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Singularity U. wants to harness tech’s power

Technology is changing the world so rapidly that even geniuses need help making sense of it all.

That’s the idea underlying Singularity University, an unconventional school that will host its first class of 30 graduate students this summer. They will take a nine-week course exploring ways to ensure technology improves mankind’s plight instead of harming it.

Singularity’s founders planned to unveil the school’s grand ambitions Tuesday in Long Beach, Calif., at the annual Technology, Entertainment and Design conference, known as TED.

The school will be based on NASA’s Silicon Valley campus and revolve around the concept that the exponential advances occurring in various fields should be melded to solve daunting problems like poverty, famine, disease, global warming, and dwindling energy supplies.

"The law of accelerating returns means technology eventually will be a million times more powerful than it is today and cause profound transformation," said futurist Ray Kurzweil, whose 2005 book, "The Singularity Is Near," inspired the school’s name.

If people can’t wrap their brains around what lies ahead, society could be overwhelmed by the upheaval, said technology forecaster Paul Saffo, who will be part of Singular University’s faculty.

"One of our greatest challenges is to get people to anticipate the consequences of our inventions and how they can upset the apple cart," Saffo said.

Kurzweil, who will be Singularity University’s chancellor, began discussing the concept for the school two years ago with Peter Diamandis, who chairs the X Prize Foundation and co-founded the International Space University in 1987.

Singularity University found a home last September when NASA agreed to let the school use some of the buildings on its Ames Research Center, which is located near such prominent Silicon Valley companies as Google Inc., Yahoo Inc., Intel Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc.

The location is expected to make it easier for Singularity University to attract guest lecturers from top technology companies, as well as raise money for its cause.

Google already has contributed more than $1 million, and several other major companies are planning to pitch in at least $250,000, Diamandis said.

The nine-week tuition at Singularity will be $25,000, but it will take more than money to gain admission. The university intends to focus on the brightest students who "have an interest in addressing big issues," Diamandis said.

Students will be required to spend three weeks immersing themselves in 10 fields of study, including computing, biotechnology, artificial intelligence, energy, law, and finance. Another three weeks will be spent delving even deeper into one of the 10 fields before devoting the final three weeks to a special project.

Those who successfully navigate the curriculum will receive certificates of completion. The school also hopes to arrange for students to receive class credits that can be transferred to fully accredited universities.

Applications will be accepted through the school’s web site beginning Tuesday.

Although this summer’s first session will be limited to 30 students, Singularity University plans to accept 120 students next year. The school also intends to offer three-day and 10-day programs aimed more at corporate executives and other professionals.

Given Singularity University’s hefty tuition, the recession could make it difficult for the school to gain traction. But Diamandis bets that technology can help heal the economy by hatching breakthroughs that will generate new jobs and create more wealth.

"If anything, this kind of university is needed more than ever right now," he said. "We expect the next generation of multibillion-dollar companies to come out this university."


Singularity University

Cisco Systems Inc.

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