At the New Singularity University, Ray Kurzweil Will Train Young Futurists

By Eliza Strickland | February 4, 2009 8:42 am

Ray KurzweilThe future, according to author and technological soothsayer Ray Kurzweil, is going to be awesome. In his books, he maps out a future for humanity in which we live forever, supported by a fleet of cleverer-than-human artificial intelligences who solve such trivial problems as hunger and disease, while simultaneously creating ever more intelligent computer minds, racing technological progress forward according to his Law of Accelerated Returns [Telegraph]. Now, Kurzweil is opening a new school, Singularity University, that will gather smart people together and encourage them to bring that future to pass.

Kurzweil dreamed up the school with Peter Diamandis, CEO of the X Prize Foundation, and got backing from Google and NASA; it will be housed on the NASA Ames base in California. The university takes its name from Kurzweil’s recent book, The Singularity Is Near, in which he argues that exponential advances in technology will shortly transform human life beyond all recognition…. This is Kurzweil’s own take on the widespread science-fiction use of the term “singularity” to refer to the day when artificial “intelligence” and/or processing power surpasses that of the human race’s collective brains. Sci-fi writer Vernor Vinge probably did most to hijack the word “singularity” from its use in physics to describe the breakdown of normal principles near a black hole [The Register].

Singularity University isn’t an accredited college, and won’t operate like one. The institute will consist of a single, nine-week course of study every summer, during which 120 students from a cross-section of disciplines will mix together to tackle weighty issues. Tuition will be $25,000. Candidates will be chosen mostly from graduate and post-graduate programs around the world. Singularity will also be offering three-day and 10-day courses for business executives throughout the year, hoping to give them a glimpse of the future in their various industries [San Francisco Chronicle]. Classes will range across topics including nanotechnology, biotechnology, artificial intelligence and robotics, energy, and space.

The aim: Nothing less than to solve the world’s most pressing problems, from hunger to global warming. Or, if the students can’t get through all that in nine weeks, at least to set them on that path. “We are reaching out across the globe to gather the smartest and most passionate future leaders and arm them with the tools and network they need to wrestle with the grand challenges of our day,” said Diamandis [San Francisco Chronicle].

The university has already collected an impressive range of instructors–names like Will Wright, who created the computer games The Sims and Spore, pop out from the list–indicating that Kurzweil’s effort is being taken quite seriously in high powered technology circles. But not everyone drinks the Kurzweil Kool-aid promising a brighter tomorrow. Kurzweil, who famously consumes more than 100 supplement pills a day and regularly checks around 50 health indicators, has been criticised by some experts who see his predictions as outlandish. In a 2007 interview, Douglas Hofstadter, the Pulitzer prizewinning author and professor of cognitive science at Indiana University compared his ideas to a blend of very good food and “the craziest sort of dog excrement” [The Guardian].

Image: Singularity University

  • Jumblepudding

    I want to attend singularity U. I have a BA in theatre arts. I could write a non-sensationalized play about nanotechnology. Let me know, Ray.

  • modernrocko


  • klaus k

    The mental hypochondriac is put in charge of h
    erding the canaries??

  • nick

    I’d respect Hofstadter more if he had come up with a more creative criticism of Kurzweil’ book.

    In some respects, we’ve already passed or are passing one singularity in the connectivity of man. My grandpa and great aunt, bless their dearly departed intelligences, had never had the slightest clue about what it is I do with my magic glowing box.

    I doubt even the inventors of the internet foresaw the way it would be used today. 20 years ago, no one would have heard of Kurzweil’s crazy idea outside a tiny blurb in the local newspaper. There were no blogs, we still had to communicate via clunky telephones. Even some of the greatest writers of near-future sci-fi, who got that whole connectivity thing back when, missed out on the cell-phone idea. William Gibson is still kicking himself over leaving that out of his original “Sprawl” trilogy.

    Now I have a computer in my pocket that is constantly connected to the internet, with so much more horsepower than we flew to the moon with it’s no wonder people think the landing was faked. Though surprisingly advanced for it’s day, the lunar lander computers had a 2 Mhz clock cycle and… some… amount of ram like 12k? I don’t think it compares easily to today’s computing, but as a rough estimate my phone is 256 times as fast and has 20,000 times as much RAM (assuming I know what they mean by 12k words of fixed memory). I don’t know that I’d trust it to take me to the moon and back, but no one working on room-sized computers in 1950s & 60s could envision RAM as small as it is now, let alone in my pocket, wireless, connected to the global informational hive-mind. (I said informational, not factual. Even lies are information of a sort.) By comparison, my desktop computer is roughly 25 times as fast and has 24 times the memory of my phone. That means my desktop computer is roughly 10,000 times faster and has 480,000 times the RAM it took to land two dudes on the nearest floating rock-ball.

