Interview: Salim Ismail and Singularity University

Sunset from the International Space Station

Salim Ismail has been Executive Director at Singularity University for the last two years. A renowned Angel investor and entrepreneur with a rich and varied CV. He helped bring Bupa, a private healthcare service, to Ireland and spent almost a year living near Cork. In the United States in addition to being an executive at Yahoo he started and ran a number of businesses. One them is Confabb, a resource for conferences and tradeshows worldwide. He recently sold another one his companies Angstro to Google.

The idea of Singularity is described in Ray Kurzweil‘s book The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Technology is accelerating at such an increasingly ever-rapid rate that at some point in the near future we will be living in a world of pure information. We will be technologically enabled to transcend our own bodily limitations, illness etc., and also have the capability to solve the planet-wide challenges that currently face us.

Singularity University is based in Silicon Valley and the learning regime is based on methodologies developed at the International Space University. These information imparting systems are vital to Singularity University as in two session totalling ten weeks students encounter ten separate study fields.

Not only do applicants need to have either a Masters degree or be working towards one they also need to be able to demonstrate a track record of leadership in the public or private sector. They also need to be able to show a marked interest in confronting and resolving the large scale challenges that we all face. Climate change, pandemics etc. Last year, there were 1600 applicants for 80 slots.

Salim says that the major issues that the world faces today have one root cause.

“The biggest problems in the world today, whether its financial crises, pandemics or climate change are all rooted in accelerating factors and our leadership around the world does not understand this phenomena.

“The fundamental paradigm of accelerating phenomena is something that human beings don’t understand. All of our thinking is linear. Yet the world operates in certain ways with exponential phenomena and power laws.

“What’s unique about where we are today is that the world is being impacted by many external accelerating phenomena powered by informational properties and we don’t understand it. Our leaders don’t understand it, the general public doesn’t understand it, most scientists don’t understand it.”

So how do you find what the problems are?

‘In the summer program we have two courses. We have the Summer program that’s ten weeks long for the top graduate students in the world, for the new next generation of leaders. We have a seven day course for existing government leaders, business execs, investors etc., that we do on roughly a quarterly basis.

“In the Summer program, its a ten week program. In week one we bring in the World Bank and some of the top foundations in the world and we have them talk about, fairly extensively for the whole week, [the issues we face.] What are the characteristics of clean water, home energy, pandemics, public health? So that the students have a good deep insight on what’s been tried, what’s failed, where the problem is most acute etc.

“They spend half the summer getting a state of the art view across all of these technologies. What’s in the labs today that’s getting commercialized tomorrow? What technologies like nano-technology show the most promise? Where are these technologies converging to increase other breakthroughs? Who are the top thinkers in the field? Who are the labs and companies doing the most interesting work?

“In the second half of the summer they form teams and they do what we call a ‘ten to the ninth’ project. Their challenge is to come up with a project or service that will impact a billion people within ten years… So the idea is that if you are going to do that you really have to think about something that will scale over time. You’re not going to impact a billion people in three weeks so how would you do that over time. So what technologies, what acceleration within these technologies would you have to ride?

That requires forecasting. Isn’t that a tricky business?

“There’s a whole discipline called Future Studies that has good solid techniques for forecasting. If you look at the rise of 3D printing. You can graph it on a very nice 2×2 matrix as an acceleration of a particular technology with the social adoption of that technology. So 3D printing of houses is a very nice accelerating area.

“Nano materials and nano medicine is an accelerating area. Stem cells is an accelerating area, [but has] much less social adoption. You can plot on a graph which ones will have the most social adoption and which ones won’t and how do you deal with it.

“Another example you can think of is what’s a likely future versus a preferred future versus a most unwelcome future. And how do you mitigate those. So we teach the students techniques in future studies so they have some practice in thinking about this. For example if you think about your Blackberry or iphone, we know exactly how much power those devices will have in ten years. What we don’t have is the imagination as to what we would do with them.

“We’re expanding the experience of what it is to be human very, very rapidly without realising it.”

So what should we be looking at in the near future?

“So we have to look at what domains are information enabled and see what has promise. 3D printing is one, solar energy is another. The rise of Arduinos and robotics is certainly another huge area. The key is how can you create systems of innovation in the hands of everyman? When you can put that into the hands of a farmer in China then magical things are going to happen.”

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