan, between sessions that touched on extending human life span and the strong likelihood of artificial intelligence decimating labor markets.

Now an IT manager at the World Bank, Mocan was previously Moldova’s chief information officer, and has a master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of government. But she says Singularity University is willing to face up to our technologically driven reality in a way that governments and related institutions generally won’t. “Our institutions and laws and policies need to be upgraded for this time of disruptive technology,” she said.

SU, as it is called, was founded by Kurzweil and space entrepreneur and X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis in 2009. It promulgates the philosophy of Kurzweil—the futurist and now Google employee—who believes that progress in areas such as biotechnology and artificial intelligence is accelerating and will rapidly, radically remake what it means to be human. Kurzweil has predicted that in the mid- to late 2020s it will be possible for your life span to start increasing by more than a year for every year that you live.

In class this Monday, some executives sipped the meal-replacement drink Soylent or toyed with Lego blocks left on their desks, as they pondered ideas such as energy becoming limitless thanks to better solar panels, and digested Steve Jobs anecdotes.

After Saffo, Diamandis took the stage to tell the class that the key to understanding the future is to realize that technology is set to make things such as energy, food, health care, and Internet access abundant and cheap. He described friends e-mailing to say he’d saved their lives after the $24,000 package of genome sequencing and MRIs offered by his company Human Longevity turned up a serious nascent medical condition. And he disclosed plans to work with the World Economic Forum to offer training on exponential leadership to heads of state. (Kurzweil addressed the class later in the week—when traveling he sometimes meets the class via robot.)

Attendee Bertha González Nieves, CEO of boutique tequila producer Tequila Casa Dragones, who is known as “the first lady of tequila,” said there was much to learn even if you don’t plan to work on cheap spaceflight or life extension therapy.

“The idea of exponential change can apply to any industry,” she said, somewhat vaguely. Nieves said hearing about the rapid advances of AI had inspired her to think about both upgrading her customer tracking software, and how she might get involved in projects to ensure the technology has a beneficial impact on Mexico.

Over lunch—which optionally included chips made from crickets—some attendees discussed whether AI systems could improve society by vetting politicians’ claims about economic policies. (They concluded that even strictly impartial AIs would be distrusted in today’s partisan climate.) Others toured NASA attractions on the space agency’s site, which is a stone’s throw from Alphabet’s main campus and also home to its Internet balloon testing facility. At night, attendees stay in the Aloft Cupertino hotel, favored for its robotic butler service and inspirational proximity to Apple’s headquarters.

Despite some talk of mass unemployment at the hands of smart robots and the inevitable upending of conventional systems of government, the overall mood at SU is California sunny optimism. According to CEO Rob Nail, that’s the natural result of coming to terms with the true, technologically accelerating state of the world.

“When they walk in the door the only long-term vision people typically have is from the media and Hollywood, which are more and more looking dystopian,” he says. “When you get here you make sense of all this change, and leave with a feeling that it’s not totally chaotic and this stuff could take us to places that are completely extraordinary.” Brexit and the election of President Trump are the symptoms of society’s preference to cling to the past rather than engage with the challenge of making the most of the future, says Nail.

Brenton Caffin, an attendee from the influential U.K. think tank NESTA who works with governments on innovation strategy, said he hoped to also spark some more sober discussion. For example, wouldn’t powerful new medical treatments and other extraordinary new technologies remain the preserve of elites for a long time?

Still, overall he found the experience worthwhile. “As an insurance policy it makes sense to explore some of these consequences and how the policy frameworks can adapt,” he says. “Even if only 10 percent of this comes to fruition, that will have large impacts.”

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