    And it’s now just 50 years later. Roughly 18 months from now, my computer will be roughly twice that fast ( and my computer is far from maxed out for the motherboard it carries… and I’m not even including the mini-supercomputer that resides in my graphics card). 20 years from now, that cycle will have repeated 10 times. Meaning my computer will be about 1024 times as fast as it is today…. if Moore’s law hold true, although IBM claims their new “airgap” technology will roughly halve Moore’s law, so my computing power may be roughly 1024,000 times as fast as it is today.

    20 years ago or so Bill Gates famously said something along the lines of “no man will ever need more than 640k of ram.” I now have 6 gigabytes. That’s 7 orders of magnitude larger than Bill Gates, Mr. Microsoft, thought I would *EVER* need… and I want more.

    Another way of looking at things – 53 years ago, ENIAC was built – the ass-kicker of the day, the holy-shit-what-did-you-guys-do-…-Really? machine. As of 2004, an ENIAC’s worth of computer power was present in ever HALF-MILLIMETER SQUARE of silicon. Since 2004 that’s shrunk about three times, so now there’s an ENIAC in ever .15 MM square of silicon. To look at that another way, I am carrying around a city-full of ENIACs in my pocket (I don’t have enough time to search the actual physical dimensions of the HTC G1’s processor right now, so I’m just making a SWAG).

    To look at that another way, today’s supercomputer is tomorrow’s sub-millimeter square of one processor. After all, IBM just announced that no only are they going to blow the lid off supercomputing by delivering 20 times the next-fastest (which they also built), it will need a supercomputer half the size of the current fastest, AND when it’s done it will not only be the fastest, it will be faster than ALL of the Top 500 supercomputers COMBINED.

    The IBM guy who said the world would never need more than 5 computers was sort-of right, only in a much more profound way than he thought – yes, everything has it’s own processor now, but they all talk – some even conspire (SETI@Home, Folding@home ) with one another to form their own distributed supercomputers. So in some sense he was right, eventually the internet will catch ’em all.

    And that’s the kind of stuff Kurzweil’s talking about – only with that much computing power at our beck and call, NO ONE can predict what we’re going to think of and how fast – the only thing worth talking about right now is how to survive our way to it and through it.

    It’s coming, and you’re either connected or still human after it passes.

  • wunderkind

    This stuff Kurzweil dreams of is good. but first a government must be in place to administer these goodies or else people will fight over improvements! Don’t we learn anything?

  • nick

    The same government that denied global warming for the last 8 years and lied us into war?

  • ELIT3 squir3l

    Lol! I liked nick’s comment better than the blog post.

  • Chubbee

    wunderkind & nick make good points. As long as greedy sociopathic individuals control the vast majority of resources and government, Kurzweil’s dream doesn’t stand a snowballs chance in hell.

  • keith

    Check out Singularity Hub for more information about the University. Singularity Hub is the number one blog on the web for keeping on top singularity related fields such as nanotechnology, genetics, artificial intelligence, robotics, etc.

  • HHL

    100 supplement pills a day?!?! Living forever?!?!? I highly recommend the book “The Quest for Immortality” by S. Jay Olshansky and Bruce A. Carnes.

  • Dan Conine

    What’s the Net Future Usefulness for the University?

    Preaching about the future isn’t the same as building one. Anybody can talk about happy gadgets in the sky for 2 hours and everyone will feel good when their done.

    Put some people who can demonstrate the sustainability of humanity with fewer resources and a Net Useful outcome from our species…then I’ll be impressed.

  • Margo

    In the 1970s a lot of wonderful predictions about the future of American transportation by the end of the century were discussed in national magazines. Cars you could just rent that would sit out on the streets. Cars that would not need drivers. Electric cars. It’s 2009, and none of those things is available to the average person (except the rental cars in Seattle, maybe, but they are expensive). The country could have had a 40 mpg SUV in 2002, not with new technology, just by putting into practice a lot of good engineering already available. But no such vehicle was ever made available. (

    Kurzweil’s predictions are welcome, but it takes more than technology to solve major climate and economic problems.

