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Flunking Out
Jamais Cascio   Feb 6, 2009   Open the Future  

Singularity University is now up and running (and has evidently fixed its web hosting problem). I’ve had a few people already ask me what I think of it. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I can just say:

This is about as close to getting it wrong as I could imagine.

I find the name and slogan annoying, but let’s set those aside. I’m mostly astounded—and not in a good way—by the academic tracks. For those of you who haven’t yet ventured into SU’s ivy-covered marble halls, they are:

singularityUx4440x.pngSo,

  1. Future Studies & Forecasting
  2. Networks & Computing Systems
  3. Biotechnology & Bioinformatics
  4. Nanotechnology
  5. Medicine, Neuroscience & Human Enhancement
  6. AI, Robotics, & Cognitive Computing
  7. Energy & Ecological Systems
  8. Space & Physical Sciences
  9. Policy, Law & Ethics
  10. Finance & Entrepreneurship

The message here? People don’t matter.

The first track is just Singularitarianism 101. The next seven cover technology-based industries—the mix of “here’s what you can invest in now!” with “here’s something that we can imagine” still to be determined. The last one, on “Finance & Entrepreneurship,” gives away the game with its introduction: “...how can we monetize this new knowledge of future technologies?

The only one that gives a glance at social forces? The catch-all on “Policy, Law & Ethics.” Nice that they can fit all of those issues, which have consumed the human mind for millennia, into a single theme. Too bad they couldn’t have found room for politics (which is not the same as policy), economics (sorry, finance isn’t the same thing, either), demographics, history, cities and urban planning, trade and resources, or war, let alone art, media, psychology, or cultural studies, too.

For an institution that claims to be “preparing humanity for accelerating technological change,” it sure seems to be spending a lot more time talking about nifty gadgets than about the connection between technology and society.

To put it another way: this is all about the symptoms of “accelerating technological change,” and almost nothing about the consequences.

For a trade show or a business workshop, that’s fine. For something calling itself a university, it’s amazingly short-sighted. Given the nature of the subject matter, that’s especially ironic/tragic.

Of course, constructive criticism is always more useful than ranty carping, so—having noticed that they say that their academic tracks are still being created—here’s what I think they should have as their areas of study (limiting myself to ten, as well, albeit by cheating a bit):

    [Intro:] Future Studies & Forecasting:
    With Ray K as the chancellor, you’re not going to get away without a Singularity 101 session—but this doesn’t need to be a full track.

  1. Remaking Our Bodies:
    Understanding biotech, radical longevity, and enhancement.

  2. Remaking Our World:
    Understanding energy, ecological systems, and nanotechnologies.

  3. Remaking Our Minds:
    Understanding neurotech, cognitive systems, and AI.

  4. Power and Conflict:
    Emphasizing the role that political choices have in shaping technology.

  5. Scarcity, Trade, and Economics:
    How does scarcity manifest in an accelerating tech world? How do you deal with mass unemployment, technology diffusion, leapfrogging?

  6. Demography, Aging, and Human Mobility:
    Shifts in population and cultural identity; understanding impact of extending life.

  7. Human Identity and Communication:
    Understanding the changing nature of identity in a densely-linked world, looking at how different forms of identity clash.

  8. Governance and Law:
    How does governance emerge? How are laws about technology shaped?

  9. Ethics, Morality, and Unintended Consequences:
    How ethics emerges in a swiftly-changing environment; morality and technology; precautionary/proactionary principles.

  10. Openness, Resilience, and Models for Dealing with Rapid Transformation:
    Open source, open access, open governance; understanding resilience.

That is: three tracks on emerging techs, two tracks on political/economic impacts, two tracks on human/culture impacts, and three on the processes and institutions that grapple with large-scale change. These kinds of classes would be much harder to put together than “This Tech Will Change Everything! 101”, but they’d be correspondingly much more powerful.

A useful Singularity University (or whatever it would be called) would be one that dove deeply into the nature of disruption, how society and technology co-evolve, and how we deal with unintended and unanticipated results of our choices. As sorry as I am to say it—there are some very good people, folks I admire and respect, who are on the faculty & advisor list—this institution isn’t what we need in an era of uncertainty, crisis, and potential transformation.

 

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



COMMENTS

Allthough I don’t agree with your ‘This is about as close to getting it wrong as I could imagine.’ statement, I think it is very good that someone is staying skeptical and not getting totally carried away by the emerging hype. I personally think that SU has a good chance at making useful contributions to our civilization’s ongoing development but not everyone can afford to act so optimistically; at least not in the short and mid terms.

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