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Filtering the Flashy from the Transformative
Jamais Cascio   Sep 16, 2010   Open the Future  

Nature’s Nicola Jones asked me to comment on Singularity University for an article she was putting together; that article is now available. She included a couple of brief observations of mine, but I thought it would be useful to show the full context of my thoughts.

This is the full text of my response to Ms. Jones…

Here’s the problem: if the Singularity University actually has a mission of “preparing humanity,” it’s going about it in a superbly counter-productive way.

First-hand reports from people I know confirmed many of my fears about the curriculum (and, to be clear - many of the people I know who have attended were quite enthusiastic about it, so I’m not simply relaying their disappointments). There is far too much emphasis on the potentially spectacular, without any real grounding in how technologies and society co-evolve; this gives the students no meaningful way to filter the flashy from the transformative. There seems to be no discussion of dead ends, bugs, and failures, the kinds of things that actually serve as the catalyst for the process of innovation; without that in mind, it’s difficult to evaluate the plausibility of timelines and forecasts. And the various issues talked about seem to be discussed in isolation, with no sense of external pressures or non-market drivers that might be pushing the innovation process in unexpected directions.

In short, there appears to be an abundance of “look at this cool stuff we’ll be able to do real soon now!” with little countervailing skepticism or caution, and without any real greater context other than a vague Singularity concept.

Moreover, and I think more dangerously, the parts of the curriculum that do address non-technological issues - economics and policy - don’t actually talk about these issues. Instead, the economics section focuses on financing (certainly a big issue for investors and inventors, but hardly the way to understand the impacts of a purported Singularity), and the policy section actually seems to focus on the problems that politics and regulation pose, with an emphasis on how to avoid being caught up in that dirty political stuff. That was actually how a recent attendee described it to me.

If you think the Singularity is something unprecedented in human history, the biggest transformation civilization will ever face, or even the End of History, then a curriculum that is supposed to encourage deep insights into how such a thing comes about needs to be more than just advice for venture capitalists and cheerleading for true believers.

I think the most important bit there (and I’m sad she didn’t choose to excerpt it) is the comment that the curriculum seems to “give the students no meaningful way to filter the flashy from the transformative.” Sadly, while the details about Singularity University included in the Nature article do offer encouraging signs that the emphasis isn’t solely about how to profit from technological change, they ultimately don’t argue against my assertion. Saving the world requires more than breakthrough engineering.

Editor’s Note: Occasional IEET contributor Andrew Maynard also was asked by Nature to submit his thoughts on Singularity University for their article. You can read the full text of his comments here. It is interesting to compare and contrast the opinions of Andrew and Jamais.

Jamais Cascio is a Senior Fellow of the IEET, and a professional futurist. He writes the popular blog Open the Future.


Nobody can learn all that they need to learn in just one place and in just two months. The SU teaches some useful things, others educational institutions should teach other useful things.

When I was a student we had to learn far too much useless stuff about abstract economics and policy, and nothing about practical financing.

The problem with any public future-oriented studies is that you’re always learning about things that are known and those that are known to be quite soon, quite probably. The people who actually create the transformative technologies, the quite improbable and the quite not so soon, don’t give presentations about them.

In some tech areas, the products are already obsolete (several generations old) when they appear on the shelves. You can’t learn about the real future in such an environment.

The problems of tomorrow cannot be solved by the same minds that created them…?

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