by Ashlee Vance
June 12, 2010
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.
ON a Tuesday evening this spring,
Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, became part man and
part machine. About 40 people, all gathered here at a NASA campus
for a nine-day, $15,000 course at Singularity University, saw it
While the flesh-and-blood version of Mr. Brin sat miles away at a
computer capable of remotely steering a robot, the gizmo rolling
around here consisted of a printer-size base with wheels attached to
a boxy, head-height screen glowing with an image of Mr. Brin’s face.
The BrinBot obeyed its human commander and sputtered around from
group to group, talking to attendees about Google and other topics
via a videoconferencing system.
The BrinBot was hardly something out of “Star Trek.” It had a
rudimentary, no-frills design and was a hodgepodge of loosely
Yet it also smacked of a future that
Singularity University founders hold dear and often discuss with a
the arrival of
the Singularity - a time,
possibly just a couple decades from now, when a superior
intelligence will dominate and life will take on an altered form
that we can’t predict or comprehend in our current, limited state.
At that point, the Singularity holds, human beings and machines will
so effortlessly and elegantly merge that poor health, the ravages of
old age and even death itself will all be things of the past.
Some of Silicon Valley’s smartest and wealthiest people have
embraced the Singularity.
They believe that technology may be the
only way to solve the world’s ills, while also allowing people to
seize control of the evolutionary process. For those who haven’t
noticed, the Valley’s most-celebrated company - Google - works daily
on building a giant brain that harnesses the thinking power of
humans in order to surpass the thinking power of humans.
Larry Page, Google’s other co-founder, helped set up Singularity
University in 2008, and the company has supported it with more than
$250,000 in donations. Some of Google’s earliest employees are,
thanks to personal donations of $100,000 each, among the
university’s “founding circle.” (Mr. Page did not respond to
The university represents the more concrete side of the Singularity,
and focuses on introducing entrepreneurs to promising technologies.
Hundreds of students worldwide apply to snare one of 80 available
spots in a separate 10-week “graduate” course that costs $25,000.
Chief executives, inventors, doctors and investors jockey for
admission to the more intimate, nine-day courses called executive
Both courses include face time with leading thinkers in the areas of
nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, energy, biotech, robotics
On a more millennialist and provocative note, the Singularity also
offers a modern-day, quasi-religious answer to the Fountain of Youth
by affirming the notion that, yes indeed, humans - or at least
something derived from them - can have it all.
“We will transcend all of the
limitations of our biology,” says
Raymond Kurzweil, the inventor
and businessman who is the Singularity’s most ubiquitous
spokesman and boasts that he intends to live for hundreds of
years and resurrect the dead, including his own father.
what it means to be human - to extend who we are.”
But, of course, one person’s utopia is
another person’s dystopia.
In the years since the Unabomber, Theodore J. Kaczynski, violently
inveighed against the predations of technology, plenty of other more
sober and sophisticated warnings have arrived.
There are camps of
environmentalists who decry efforts to manipulate nature, challenges
from religious groups that see the Singularity as a version of
“Frankenstein” in which people play at being gods, and technologists
who fear a runaway artificial intelligence that subjugates humans.
A popular network television show, “Fringe,” playfully explores some
of these concerns by featuring a mad scientist and a team of federal
agents investigating crimes related to the Pattern - an influx of
threatening events caused by out-of-control technology like computer
programs that melt brains and genetically engineered chimeras that
go on killing sprees.
Some of the Singularity’s adherents portray a future where humans
break off into two species:
the Haves, who have superior
intelligence and can live for hundreds of years
who are hampered by their antiquated, corporeal forms and beliefs
Of course, some people will opt for inadequacy, while others will
have inadequacy thrust upon them.
Critics find such scenarios
unnerving because the keys to the next phase of evolution may be
beyond the grasp of most people.
“The Singularity is not the great
vision for society that Lenin had or Milton Friedman might
have,” says Andrew Orlowski, a British journalist who has
written extensively on techno-utopianism.
“It is rich people
building a lifeboat and getting off the ship.”
Peter A. Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal
and a major investor in Facebook, is a Singularity devotee who
offers a “Singularity or bust” scenario.
