Charting The Route: SH Week In Review 9.8.12
This is the first of a new weekly series here at Singularity Hub where we will summarize the stories and ideas that headlined the week of news.
The concept of a customizable future, once the peripheral fluff of science fiction, is becoming an increasingly viable possibility. "Connectivity" may be the one word most associated with this young century - from social media to crowdsourcing, a single user can take their unique vision of the future and find others laying those same foundations. Dominoes start to fall, and what was once possible becomes tangible. This past week at Singularity Hub, we saw these principles embodied by innovators putting their faith in a future yet to come.
Liftport’s conception of a “space elevator” used Kickstarter to secure an early round of funding that had disappeared in the chaos of 2008’s financial crisis. The group maintains that a feasible Earth-to-space elevator capable of transporting civilians is still a couple decades off, but Liftport president Michael Laine already has a clear vision of the steps necessary to reach point B. Using magnetic propulsion to power the craft (in place of the massive quantities of fuel necessary for rockets), the space elevator offers the first glimpse at a sustainable method of space travel. The Kickstarter community caught on quick, funding Liftport’s campaign goal of $8,000 8 times over thus far, with a few days still left to help the cause.
That’s the good news. The better news is that it’s not just the little guy that can curate his/her own vision of the future.Russian entrepreneur and Silicon Valley investor Yuri Milner has bankrolled the Fundamental Physics Prize (FPP), nine grants awarded to pioneers in science that add up to $27 million. Where Milner’s grants differ from the similarly bountiful Nobel or Thiel Fellowship prizes is its decision to reward scientists still in the prime – or, in some cases, on the cusp – of their work. The FPP’s honorees receive the grant in the midst of their careers in the hopes that the money will provide the means to fund research in experiments still unverified, the ultimate leap of faith in minds working towards the sole purpose of shrinking that polymorphous blob of What We Don’t Know. While some have bristled at the notion of rewarding unproven, theoretical work with a payload three times the size of Nobel’s prize money, the FPP serves as weighty motivation not only for those physicists who suddenly find themselves to be multimillionaires, but for anyone probing the depths of a field that will ultimately unlock our understanding of existence.
The competition for Milner's payday is already growing. This past August saw a new crop of students set out from the banks of Singularity University, newly minted as products of the Graduate Studies Program. The 10-week course graduated its fourth class of young geniuses, 80 sharp-as-tacks millennials pooled from 36 countries to create a veritable United Nations of Tech. Their proposals presented at the program’s close ranged from global health to 3D aerial mapping. A lion’s share of presentations focused not only on emergent technologies, but strategies to make these innovations affordable and accessible – a factor too often overlooked when the raw power of invention is at one’s fingertips. The most common manifestation of this shift appeared in the form of interactive biotechnology – Med Sensation simplifies the process of taking one’s vitals to the act of donning a glove, while Empifi seeks to quantify human biosignals through wearable jewelry. Check out the synopses here.
Like Milner’s FPP recipients, these are not industry staples reaching the end of a long and decorated career. The classes that come out of Singularity U are still on the upward trajectory of their journey, starry-eyed and hungry for a newer, sleeker world.
The Foresight Institute, however, is not content to make the still-younger generations wait to gain access to their emerging world. After compiling a singularity-based canon of texts that includes Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near and Aubrey De Grey’s Ending Aging, the nanotechnology think tank Foresight Institute looks to make a gift of the books, sending sets to the top 300 science and engineering college clubs, high school STEM educators, and youth programs for gifted students in the U.S. In a world wracked with war and conflict, it’s a rare opportunity to give students an optimistic view of the future. The institute only has a few days left to help offset costs. I can think of few better alternatives to school systems riddled with revisionist history and a deluge of examples of mankind’s shortcomings.
For the first time in our history, humans have the ability to actualize dreams beyond our physical limitations, be they biological or atmospheric. These stepping stones tossed out in front of us today will undoubtedly provide tomorrow’s science. And not solely through established institutions or scientists in the twilight of their careers, but with fresh eyes and a generation (the first of its kind) raised in a digital world where the Earth-bound reality is just one of a whole wealth of possibilities. The patronage exemplified by Milner, Peter Thiel, and yes, even you, will pay dividends that we may very well see in our own lifetimes – though it is a final product that will have no definite shape, no resting place, no resigned sigh of accomplishment. The house has no roof, the ceiling limitless and incomprehensible as what lies beyond our sight.