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General Forecasts

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the singularity is nigh


The Singularity is Near:
When Humans Transcend
Biology is a best-selling book
published in 2005 by Raymond
Kurzweil. The book remained at
the top of the charts in science
and technology for many
months, and Microsoft
co-founder Bill Gates wrote:
Ray Kurzweil is the best person
I know at predicting the future
of artificial intelligence. His
intriguing new book envisions a
future in which information
technologies have advanced so
far and fast that they enable
humanity to transcend its
biological limitations
transforming our lives in ways
we cant yet imagine.
Kurzweil graduated in 1970
with an engineering degree in
computer science and literature
from MIT. Since then, he has
become a prolific inventor and
futurist writer. He was one of
the pioneers in optical character
recognition (OCR), text-tospeech synthesis, speech recog-

nition technology and electronic


keyboard instruments. He has
received two dozen honorary
doctorates and honours from
three US presidents, was the
recipient of the $500,000
MIT-Lemelson Prize, the worlds
largest prize for innovation, and
was awarded the National Medal
of Technology from President
Bill Clinton in a White House
ceremony. In 2002, he was
inducted into the National
Inventors Hall of Fame, established by the US Patent Office.
More recently, in November
2009, he received the Economists
Innovation Award in the
category of Computing and
Telecommunication for his
optical character recognition
and speech recognition
technology. These awards
celebrate individual innovators
whose work has had the greatest
impact on business and society.
Thus, Kurzweils past credentials are very impressive, but
what does he think about the

future? In particular, what does


he say about a supposedly
technological singularity, and
what is it exactly?

The Singularity point

The technological singularity is


the theoretical future point that
takes place during a period of
accelerating change sometime
after the creation of a super
intelligence. Mathematician,
computer scientist and sciencefiction writer Vernor Vinge
famously called this event the
Singularity as an analogy
between the breakdown of
modern physics near a
gravitational singularity and
the drastic change in society
that, he argues, would occur
following an intelligence
explosion. In the 1980s, Vinge
popularised the singularity in
lectures, essays and science
fiction. More recently, some
prominent technologists such as
Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun
Microsystems, voiced concern

over the potential dangers of


Vinges singularity.
Kurzweil argues that the
inevitability of a technological
singularity is implied by a longterm pattern of accelerating
change that generalises Moores
Law to technologies predating
the integrated circuit, and
which, he argues, will continue
to other technologies not yet
invented. According to him,
artificial intelligence should be
able to pass the Turing Test (a
test for the presence of intelligence in putatively-minded
entities) by 2029, and the technological singularity should occur
by 2045. It is estimated that
$1,000 will then buy a computer
a billion times more powerful
than the human brain. This
means that average and even
low-end computers will be
hugely smarter than even highly
intelligent, unenhanced
humans.
The singularity will be an
extremely disruptive, world- E

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28 GENERAL FORECASTS

altering event that will change


forever the course of human
history. The extermination of
humanity by violent machines
is unlikely (though not impossible) because sharp distinctions between man and machine
will no longer exist thanks to the
cybernetically enhanced and
uploaded humans. In fact,
Kurzweil strongly believes that
humans will enhance
themselves by merging with the
machines.

A UNIVERSITY IS BORN

In January 2007, while trekking


in Chile, Peter Diamandis was
reading The Singularity is
Near, and was inspired to use
those ideas to create a new
university in order to improve
the future of humankind.
Diamandis graduated as an
aerospace engineer from MIT
and later as a medical doctor
from Harvard Medical School.
In 1987, he co-founded the
successful International Space
University and served as its first
managing director and CEO,
while Sir Arthur C Clarke
became its first chancellor.
Since then, the International
Space University has been
training astronauts and
cosmonauts, spacecraft
engineers, scientists, managers
and experts in space law and
policy from its current
permanent campus near
Strasbourg in France.
Diamandis is considered a
key figure in the development of
the personal spaceflight
industry, having created many
space-related businesses or
organisations. He is the founder
and chairman of the X Prize
Foundation, an educational
non-profit prize organisation
whose mission is to create
radical breakthroughs for the
benefit of humanity. Diamandis
is also CEO and co-founder of
Zero Gravity Corporation,
which offers parabolic weightless flights to the general public.
He also co-founded Space
Adventures, which has flown
four private citizens on Soyuz to
the International Space Station.
According to Diamandis, the
interdisciplinary, international
and intercultural principles,

originally pioneered by the


International Space University,
could also be applied to create
Singularity University. The
concept of the Singularity
University was originally
proposed by Diamandis to
Kurzweil in mid-2007; an exploratory meeting was held in
November 2007, followed by a
Founding Meeting in September
2008 at Nasa Ames Research
Center in Mountain View,
California.
In February 2009, Diamandis
and Kurzweil announced
publicly the creation of
Singularity University in the
annual Technology,
Entertainment and Design
(TED) conference in California.
In just three months, the university received close to 1,200 applications for the 40 places of the
inaugural summer class. Thus
started the first GSP (Graduate
Studies Program) class at
Singularity University at the
new campus at Nasa Ames.
Evidently, Singularity
University derives its name
from Kurzweils book The
Singularity is Near. Here again,
the term singularity refers to
the theoretical future point of
unprecedented advancement
caused by the accelerating development of various technologies
including biotechnology, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence,
robotics and genetics. However,
Singularity University makes no
predictions about the exact
effects of these technologies on
humanity; rather, its mission is
to facilitate the understanding
and development of these
technologies and how they can
best be harnessed to solve the
grand challenges faced by
humanity.

PREPARING FOR
THE CHANGE

Singularity University is an
interdisciplinary institution
whose mission is to assemble,
educate and inspire a cadre of
leaders who strive to understand
and facilitate the development
of exponentially advancing
technologies and apply, focus
and guide these tools to address
humanitys grand challenges.
Salim Ismail, former Yahoo

manager and the executive


director of Singularity
University, emphasises their
important role to prepare
humanity for accelerating
technological change, as the
motto of the new university
reads.
A number of exponentially
growing technologies (biotechnology, nanotechnology,
infotechnology, artificial intelligence, etc.) will massively
increase human intelligence
and capability and will fundamentally reshape our future.
This concept, known as the
technological singularity, as
advanced by Kurzweil, warrants
the creation of an academic
institution whose students and
faculty will study these technologies, with an emphasis on their
interactions, and help to guide
the process for the benefit of
humanity and its environment.
The inaugural 2009 summer
programme was divided into ten
academic tracks: from future
studies and forecasting to policy,
law and ethics. According to
Bruce Klein, vice-president for
University Relations,
Singularity University wants to
prepare the next generation of
intellectual and entrepreneurial
leaders for humanity.
Academically, the new university has 10 major scholastic
tracks, with an interdisciplinary emphasis on scientific and
technological issues:
1. Futures Studies and
Forecasting
2. Policy, Law and Ethics
3. Finance and
Entrepreneurship
4. Networks and Computing
Systems
5. Biotechnology and
Bioinformatics
6. Nanotechnology
7. Medicine, Neuroscience and
Human Enhancement
8. Artificial Intelligence,
Robotics and Cognitive
Computing
9. Energy and Ecological
Systems
10. Space and Physical Sciences

spread the word

THE SINGULARITY
IS NEAR: THE MOVIE
The Singularity is Near has now
been turned into a movie.
Released later this year, it deals
with the arrival of artificial
intelligence in 2033, when
Kurzweils avatar passes the Turing
Test (four years later than his own
predictions in the book).
The plot involves Ray Kurzweil
(as himself), who creates a
computer avatar named Ramona
(played by Pauley Perrette). He
raises her like a modern-day Pinocchio, and she gradually acquires
consciousness. Ramona detects a
secret attempt by microscopic
robots to destroy the world, but
her warnings are ignored by
everyone because she is not recognised as a person. Her computerised nature lets her stop the robot
attack but gets her into trouble
with the law.
The movie emphasises the
radical changes expected by the
singularity, which will make the
Industrial Revolution or even the
development of agriculture seem
like minor historical hiccoughs by
comparison. The possibility is now
becoming realistic enough since
scientists and engineers are
grappling with the implications for
good or evil. Kurzweil predicts that
within a quarter-century,
non-biological intelligence will
match the range and subtlety of
human intelligence and will then
soar past it.
Almost five years after his
landmark book, and one year after
the foundation of his university,
the singularity will be in a theatre
near you. Indeed, the singularity is
nearer.

Singularity University counts


on support of many important
sponsors like Google, ePlanet
Ventures, 23andMe, Canon and

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29

The singularity will


be an extremely
disruptive, worldaltering event that
will change forever
the course of
human history.
other top companies. The faculty
includes, besides Kurzweil and
Diamandis, personalities like
father of Internet Vint Cerf,
George Smoot (2006 Nobel Prize
in Physics), Pete Worden
(director of Nasa Ames), Dan
Barry (three times Nasa astronaut and president of Denbar
Robotics), father of Ethernet
Bob Metcalfe, James Canton
(CEO and chairman of the
Institute for Global Futures),
Aubrey de Grey (chair and CSO
of the Methuselah Foundation),
among many other prominent
engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs. L
L Jose Cordeiro is director of the
Venezuela Node of The Millennium
Project and Teaching Fellow at
Singularity University

The singularity team


The singularitarian team projects
designed by the students of the
Graduate Studies Program 2009 at
Singularity University were:
1. Solutions for Low-Bandwidth
Communications Considered
mobile phone proliferation to
accelerate economic development.
SMS is the most universally
available and least expensive form
of telecommunications in much of
the developing world. The first phase
is an SMS platform that will provide
an intelligent server infrastructure on
which to run applications. The
platform will provide a set of modular
programming tools accessible
through a Web portal, enabling
individuals to create localised SMS
applications.

2. Driving Toward an Intelligent


Transportation Grid Addressed how
an intelligent transportation grid
can positively affect energy usage
and can slow climate change. The
major effects will be a change to
peoples attitudes to car ownership,
and a decrease in global CO2
emissions. As the first part of this
intelligent grid, the group is
launching Gettaround, a
marketplace for peer-to-peer
leasing of under-utilised car hours.
This project enables car owners to
create revenue from their
depreciating cars, and for renters to
have affordable and convenient
access to cars.
3. Rapid Housing Manufacturing
in the Developing World This

project focused on advances in


manufacturing technologies to
construct affordable and
customisable housing in the
developing world. Cost-efficient,
environmentally sustainable
solutions have the potential to
transformative new housing
construction using local resources.
4. Global and Civic Disaster
Response Considered a new
paradigm for disaster response that
has advantages over existing systems,
such as allowing users to overcome
network problems typical of crisis
situations. From this, the team is
building a company focused on
delivering solutions to facilitate
evacuation, medical triage and
aid in natural disasters.

The brightest
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This internationally renowned journal features original research Letters at the
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latest research so now the design is as bold as the thinking it contains.

You can view the first issue of this exciting new format for Electronics Letters
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The Institution of Engineering and Technology is registered as a Charity in England & Wales (no 211014) and Scotland (no SCO38698).

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