“It may not happen, but there are a
lot of technologies that need to be developed for a whole series
of problems to be solved,” he says. “I think there is no good
future in which it doesn’t happen.”
In late August, Mr. Kurzweil will begin a cross-country multimedia
road show to promote “Transcendent Man,” a documentary about his
life and beliefs.
Another of his projects, “The Singularity Is Near
- A True Story About the Future,” has also started to make its way
around the film festival circuit.
Throughout “Transcendent Man,” Mr. Kurzweil is presented almost as a
mystic, sitting in a chair with a shimmering, circular light
floating around his head as he explains his philosophy’s basic
During one scene at a beach, he is asked what he’s thinking
as he stares out at a beautiful sunset with waves rolling in and
wind tussling his hair.
“Well, I was thinking about how much
computation is represented by the ocean,” he replies. “I mean,
it’s all these water molecules interacting with each other.
Mr. Kurzweil is the writer, producer and
co-director of “The Singularity Is Near,” the tale of Ramona, a
virtual being he builds that gradually becomes more human, battles
hordes of microscopic robots and taps the lawyer Alan M. Dershowitz
for legal advice and the motivational guru Tony Robbins for guidance
on personal interactions.
With his glasses, receding hairline and lecturer’s ease, Mr.
Kurzweil, 62, seems more professor than thespian. His films are just
another facet of the Kurzweil franchise, which includes best-selling
books, lucrative speaking engagements, blockbuster inventions and a
line of health supplements called
Ray & Terry’s (developed with the
physician Terry Grossman).
Mr. Kurzweil credits a low-fat, vegetable-rich diet and regular
exercise for his trim frame, and says he conquered diabetes decades
ago by changing what he ate and later reprogramming his body with
He currently takes about 150 pills a day and has
regular intravenous procedures. He is also co-writer of a pair of
health books, “Fantastic Voyage
- Live Long Enough to Live Forever”
- Nine Steps to Living Well Forever.”
Mr. Kurzweil routinely taps into early memories that explain his
lifelong passion for inventing.
“My parents gave me all these
construction toys, and sometimes I would put things together,
and they would do something cool,” he says.
“I got the idea that
you could change the world for the better with invention - that
you could put things together in just the right way, and they
would have transcendent effects.
“That was kind of the religion of my
family: the power of human ideas.”
A child prodigy, he stunned television
audiences in 1965, when he was 17, with a computer he had built that
A couple of years later, in college, he developed a
computer program that would seek the best college fit for high
A New York publishing house bought the company for
$100,000, plus royalties.
“Most of us were going to school to
get knowledge and a degree,” says Aaron Kleiner, who studied
with Mr. Kurzweil at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
and later became his business partner.
“He saw school as a tool
that let him do what he needed to do.”
Some of Mr. Kurzweil’s better-known
inventions include the first print-scanning systems that converted
text to speech and allowed the blind to read standard texts, as well
as sophisticated electronic keyboards and voice-recognition
He has made millions selling his inventions, and his
companies continue developing other products, like software for
securities traders and e-readers for digital publications.
He began his march toward the Singularity around 1980, when he
started plotting things like the speed of chips and memory capacity
inside computers and realized that some elements of information
technology improved at predictable - and exponential - rates.
“With 30 linear steps, you get to
30,” he often says in speeches.
“With 30 steps exponentially,
you get to one billion. The price-performance of computers has
improved one billion times since I was a student. In 25 years, a
computer as powerful as today’s smartphones will be the size of
a blood cell.”
His fascination with exponential trends
eventually led him to construct an elaborate philosophy, illustrated
in charts, that provided an analytical backbone for the Singularity
and other ideas that had been floating around science-fiction
circles for decades.
As far back as the 1950s, John von Neumann, the mathematician, is
said to have talked about a “singularity” - an event in which the
always-accelerating pace of technology would alter the course of
And, in 1993, Vernor Vinge, a science fiction writer,
computer scientist and math professor, wrote a research paper called
“The Coming Technological Singularity
- How to Survive in the
“Within 30 years, we will have the
technological means to create superhuman intelligence,” Mr.
Vinge wrote. “Shortly after, the human era will be ended.”
In “The Singularity Is Near,” Mr.