  • ddd

    until those encrusted, errr, entrusted with power run out of oil i suspect civilzation will continued to be hobbled by the PTBs. living forever, its beyond anyone here now on Earth’s lifetime. downloading into a singularity, nah, and certainly not in the forseeable future. it is a nice sci-fantasy. heck i’m still waiting on my own jet-pack. however i’ll concede that often after seemingly lulls in progress there are intermittent and periodic bursts of creativity. this can be utilized in complexity theory. maybe running out of iol is the catalyst we need to move to the next level of enlightenment. the result of such should be the betterment of humanity and the continued survival of a viable civilization. anything less is pure folly. human enhancement is the route to follow but we should always wisely ask, just because we have so “coulds” does this mean we always “should?.”

  • Nick

    A couple things.

    DDD: some guy just flew across the English channel in a jet pack. Only got a couple more years to wait, son.

    Margo: Kurzweil is making his predictions based on the amount of computer power we will have at our disposal and the pace of technological change we’ll be able to achieve with this.

    Dan C: Kurzweil is a polymath inventor. He invented the first text-to-speech synthesizers, founded a music synthesis company (my ten year old Kurzweil keyboard synth STILL tears ass compared to almost everything that’s come after it), and has written and studied many things extensively. He may talk a lot, but he has also done and will do again. Every time I read about him, I learn something new.

    HHL: Doctors just discovered the enzyme that allows cancer to metastasize. Twenty years ago cancer was a death sentence. Cancer is now just an expensive inconvenience 80% of the time, and the price and inconvenience levels are going down and the survivability is going up. Also, cancer cells ARE functionally immortal. Also, we have successfully grown new organs for people, successfully implanted without immunosuppresive drugs. If you had talked about this in the 80s, you had better have been a sci-fi author or you would have been laughed out of your doctoral research field. Now it’s commonplace. What’s the world gonna look like after 2020? F-bomb if I know, but it’s gonna be beyond some paradigm shifts in medical and computing technology.

    Kurzweil predicted, based on Moore’s law, that we’d have supercomputers on the order of 10^29 flops, or about the amount of ‘calculations’ a human brain can accomplish at once (even though computation is a pitiful metaphor for brains). But he appears to have been wrong, because, as I mentioned in comments above, IBM has been threatening to break Moore’s law, but in the opposite way that everyone else has been predicting. Everyone’s been crowing about the end to silicon, the physical limits of space and size and heat and what-not, and IBM is quietly destroying their nay-saying.

    Heck, IBM just invented a MRI machine for microscopes that has the capability for a million times finer resolution than today’s body and brain scanning MRI (or NMR – nuclear magnetic resonance, to give it it’s proper everyone-is-scared-of-nuclear-things name). People have been chasing this technology for the past ten years or so, IBM just announced they have resolution down to some crazy scale like 4 nanometers (only 20 times larger than an ‘average’ atomic electron cloud) that not only images the surface in 3d (tomographic) but can image the INSIDES of whatever it’s looking at too, in full 3d, non-destructively (well, except to get a sample small enough to be looked at). They’re 3d mapping viruses now.

    3D mapping viruses. 30 years ago this would have been ground-breaking science fiction, today it’s someone’s boring-ass lab job.

    And to everyone bitching about government – governing is a slow process that is often behind the times, kind of like your parents’ parents trying to play a gameboy or use an iPhone. But that doesn’t mean new technology can’t make an end-run around things. Railroads used to be a government sponsored monopoly. They LAUGHED at the automobile. They said the world would never need more than 5 (this is a joke) cars, that they would only be the toys of the rich. So um, how well are those railroads doing nowdays?

  • Eliza Strickland

    Nick — I think we should take up a collection and send you to Singularity University.

  • ADBatstone

    It’s obvious that Nick – along with his hero Ray Kurzweil – is full of it. The Singularity is nothing but a substitute for religious insanity among a decreasing handful of zit-faced geeks. Both premises rely on superstition and pseudoscience to keep them afloat. There is absolutely NO evidence at all for the wild claims of Kurzweil and his so-called “lambs” that read his techno-bible and blindly accept every word of it.

    The Kurzweil Singularity nonsense is no better than Scientology, the Raelian movement and the 2012 Eschaton.

  • HHL

    Hey! CNN discussed this 2 years ago!

    The future of longevity
    POSTED: 11:49 a.m. EDT, May 9, 2007
    By David S. Martin

    (CNN) — Futurist and author Ray Kurzweil pops a couple hundred supplements a day, eats an extremely healthy diet and exercises. Kurzweil says he plans to live long enough to live forever.

