An Insider’s Look At Singularity University

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This is a guest post by Shawna Pandya, an alumnus of the inaugural GSP’09 summer session at Singularity University, and a two-time Teaching Fellow within the Medicine/Neuroscience track with SU’s 9-day Executive Program. At present, she serves as CMO at CiviGuard, a start-up arising out of the “10^9+: Positively impact 1B people in 10 years” challenge at Singularity U. CiviGuard designs smartphone apps for disaster response. Follow her on Twitter at @Shawnapandya and @CiviGuard.

(Exponentially) Fast Times @ SingularityU

Ray Kurzweil - A Regular At Singularity University

Having been through Singularity University multiple times now, first as a student during the inaugural Graduate Studies Program in summer ’09, then as a Teaching Fellow for the Medicine & Neuroscience track during the November ’09 alpha launch of the Executive Program, you’d think this would be old hat by now, as we launch into the first-ever full-fledged Executive Program, 45 participants strong, me reprising my role as a TF.

You’d think.

The nice thing about a program centering on accelerating technologies is that the curriculum changes every single time. A nightmare to continually update for our world-class faculty and lecturers, perhaps (who already lead quadruple-lives as some combination of former astronauts, Nobel laureates, best-selling authors, cutting-edge technologists and tier-1 entrepreneurs), but hey, at least we’re never bored round these parts.

From Left: Ray Kurzweil, Shawna Pandya, Simon Daniel

Besides, hosting 45 participants representing 19 countries over 9 days is the largest SU undertaking to date, easily surpassing the 17 participants from the first EP and even the 40 students we hosted during the summer. That element alone guarantees excitement and er, entropy. Even still, I have my doubts. This will be our most Executive crowd yet. Sure, they have experience and expertise…but do they have vision and daring? More importantly, will they be fun?

After 9 days, I am happy to say I can eat my words. From dancing queens to roving machines, in true SU style, our minds have been blown – and when I say “our,” I mean participants AND faculty alike.

As SU Executive Director Salim Ismail points out, it’s not infrequent for a speaker to comment that they have never been as challenged or as stimulated by discussion or questions as when speaking at SU. It’s kind of like an ideas playground in that way – participant, faculty or lecturer, anyone seeking an intellectual high will find it here.

This session of SU was particularly enlightening because of the focus on the participants’ own intellectual prowess. Mid-way through the 10-day marathon-sprint, participants were given the opportunity to showcase their own interests and expertise by way of 15-minute lightning talks, bar-camp style. Later on, over the final 2 days of the program, the executives were led through industry discussions led by Tom Wujec, senior fellow at Autodesk, and Dave Blakely of IDEO, during which time the EP-ers used the knowledge gleaned during the week to synthesize new directions and innovations within their own fields. As they presented these seedling ideas to the group, spanning sectors such as healthcare, insurance and energy, Salim and Peter spoke for us all: “We’re blown away.” I don’t know why I forget this, but I’m reminded quickly enough – everyone who comes through this institution is an innovation engine waiting to be kick-started.

Apart from intellectual candy (actually that’s putting it mildly – as one friend noted afterwards, I had the equivalent of an intellectual hangover), the experiences themselves were memorable-and-a-half. Tom Wujec visualized the full 9-day experience by drawing it on the walls. In real-time. Forget trying to follow along as you are exposed to the latest advances in nanotechnology, robotics – this guy draws it on the walls neatly (and prettily) in an easily digestible format. It is one thing to attempt to grasp the sheer magnitude of what you’ve learned that is cutting-edge – but to see the entirety of the academic content visualized on the 4 walls of NASA’s Eagle Room is, in a word, wow.

At SU, great ideas are pondered, discussed…and written on the walls

At the end of the 14-hour days jam-packed with brainful goodness (really, we have to invent adjectives to keep up with the awesometasticness of the program), the conversations really begin. For the hardcore, the driven and the sleep-averse, we retire to NASA-lodge for late-night debate, discussion, mayhem and merriment. It’s not uncommon for participants to rate this as their favourite part of the program, when we take off our brain-plugs and let the ideas and opinions flow. EP participant Rob Nail and I start talking about our favourite TED talks, when he mentions a newly posted video entitled, “The 5 Lives of an Artist,” by Raghava KK. As it happens, the same video has crossed my inbox that morning, so of course this moment seems as appropriate as any to pull it up. Always game for something new, Singularity U co-founder and X-Prize CEO Peter Diamandis, a frequenter of the nightly discussions at the Lodge, joins us, and we contemplate the more artistic side of life for 18 minutes.

Later in the week, Dan Barry, former 3-time shuttle astronaut and head of faculty at Singularity U, partners with the good folks at Willow Garage and the guys behind Personal Robot-2 to bring in a telepresence robot. As he is testing the thing, Scott Hassan, founder of Willow Garage, pops up on the screen and roams around, saying hello from Willow Garage. Of course it isn’t long before Scott’s tele-persona is adorned with post-it note elephant ears and shaggy eyebrows, courtesy of none other than Peter Diamandis. It’s just that kind of place.

Several hours later, Scott Hassan is back on the tele-robot, and this time he’s with a friend. Dan calls me over to meet them, but in the robo-excitement, the introduction is lost. Besides, I’m too busy making fun of the now bare-faced robot – where are the elegant ears and eyebrows of yester-hour? I make a funny face at the tele-pair and walk off. It’s like a camcorder at a party, right?

“Oh so you got a chance to meet Scott and Sergey on the robot?” Someone asks me later on. Wait, what? Sergey? Not that Sergey, I hope. I mean, I was making fun of the guy via robot, for goodness sake. Dan confirms as much, but unconsolingly points out that he did say “meet Sergey” at the time. So Sergey Brin, if you are reading this, you really do make a very lovely robot, eyebrows or not. And to redeem myself, I’ll start using your esteemed search engine more frequently, I promise. Bob Harell, an EP participant, later tags me on Twitter for my #RobotFauxPas, a hashtag for which I, for better or worse, have a 100% market share on Twitter.

At this pace, the days blur by and somehow we are already at the last night of the program. As is tradition by now, the class unveils their footprint for SU, a gift from this session to the University as a reminder of the experience. Previously, we’ve had glass-encased photos of the SU crew (GSP’09) and SU-engraved chocolates and wineglasses, carved by the participants themselves, courtesy of a trek down to TechShop (EP’09). This souvenir, however, has to be my favourite to date: a group of 10, together with the brilliant hands at TechShop, have put together an LED-emblazoned SU emblem, complete with exponential curve on the front. In two days. If anyone has doubted it so far, they surely cannot anymore: ‘round these parts, we work in exponential time.

At the end of the night, one of the participants, Robin Tedder, an Australian investor, comes to myself and Ross, our VP of Executive and University Relations, to thank us for the experience. His mind has been completely blown, and then some. He extends his hand by way of thanks, but Ross won’t have any of it. After 9 intense days, we’re beyond such formalities, and Ross tells him as much, embracing him as one would an old friend.

Welcome to the family, SU EP10.

9 days, 45 participants, 19 countries and 1 kajillion lost sleep-hours later: welcome to the family, EP10!