Kurzweil posits that technological progress in this century will be
1,000 times greater than that of the last century.
He writes about
humans trumping biology by filling their bodies with nanoscale
creatures that can repair cells and by allowing their minds to tap
into super-intelligent computers.
Mr. Kurzweil writes:
“Once nonbiological intelligence gets a
foothold in the human brain (this has already started with
computerized neural implants), the machine intelligence in our
brains will grow exponentially (as it has been doing all along), at
least doubling in power each year.
“Ultimately, the entire universe
will become saturated with our intelligence,” he continues.
“This is the destiny of the universe.”
The underlying premise of the
Singularity responds to people’s insecurity about the speed of
social and technological change in the computer era.
posits that the computer and the Internet have changed society much
faster than electricity, phones or television, and that the next
great leap will occur when industries like medicine and energy start
moving at the same exponential pace as I.T.
He believes that this latter stage will occur when we learn to
manipulate DNA more effectively and arrange atoms and have readily
available computers that surpass the human brain.
In 1970, well before the era of nanobot doctors, Mr. Kurzweil’s
father, Fredric, died of a heart attack at his home in Queens.
Fredric was 58, and Ray was 22.
Since then, Mr. Kurzweil has filled
a storage space with his father’s effects - photographs, letters,
bills and newspaper clippings. In a world where computers and humans
merge, Mr. Kurzweil expects that these documents can be combined
with memories harvested from his own brain, and then possibly with
Fredric’s DNA, to effect a partial resurrection of his father.
By the 2030s, most people will be able to achieve mental immortality
by similarly backing up their brains, Mr. Kurzweil predicts, as the
Singularity starts to come into full flower.
Despite such optimism, some Singularitarians aren’t all that fond of
“I think he’s a genius and has
certainly brought a lot of these ideas into the public
discourse,” says James J. Hughes, the executive director of the
Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, a nonprofit that
studies the implications of advancing technology.
“But there are
plenty of people that say he has hijacked the Singularity term.”
Mr. Kurzweil says that he is simply
trying to put analytical clothing on the concept so that people can
think more clearly about the future.
And regardless of any debate
about his intentions, if you’re encountering the Singularity in the
business world and elsewhere today, it’s most likely his take.
Peter H. Diamandis, 49, is a small man with a wide, bright smile and
a thick mound of dark hair.
He routinely holds meetings by cellphone
and can usually be found typing away on his laptop. He went to
medical school to make his mother happy but has always dreamed of
heading to outer space.
He is also a firm believer in the Singularity and is a
techno-celebrity in his own right, primarily through his role in
commercializing space travel.
At a recent Singularity University
lunch, he hopped up to make a speech peppered with passion and
“My target is to live 700 years,” he
The students chuckled.
“I say that seriously,” he retorted.
The NASA site, the
Ames Research Center,
houses an odd collection of unusual buildings, including a giant
wind tunnel, a huge supercomputing center and a flight simulator
facility with equipment capable throwing people 60 feet into the
Today, the government operates NASA Ames as a bustling,
public-sector-meets-private-sector technology bazaar. Start-ups,
universities and corporations have set up shop here, and Google
plans to build a new campus here over the next few years that will
include housing for workers.
A nondescript structure, Building 20, is the Singularity University
headquarters, and most students stay in nearby apartments on the
NASA land. Mr. Kurzweil set up the school with Mr. Diamandis, who,
as chief executive of the
X Prize Foundation, doled out $10 million
in 2004 to a team that sent a private spacecraft 100 kilometers
above the earth.
Google has offered $30 million in rewards for an X
Prize project intended to inspire a private team to send a robot to
the moon. And a $10 million prize will go to the first team that can
sequence 100 human genomes in 10 days at a cost of $10,000 or less
each - which, in theory, would turn an expensive, complex lab
exercise into an ordinary affair.
Mr. Diamandis champions the idea that large prizes inspire rapid
bursts of innovation and may pave a path to that 700-year lifetime.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of if,”
he says. “I think it’s a matter of how. You and I have a decent
shot, and for kids being born today, I think it will be a matter
Business - Ashlee Vance on Singularity University
For the most part, Mr. Kurzweil serves as a figurehead of
Singularity University, while Mr. Diamandis steers the institution.
He pitches the graduate student program
as a way to train young, inspired people to think exponentially and
solve the world’s biggest problems - to develop projects that will
“change the lives of one billion people,” as the in-house mantra
Mr. Diamandis hopes that the university can create an unrivaled
network of graduates and bold thinkers - a Harvard Business School
for the future - who can put its ideas into action. Along with that
goal, he’s considering creating a venture capital fund to help turn
the university’s big ideas into big businesses.
As some of their
favored student creations, school leaders point to a rapid disaster
alert-and-response system and a venture that lets individuals rent
their cars to other people via cellphone.
Devin Fidler, a former student, is in the midst of securing funding
for a company that will build a portable machine that squirts out a
cement-like goop that allows builders to erect an entire house,
layer by layer. Such technology could almost eliminate labor costs
and bring better housing to low-income areas.
Mr. Diamandis has certainly built a selective institution. More than
1,600 people applied for just 40 spots in the inaugural graduate
program held last year. A second, 10-week graduate program will kick
off this month with 80 students, culled from 1,200 applicants.
One incoming student,
David Dalrymple, is an 18-year-old working on
his doctorate from M.I.T.. He says he plans to start a research
institute someday to explore artificial intelligence, medicine,
space systems and energy. (He met Mr. Kurzweil at a White House
dinner, and at the age of 8 accepted the offer to have Mr. Kurzweil
serve as his mentor.)
During the spring executive program, about 30 people - almost all of
them men - showed up for the course, which is something of a mental
Days begin at dawn with group exercise sessions.
Coursework runs until about 9 p.m.; then philosophizing over wine
and popcorn goes until midnight or later. A former Google chef
prepares special meals - all of which are billed as “life extending”
- for the executives.
The meat of the executive program is lectures, company tours and
group thought exercises.
Day 4 includes test drives of Tesla Motors electric sports cars and
a group genetic test, thanks to a company called
deCODEme. By Day 6,
people are annoyed by the BrinBot, which is interrupting lectures
with its whirs and sputters. Someone tapes a pair of paper ears on
it to try to humanize it. One executive sullenly declines to
participate in another robot design exercise because no one in his
group will consider making a sexbot.
However much the Singularity informs the environment here, a
majority of the executives attending the spring course expressed
less interest in living forever and more in figuring out their next
business venture or where they wanted to invest.
Robin Tedder, a Scottish baron who lives in Australia and divides
his time among managing a personal fortune, racing a yacht and
running a vineyard, says he read about Singularity University in an
investor newsletter and checked out the Web site.
“What really convinced me to pay the
15 grand was that I didn’t think it was some kind of hoax,” Mr.
Tedder said in an interview after he completed the executive
“I looked at the people involved and thought it was the
real deal. In retrospect, I think it’s a very good value.”
Like a number of other participants, Mr.
Tedder is contemplating business ventures with his classmates and
points to high-octane networking as the school’s major benefit.
Attendees at the spring session came from all over the globe and
John Mauldin, a best-selling author who writes an
Stephen Long, a research director at the
Fernando A. de la Viesca, C.E.O. of the
Argentinean investment firm TPCG Financial
Eitan Eliram, the
new-media director for the prime minister’s office in Israel
Guy Fraker, the director of trends and foresight at State Farm
“We end up cleaning up the mess of
unintended consequences,” says Mr. Fraker of his company’s work.
He says it makes sense for him to gauge
technological trends in case humans can one day gain new tools for
For example, he’s confident that in the
future people will have the ability to steer hurricanes away from
Executives in the spring program also heard that some young people
had started leaving college to set up their own synthetic biology
labs on the cheap.
Such people resemble computer tinkerers from a
generation earlier, attendees note, except now they’re fiddling with
the genetic code of organisms rather than software.
“Biology is moving outside of the
traditional education sphere,” says Andrew Hessel, a former
research operations manager at Amgen, during a lecture here.
“The students are teaching their professors. This is happening
faster than the computer evolved. These students don’t have
newsletters. They have Web sites.”
Daniel T. Barry, a Singularity
University professor, gives a lecture about the falling cost of
robotics technology and how these types of systems are close to
entering the home. Dr. Barry, a former astronaut and “Survivor”
contestant with an M.D. and a Ph. D., has put his ideas into action.
