For four years, Singularity University has deployed “exponentially advancing technologies” to address humanity’s biggest problems. Now the elite Silicon Valley school is planning to exponentially advance itself, transforming from a provider of short supplemental classes into a sort of innovation pipeline, with a rich website and conference series on one end, an expanding array of classes in the middle, and at the other end incubation labs for startups and corporate skunkworks teams, as well as a strong global alumni network.
The ongoing expansion is meant not only to make the university a bigger player in the world of business, as we’ve written previously, but also to influence elected leaders and other policymakers, to spread ideas and values from the university to dozens of foreign countries, and to change the way humans are educated at a time of rapid technological progress. Singularity University’s CEO Rob Nail, who began his work this past October, is just getting going on his plans, which he frames as a series of ambitious experiments to further the university’s founding goal of solving “humanity’s grand challenges.”
“It’s about doing something in the world,” Nail says. “It’s about actually making an impact.”“Not a faculty member that teaches artificial intelligence — we want a faculty member that is artificial intelligence. We’re dead serious.”
Under Nail, its third top executive in four years, Singularity U is taking an expansive and distinctly Silicon Valley approach to education, going beyond its existing graduate-student and executive classes and into the sort of memetic networking you might see at a TED Conference, the sort of online learning you might experience on a website like Udacity, and the sort of business mentoring you might get at a startup hatchery like Y Combinator.
As it transforms itself right down to the articles of incorporation – the university would like to become a for-profit benefit corp – Singularity University will become one influential model for how higher education can evolve as formalized learning enters a period of rapid change. At a time when many startups are pushing a more distributed, internet-centric style of education, Nail and Singularity University seem to be moving toward a hybrid approach that actually expands the physical component of schooling, adding collaborative startup offices and live events, even as the university works to build a content-rich internet platform and a powerful online community of alumni.
Key to Nail’s plan is a warren of nearly two dozen offices recently added to Singularity University’s campus at NASA Ames, which, taken together with some classroom-style spaces and laboratories, Nail has dubbed Singularity Labs. After launching a pilot biotech incubator earlier this year known as the “SynBio Startup Launchpad,” Nail plans to expand the incubator program and bring to Singularity Labs startups focused on security, energy, and even outer space.
The incubator labs are a natural extension of Singularity U’s competitive summer Graduate Studies Program, which brings graduate students together for 10 weeks to take courses in fields like artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and bioinformatics. In the later weeks of the program, students work on team projects, some of which have blossomed into startups, including e-waste processor Blue Oak, spacecraft component maker Made in Space, and car-sharing hub Getaround. Singularity Labs will help smooth the transition from project to startup by offering mentorship, workshops and some seed funding to ex-students. Nail also sees Singularity Labs addressing a neglected set of problems.
“The successful incubators are focused on very small scale software problems — very bounded, not huge impact,” he says. “When you are talking about solving grand challenges, like how do you solve the poverty problem, those are going to take a different type of mentorship, a different type of program, a different type of community to solve those problems.”
In keeping with the university’s big ambitions, the labs won’t necessarily be reserved for startups. Nail envisions them as places for cutting-edge teams from large corporations, teams interested in trading conservative corporate offices for a high-energy collegial environment where they might just end up buying or partnering with one of the resident startups.
Even more appealing to corporations and other outsiders will be the series of thematic conferences Nail is planning. Nail sees live events as a way to extend Singularity U’s reach beyond its 80-person classes, and says the school is in the process of developing partnerships before it launches the “educational forums,” as he sometimes refers to the conferences.
Nail is also looking to the internet to expand the university’s reach. After experimenting with putting some class videos online – “nobody’s going to watch an hour lecture,” Nail says – the university decided to get more ambitious. The goal now is to build an interactive site that that can take some elements of the Singularity U curriculum to a wider audience, possibly in partnership with Udacity or some other online education venture. Nail also plans another site that would publish
writings from faculty, pointers to items of interest to the Singularity University diaspora, relevant video and audio – “a forum for all the cool things that we see in the world,” as Nail puts it.
For all of Singularity U’s new ventures, Nail is still tending to the core curriculum. After adding a new program on the future of medicine last year, the university is now drawing up plans for courses on the future of security, and looking to add a potentially controversial new instructor. After a faculty meeting earlier this month, the university is planning to experiment with what could fairly be described as a robot professor.
“We really need to have as one of our track chairs an AI [artificial intelligence] faculty member,” Nail says. “Not a faculty member that’s teaching AI — a faculty member that is an AI. And we’re dead serious. … If anyone should be testing that, it should be us.”
It remains to be seen whether the robo-teacher will take a humanoid physical form most popularly associated with robots or will instead be a software “bot” confined to a traditionally-packaged computer. One thing is certain, however: Nail and his team won’t settle for version 1.0. They’ll want Professor AI to be “exponentially advancing” over time, right alongside the university and indeed all of humanity.