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Founder of Singularity University Talks About His Unusual New Institution

Today a well-known entrepreneur, leaders from NASA, and a futurist known for his claims that machines will soon outsmart humans announced the creation of an unusual academic institution called the Singularity University.

The university’s goal is to encourage the cross-fertilization of ideas across a range of high-tech disciplines in which major breakthroughs are expected in the next decade. The hope is that such communication will speed the use of technology to cure diseases and solve other major problems, while helping to understand emerging technologies to better avoid potential downsides of radical new technologies. Classes will take place at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, starting with a nine-week program this summer.

The university’s founder and leader is Peter Diamandis, chief executive of the X-Prize Foundation, which promises large cash awards to designers who break technological barriers and is best known for its $10-million challenge to build a working commercial spacecraft. The new university is modeled on another academic institution run by the entrepreneur, the International Space University, a graduate-level training center to which NASA and other space agencies have sent students for decades.

In recent interviews with The Chronicle, Mr. Diamandis talked about his vision for the new university.

He said that he got the idea for the university after reading a book, while on vacation, called The Singularity Is Near, by Ray Kurzweil. The book argues that just as computers and the Internet seemed to quickly emerge and revolutionize business and culture, a new set of breakthroughs are now on the horizon that will have similarly large effects. Those include, according to Mr. Kurzweil, breakthroughs in artificial intelligence that will make computers smarter than humans. Mr. Diamandis said he became convinced that “humanity is fundamentally changing in the years ahead.”

So about two years ago, Mr. Diamandis approached Mr. Kurzweil about teaming up to create an institution to gather the top researchers in fields like nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and space exploration to shape those emerging technologies — and maybe even speed them along a bit.

Although the university will offer courses, one of Mr. Diamandis’s goals is to create a sort of exclusive club where some of the top thinkers in several areas can interact — and maybe team up to start new companies or government projects. “We’re pulling in the future CEO’s and university presidents and government ministers when they’re young in their careers,” said Mr. Diamandis, “pulling them together and allowing them to really meet in a setting where the message is ‘Anything is possible, what is the future?’”

Will the current economic downturn slow the kind of technological breakthroughs that Mr. Kurzweil predicted? Mr. Diamandis doesn’t think so.

“In this climate more than ever we need this sort of ‘breakthrough thinking’ and to focus on what these exponentially growing technologies can do,” he said in an interview last week.

“The only way we’re going to work our way out of the financial challenges is with technology,” he said. “These are the things that are going to help the world get out of its current slump.”

In a sense Mr. Diamandis seems to think that traditional academic institutions are too conservative or slow-moving to respond to what he sees as fast-changing developments in technology. But Mr. Diamandis said that he does not see his Singularity University as competing with traditional colleges. “We’re supplementing those, not replacing them,” he said.

Of course, if Mr. Diamandis is right, the technological changes he believes are coming will result in big changes in the way universities everywhere do business, as I explored in a recent column. Although Mr. Diamandis takes a pragmatically optimistic view toward the changes ahead, they are bound to come with some downsides and challenges — the kind that have inspired science-fiction stories about machines run amok. —Jeffrey R. Young

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