He has a robot at home that can take a pizza from the delivery
person, pay for it and carry it into the kitchen.
“You have the robot say, ‘Take the
20 and leave the pizza on top of me,’ ” Dr. Barry says. “I get
the pizza about a third of the time.”
Other lecturers talk about a coming
onslaught of biomedical advances as thousands of people have their
Jason Bobe, who works on the
Project, an effort backed by the Harvard Medical School to establish
a huge database of genetic information, points to forecasts that a
million people will have their genomes decoded by 2014.
“The machines for doing this will be
in your kitchen next to the toaster,” Mr. Bobe says.
Mr. Hessel describes an even more
dramatic future in which people create hybrid pets based on the body
parts of different animals and tweak the genetic makeup of plants so
they resemble things like chairs and tables, allowing us to grow
fields of everyday objects for home and work.
Mr. Hessel, like Mr. Kurzweil, thinks
that people will use genetic engineering techniques to grow meat in
factories rather than harvesting it from dead animals.
“I know in 10 years it will be a
junior-high project to build a bacteria,” says Mr. Hessel. “This
is what happens when we get control over the code of life. We
are just on the cusp of that.”
Christopher deCharms, another
Singularity University speaker, runs
Omneuron, a start-up in Menlo
Park, Calif., that
pushes the limits of brain imaging technology.
He’s trying to pull information out of
the brain via sensing systems, so that there can be some
quantification of people’s levels of depression and pain.
“We are at the forefront today of
being able to read out real information from the human brain of
single individuals,” he tells the executives.
Richard A. Clarke, former head of counterterrorism at the National
Security Council, has followed Mr. Kurzweil’s work and written a
science-fiction thriller, “Breakpoint,” in which a group of
terrorists try to halt the advance of technology.
He sees major conflicts coming as the
government and citizens try to wrap their heads around technology
that’s just beginning to appear.
“There are enormous social and
political issues that will arise,” Mr. Clarke says.
vast groups of people in society who believe the earth is 5,000
years old. If they want to slow down progress and prevent the
world from changing around them and they engaged in political
action or violence, then there will have to be some sort of
Mr. Clarke says the government has a
contingency plan for just about everything - including an attack by
Canada - but has yet to think through the implications of
techno-philosophies like the Singularity. (If it’s any consolation,
Mr. Long of the Defense Department asked a flood of questions while
attending Singularity University.)
Mr. Kurzweil himself acknowledges the possibility of grim outcomes
from rapidly advancing technology but prefers to think positively.
“Technological evolution is a continuation of biological evolution,”
he says. “That is very much a natural process.”
To prepare for any rocky transitions from our benighted present to
the techno-utopia of 2030 or so, a number of people tied to the
Singularity movement have begun to build what they call “an
education and protection framework.”
Among them is Keith Kleiner, who joined Google in its early days and
walked away as a wealthy man in 2005. During a period of personal
reflection after his departure, he read “The Singularity Is Near.”
He admires Mr. Kurzweil’s vision.
“What he taught me was ‘Wake up,
man,’ ” Mr. Kleiner says.
“Yeah, computers will get faster so
you can do more things and store more data, but it’s bigger than
that. It starts to permeate every industry.”
Mr. Kleiner, 32, founded a Web site,
SingularityHub.com, with a writing staff that reports on radical
advances in technology. He has also given $100,000 to Singularity
a founder of Singularity University and the wife of
one of Google’s first employees, spends her days writing a book
about longevity, tentatively titled “100 Plus.” It outlines changes
that people can expect as life expectancies increase, like 20-year
marriages with sunset clauses.
She says the book and the university are her attempts to ready
people for the inevitable.
“One day we will wake up and say,
‘Wow, we can regenerate a new liver,’ ” Ms. Arrison says. “It
will happen so fast, and the role of Singularity University is
to prepare people in advance.”