    Kurzweil’s strategy for immortality is based on the premise that science moves forward exponentially, with breakthroughs building on each other and coming at a faster and faster rate. As a result, he thinks life expectancy will start extending to the point where he can live indefinitely.

    Kurzweil is dead serious about this.

    “It’s going to be very different situation 10 or 15 years from now,” says Kurzweil, author of “The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.”

    “We have very sharply designed interventions that can stop disease. So for baby boomers, we’d like to be in good shape 10 or 15 years from now when we have the sort of full flowering of the biotechnology revolution.”

    Kurzweil’s quest for immortality is nothing new. The search for eternal youth has been around for thousands of years. Scientists, explorers, doctors and dreamers have tried potions, special diets, “magical” waters and some more unusual recipes for immortality.

    More than 2,000 years ago, Chinese emperors sent maritime expeditions for the Isles of the Eastern Sea, where immortals were said to possess a drug that prevented death.

    Some in China ate very long-lived plants or animals, believing their longevity would be passed on, making crane’s eggs and tortoise soup desirable foods.

    In ancient Greece, a common belief held that Hyperboreans, a people free of all natural ills with a lifespan of 1,000 years, lived in a remote part of the world.

    Juan Ponce de Leon set out looking for the fountain of youth but discovered Florida instead, by accident, in 1513. Ancient Hebrew and Hindu tales also told of bodies of water capable of conferring eternal life.

    Several more recent strategies are even more bizarre: Dog testicles, a stag’s heart, the breath of a virgin, according to “The Quest for Immortality” by S. Jay Olshansky and Bruce A. Carnes.

    History is filled with exotic elixirs offering the false promise of eternal youth, and the allure does not seem to get old.

    Kurzweil sees the modern quest as different from the failed attempts of the past because it is based on science. In the next 15 or 20 years, he says, human biology will be so well understood we’ll be able to repair the human body in the same way we make repairs to a house or car.

    “There will be no sort of natural limit. I mean, how long does a house last?” Kurzweil asks.

  • John

    I applaud him. To the skeptics… even if he only achieves a tiny fraction of what he’s setting out to do, the world will be a better place for it. Thank God for people with outlandish dreams! Where would we be without the men and women we call “Great” today who were labeled as “mad” or “rediculous” in their own age.

  • Rob

    I attended the “Singularity Summit” in Manhattan this month, and RK served as the reigning rock star. Spoke at the day’s end and spent most of his talk referring to handwritten notes made during the other presentations of the day, criticizing and “refining” the perspectives of the other presenters, so as to hone the future more correctly according to his notions, and set everyone straight. What an arrogant self-important twirp!

    This is what happens when you skimp on liberal arts and humanities education. Humanities? WTF am I saying? No need for something so passe. Looked into his biographical sketches and interviews online (they are numerous) and he plainly states that he never had any interest in that stuff, unless it was sci-fi.

    Only going to get worse, and much more dangerous I predict. He’s 60 now and look at how his utopia is already distorted and self-centered. Imagine how it will be when he’s 75? Reality of death REALLY knocking on his door, disillusioning results on the nanotech and AI fronts, doctors and pharmacists still have no idea what life is, and Ray is in charge of an institute and 100s of young minds he’s been inculcating — imagine what he’ll have them up to? MAKE ME RAMONA NOW YOU SELFISH TURDS!!!

    Problem is this: you can get away with 90% mentation and 10% heart and soul when you are in your 20s, 30s, 40s, even 50s if you are talented and self-deceiving enough. But come late in life the awake mature individual realizes life is really 90% about soul and heart. But no room for that in Ray’s worldview… cannot be explained or grasped on the basis of physical substance alone; therefore only a romantic notion which doesn’t exist. He’s a genius, so he he should have it right.

  • Nitish Kannan

    I run check out websites that talk about Brain-Machine interfaces.

  • Barrett Haynes

    Every comment seems to try to out-do the prior, so I will out-do U all; unless we reinstate the Smart Pebbles tehnology that Obama nixxed from NASA we will not see any Singularity of any kind because the next E.M.P. whether naturally caused or TERRORIST induced will mess up your plans for that Super Bowl party… & all life as we know it !!!! Barrett Haynes—– do a search on SMART PEBBLES or BRILLIANT ROCKS & E.M.P. while you’re at it, OK? God Bless.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar