Singularity University plots hi-tech future for humans

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Rob Nail walks into the room looking like a Silicon Valley Doctor Who as played by David Tennant - tailored suit, 3D-printed trainers and the Californian twist on the sonic screwdriver, Google Glass.

But despite spending most of his days predicting what the future will look like, he doesn't want to become a time lord.

"I feel more like a robot," says the chief executive of the Singularity University (SU).

He thinks that the gap between humans and robots is closing as biology and silicon increasingly collide.

He reels off examples.

Bionic eyes that combine a Google Glass device with a tiny electrode in the retina and will be available in the US for partially-sighted people in a few weeks' time. It is only a matter of time before they filter down to the wider public. "Useful for pilots.," he says.

He describes apps for the next-generation Google Glass that will allow users to read the heat maps of people's faces to tell if someone is lying or not. "They will either be banned or become a must-have in the world's boardrooms."

And the first re-engineered human is not far off, either. "It will come within the next year, probably initially to offset some disease," he predicts.

"If you want to be at the head of the class in future you are going to have to be enhanced," he says matter-of-factly.

Disruptive technology
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Singularity University is a quintessentially Silicon Valley concept. An organisation some regard almost as a cult, others treat with amusement but which few are prepared to entirely ignore.

That isn't just because it is home to some of the brightest minds on the planet. Or the fact that it is based at Nasa's research park in Mountain View and within spitting distance of the Google campus.

What is making people sit up and take notice of SU is the fact that it has identified a range of disruptive technologies - innovations that can disrupt existing markets - that it believes will change the world, from digital manufacturing to biotechnology, from robotics to artificial intelligence.

As well as highlighting the role they will play in future society, SU also has the modest ambition of using them to solve what it calls the "grand global challenges" - poverty, energy, food, education and disease.

If SU has a godlike figure, it is Ray Kurzweil, Google's chief engineer and the man who has become synonymous with the concept of singularity - the tipping point when artificial intelligence overtakes human brainpower.

He has even put a date on when that will happen so put an entry in your diaries now - "2045 - put feet up and allow robot overlords to take over."

And the bible of SU is Abundance, a book by co-founder Peter Diamandis, which talks a lot about how we will soon have the technological capacity to fulfil the needs of everyone on the planet.

Now SU is spreading its gospel to Europe, hosting its first European summit in Budapest, in the august surroundings of the Liszt Academy.

Glowing plants
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The phrase you are most likely to hear during the weekend conference is "exponential curve".

This is the idea that technology innovation is no longer a linear progression but an unstoppable mountain of change - with the summit being the seamless integration of the biological and the non-biological.

The joke on campus is that SU is neither a university nor does it teach the singularity.

Instead the organisation, funded by firms including Google, Autodesk and the X Prize Foundation, runs a series of graduate and corporate programs, as well as conferences.

Its ten week summer course is hugely popular but it only takes 80 graduates each year.

SU targets big business

If you have a spare $12,000 to hand you can join SU's executive programme for a seven-day introduction to the technologies that may one day put you out of business.

You will be told how banking faces the onslaught of virtual currency Bitcoin, the leisure industry faces competition from sharing sites such as AirBnB, manufacturing faces the challenges of 3D printing, and even something as innocuous as the consumer goods packaging industry has up to 80 disruptive start-ups competing in its space.

"The execs that take part go back to their firms and they sound like raving lunatics," says SU's global ambassador Salim Ismail

"But you either have to disrupt or be disrupted."

Each is expected to emerge with the seeds of a groundbreaking start-up that has the power to change the lives of one billion people within 10 years.

The programme has so far spun out about 100 companies, 50 of which have been funded. They include Getaround, a peer-to-peer car sharing scheme; Blue Oak, which aims to extract copper from landfill by using bacteria, and Matternet, which uses drones to deliver vital medicines in the developing world.

More controversial are the firms that are already making that crossover between the biological and the non-biological, such as two start-ups growing artificial meat in the lab.

"I'm a vegetarian and for me the idea of growing meat in a petri dish has far less ethical issues than hacking it out of the side of a cow," says Mr Nail.

"Now only 10% of people might opt to eat such meat but I think those numbers will change dramatically in the next five years."

And a project to create a glowing plant attracted controversy when it launched on Kickstarter this summer. It grew out of an SU spin-off that allows you to drag and drop DNA from one organism into another - in this case by adding a bioluminescent gene to a mustard plant.

Even Mr Nail finds the idea of manipulating genetic code "super-frightening" and admits that the Kickstarter format was possibly a bit of a "cowboy way" to introduce people to bio-hacking.

But he said, such publicity "starts a conversation about these things".

Utopian future

From the Edwardians fearing how the motor car was going to change the world to people worrying about the influence of TV, we have always been deeply suspicious about new technology.

There is, another SU faculty member tells me, a natural "status quo bias" in the human brain, where it becomes impossible to imagine the future as anything other than a faster version of the present.

The SU folks seem to have overcome that bias and are full of optimism about a utopian future where biological entities and silicon live in perfect harmony.

The less enhanced among us may veer towards the more dystopian visions portrayed in countless sci-fi films.

Either way it is going to be mind-blowing, quite possibly in a literal sense.

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