Despite all of the zeal behind the
movement, there are those who look askance at its promises and
Jonathan Huebner, for example, is often held up as Mr. Kurzweil’s
foil. A physicist who works at the Naval Air Warfare Center as a
weapons designer, he, like Mr. Kurzweil, has compiled his own
cathedral of graphs and lists of important inventions.
unimpressed with the state of progress and, in 2005, published in a
scientific journal a paper called “A Possible Declining Trend for
Measuring the number of innovations divided by the size of the
worldwide population, Dr. Huebner contends that the rate of
innovation peaked in 1873.
Or, based on the number of patents in the
United States weighed against the population, he found a peak around
1916. (Both Dr. Huebner and Mr. Kurzweil are occasionally teased
about their faith in graphs.)
“The amount of advance in this
century will not compare well at all to the last century,” Dr.
Huebner says, before criticizing tenets of the Singularity. “I
don’t believe that something like artificial intelligence as
they describe it will ever appear.”
William S. Bainbridge, who has spent the
last two decades evaluating grant proposals for the National Science
Foundation, also sides with the skeptics.
“We are not seeing exponential
results from the exponential gains in computing power,” he says.
“I think we are at a time where progress will be increasingly
difficult in many fields.
“We should not base ideas of the world on simplistic
extrapolations of what has happened in the past,” he adds.
Last month, a biotech concern, Synthetic Genomics,
announced that it
had created a bacterial genome from scratch, kicking off a firestorm
of discussion about the development of artificial life.
Venter, a pioneer in the human genome trade and head of Synthetic
Genomics, hailed his company’s work as “the first self-replicating
species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer.”
Steve Jurvetson, a director of Synthetic Genomics, is part of a
group of very rich, very bright Singularity observers who end up
somewhere in the middle on the philosophy’s merits - optimistic
about the growing powers of technology but pessimistic about
humankind’s ability to reach a point where those forces can actually
Mr. Jurvetson, a venture capitalist and managing director of the
firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, says the advances of companies like
Synthetic Genomics give him confidence that we will witness great
progress in areas like biofuels and vaccines.
Still, he fears that
such technology could also be used maliciously - and he has a pantry
filled with products like Spam and honey in case his family has to
hunker down during a viral outbreak or attack.
“Thank God we have a swimming pool,”
he says, noting that it gives him a large store of potentially
Mr. Orlowski, the journalist, sees the
Singularity as a grand, tech-nerd dream in which engineers,
inventors and innovators of every stripe create the greatest of all
He says the techies,
“seem to want a deus ex machina
to make everything right again.”
They certainly don’t want any outside interference, and are utterly
confident that they will realize the Singularity on their own terms
and with their own wits - all of which fits with Silicon Valley’s
strong libertarian traditions.
trailed only members of the military as the largest individual
contributors to Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign.
The Valley’s wizards also prefer to avoid any confrontation with
“Dealing with politics means having
to compromise and convince people of things and form alliances
with people who don’t always agree with you,” Mr. Orlowski says.
“They’re not wired for that.”
Mr. Kurzweil is currently consulting for the Army on technology
initiatives, and says he routinely talks with government and
Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder, appears in
Mr. Kurzweil’s books and often on the back flaps with celebratory
Mr. Kurzweil and Mr. Page of Google created a renewable-energy plan
for the National Academy of Engineering, advising that solar power
will one day soon meet all of the world’s energy needs.
Mr. Kurzweil’s 31-year-old son, Ethan, says his father has always
been ahead of the curve.
The family had the first flat-screen
television and car phone on the block, as well as a phone that could
“We also had this thing where you
put on a hat that had sensors and it would create music to match
your brain waves and help you meditate,” Ethan says. “People
would come over and play with it.”
Ethan previously worked for Linden Lab,
the company behind the virtual world Second Life. These days he’s a
venture capitalist at Bessemer Venture Partners.
A section of the
bookshelves in his office has been reserved for multiple copies of
his father’s works.
“A lot of what he has predicted has
happened, and it’s interesting to see what he’s been saying
become more mainstream,” says Ethan, who looks very much like a
younger version of his father.
“He has a certain world view that
he feels strongly about that he thinks is absolutely coming to
pass. The data so far suggests it is. He’s incredibly thorough
with his research, and I have confidence his critics haven’t
thought things through on the same level.”
Indeed, Ethan says, his father is
almost, well, accepted.
“He is seen as less weird now,” he
says. “Much less weird.”