What It’s Like To Be A Student At Singularity University — An Insider’s Story
Dr. Roman Yampolskiy is an assistant professor at the University of Louisville, Department of Computer Engineering and Computer Science. His recent research focuses on technological singularity. In addition to his affiliation with SU, Dr. Yampolskiy was a visiting fellow of Singularity Institute and had his work published in the first academic book devoted to the study of Singularity – “Singularity Hypothesis” and the first special issues of an academic journal devoted to that topic (Journal of Consciousness Studies).
I first heard about Singularity University from a friend who was a student in the very first SU cohort. He told me that being at SU changed his outlook on life. I was not surprised as I was a big fan of Ray Kurzweil’s (co-founder of SU) books and they had a similar effect on my life. It is because of Kurzweil’s writing on intelligent machines that I decided to major in Computer Science, got my PhD and more recently a faculty position researching and teaching artificial intelligence. My friend had a similar educational background and if SU could produce such an impact on him, I wanted to experience it for myself.
The application process for the Graduate Studies Program was no different than applying to any university with the usual collage of recommendation letters, personal essays, and test scores with final acceptance rate reported to be fewer than 3 percent. I applied for early admission and within a month had a personal interview with the head of Admissions. I was in! Not only was I accepted but I was also assured that the tuition fee ($25k) for the 10-week program was not a problem as many scholarships and fellowships were available. After getting to SU, I learned that many students accepted to SU had to quit their jobs to be able to attend. In my position as a university professor, I was fortunate to have no teaching responsibilities in the summer and a very understanding department chair, so that made my situation a lot easier. I am also very lucky to have an amazing wife who agreed to be a single mom for the summer to our 3-year-old son, making it possible for me to pursue my dreams.
The best way to describe the experience of being a student at SU is to say that it is an Ivy League university from the future: the admissions process is from the year 2012, but the curriculum is from the year 2020.
The usual curriculum of biology, physics, computer science, et cetera is replaced with Synthetic Biology, Nanotechnology, Artificial General Intelligence and every other futuristic field you can imagine. The unifying theme behind all these disciplines is the exponential growth in the advancement of science, and students are actively encouraged to find business opportunities which take advantage of this phenomenon. The studies are not limited to theoretical lectures; participants are taken for site visits to companies and organizations such as Google, HP, BioCurious, Genentech, TechShop, NASA Ames, Code for America, Intuitive Surgical, and the National Ignition Facility. Even more amazingly, the subjects are taught by the leading researchers from each discipline and in some cases by founders of those disciplines.
In my academic experience, I have very rarely seen students surround the lecturer after the talk and plead for autographs or to have a picture taken together — such behavior is a norm at SU. In fact the quantity (over 160) and quality of speakers is so amazing students are faced with a dilemma such as, “Should I attend a speech by the inventor of a self-driving car or should I do my laundry?” Additionally a team of over 20 Teaching Fellows (who are as remarkable as faculty) and super friendly support staff are available to assist participants with all types of academic and logistical issues.
The logistics of living at SU for 10 weeks are also remarkable. The campus is located in the futuristic NASA research park with a background scenery suitable for a science fiction movie. Most students live in dorms located just meters from the main classroom and dining hall. The food deserves a special mention. Healthy and delicious, it is prepared fresh three times a day and it is not unusual to see a portable pizza-oven-mobile parked nearby for those stressful days when healthy options are just not enough. The all-you-can-eat food and snacks are provided at no cost to students along with access to the shared library and Autodesk innovation lab which has 3D printers, the latest CAD software, robots, unmanned aerial vehicles and quadcopters for students to experiment with. You will also get some free books for personal use and a number of additional pleasant surprises, such as a free smartphone, FitBits, personalized 23andMe DNA testing, movie and museum tickets, conference registrations, participation in motivational seminars (with a chance to walk on fire), professional photos, SU bike rentals, gift cards, San Francisco marathon custom T-shirts, and medals. And of course you can look forward to lots of SU memorabilia including a class ring printed on a 3D printer. Last but not least you can also have your family or friends visit you for a few days and share this remarkable experience with them.
In addition to the amazing faculty and curriculum SU also has the most diverse student body I have ever experienced. Originating in some 40 different countries, the 80 program participants are all extremely accomplished individuals: scientists, writers, business owners, and entrepreneurs. From week one, they came together to form a self-organizing team which began to offer extracurricular activities (soccer, ultimate, marathon training, rugby, basketball, and yoga), workshops (team building, spirituality, and dating) and classes (foreign languages, dancing, and programming languages) as well as organizing travel/leisure opportunities, cultural nights, and an occasional flash mob. As the summer progressed, smaller teams began to form around common interests to address specific global challenges affecting large segments of the population, including security, poverty, energy, water, or food. Those formed the capstone of Singularity University experience.
As far as I know, SU is the only university where your homework assignment is to help a billion people!
The relationships formed at SU (friendships, mentorships, and business partnerships) remain long after the program is completed. Many students come back as guest lecturers or administrators in the following years. Some serve as SU ambassadors around the world running local grand challenge competitions and recruiting top talent around the world. All SU affiliates remain an active part of a strong and quickly growing network of advisors, investors, scientists, business leaders, and entrepreneurs. The value of this network alone can’t be overestimated.
If I can give one piece of advice to the readers, it would be to immediately start preparing your SU application. If you can’t find 10 weeks for the main program, consider applying for a week long Executive Program. Either one will change the way you think forever. We are born as linear thinkers and it takes something as great as a Singularity University experience to change us into exponential thinkers and consequently change the whole world forever.
To quote one of my classmate’s Facebook status: “I am the luckiest person in the world!”
For more information about the Graduate Studies Program or Executive Programs, visit the Singularity University website.
[images: copyright Singularity University, 2013]